July 23, 2012

Syria's potential use of chemical weapons?

Syrian chemical warfare facilities

Two months ago, I wrote an article about Syria's chemical weapons (Syria's chemical weapons and the uprising) in which I said, "Syria has not admitted that it possesses chemical weapons, but it is hardly a secret. It is believed to have the largest stockpile of undeclared chemical weapons in the world, including the most lethal chemical warfare agent ever developed, the persistent nerve agent VX."

Today, a spokesman for the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jihad Maqdisi, appeared to make the first admission that Syria does indeed possess chemical and possibly biological weapons. It is a stunning admission, but Muqdisi is young and inexperienced. Watch for the Syrian government to "clarify" his remarks. No matter, as I said earlier, Syria's chemical weapons capabilities are hardly a secret.

Maqdisi's other comments have received wide coverage in the media, but with conflicting headlines. The Associated Press reports, "Syria says will use chemical weapons if attacked," while Agence France Press reports, "Syria vows not to use chemical weapons." Both are technically correct and technically incorrect. These headlines show the difference in how various new services report information, and are symptomatic of the sad state of journalism today.

Maqdisi said, in English, "No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria. All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression."

That sounds all well and good, but keep in mind that the Syrian regime has constantly referred to the opposition as terrorist and foreign extremists, thus opening the door to the use of such weapons.

Would the regime of Bashar al-Asad use chemical weapons on Syrian territory against its own people? Hard to say, but who could have imagined Syrian army artillery batteries on Jabal Qasiyun overlooking Damascus shelling sections of the world's longest continually-inhabited city?

Bashar al-Asad has proven to the world that he will not depart the scene peacefully, that he will have to removed with force. The Syrian opposition is prepared to do just that. If desperate enough to kill almost 20,000 of his own people, Bashar may be desperate enough to order his forces to respond with his arsenal of chemical weapons - he also possesses the means to deliver the weapons.

Thanks to Mr. Maqdisi's comments, I expect to see declarations by the Israelis and possibly the United States that they have readied special operations forces to secure Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles not only to prevent their use, but equally as important, to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorist groups, of which there is no shortage of in Syria. In particular, Israel is concerned that the weapons may end up in the arsenal of Hizballah, the Iranian-sponsored Lebanese terrorist group.

I was also surprised by Maqdisi's inclusion of biological weapons. The 2006 assessment provided to Congress stated that Syria did not have a weaponized biological agent. Perhaps Maqdisi misspoke, or perhaps he let something slip. No matter, the mere fact that an official of the Syrian government is even talking about chemical and biological weapons should raise red flags in the region and around the world.

I wonder how the Russians view these remarks. Are they still standing beside Bashar al-Asad? Do they really want to be seen supporting a leader who may use chemical or biological weapons on his own people? That puts Bashar on the same level of Saddam Husayn, who killed as many as 5,000 of his own citizens with chemical weapons in 1988.

Will Syrian officers, if ordered to do so by their commander in chief, use chemical weapons on their fellow Syrians? The al-Asads, first Hafiz and now his son Bashar, have had over 40 years to consolidate their power base and mold the armed forces into a loyal, regime-protection military. Almost all senior officers have been vetted for their loyalty to the regime and Ba'th Party - everything they have is dependent upon the survival of the regime.

I don't know if the Syrian military officers would follow the orders to use chemical weapons, but I wouldn't bet my family's life on them not.