As much as Bashar al Assad pushes the narrative that he is quelling unrest spawned by foreign agitation, he is also sending a strong message to his challengers. That is, that he has the power to act with impunity, confident that whatever atrocities his forces commit, these actions will never do more than provoke verbal condemnations from outside powers. Indeed, each time there is a massacre, the international expressions of outrage ring increasingly hollow. Condemnation slides into acquiescence.
The same principal — looking for ways to bait the U.S. and its allies and highlight their unwillingness to intervene — may be at play behind a report that Syria’s weapons of mass destruction are on the move. Assad knows that after Iraq, no one in Washington can talk about WMD without being viewed with suspicion. Moving chemical weapons around at this time can therefore serve a dual purpose: it’s another way of trying to sow fear in the opposition, but it also forces Obama administration officials to face questions they’d rather not answer — such as, would Assad’s use of WMD be a red line that would make U.S. military intervention in Syria inevitable.
Keep in mind that as Assad calculates different strategies for survival, the more unrest he faces, the more appealing direct foreign intervention becomes. Nothing would bolster Assad’s credibility more inside Syria than if he could rally the nation to fend off foreign aggression.
The Wall Street Journal reports: Syria has begun moving parts of its vast arsenal of chemical weapons out of storage facilities, U.S. officials said, in a development that has alarmed many in Washington.
The country’s undeclared stockpiles of sarin nerve agent, mustard gas and cyanide have long worried U.S. officials and their allies in the region, who have watched anxiously amid the conflict in Syria for any change in the status or location of the weapons.
American officials are divided on the meaning of the latest moves by members of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Some U.S. officials fear Damascus intends to use the weapons against the rebels or civilians, potentially as part of a targeted ethnic cleansing campaign. But other officials said Mr. Assad may be trying to safeguard the material from his opponents or to complicate Western powers’ efforts to track the weapons.
Some said that Mr. Assad may not intend to use the weapons, but instead may be moving them as a feint, hoping the threat of a chemical attack could drive Sunnis thought to be sympathetic to the rebels from their homes.
Whatever the motivation, the evidence that the chemical weapons are coming into play could escalate the conflict in Syria, some fear. “This could set the precedent of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] being used under our watch,” one U.S. official said. “This is incredibly dangerous to our national security.”
The Obama administration has begun to hold classified briefings about the new intelligence. U.S. officials are particularly worried about Syria’s stocks of sarin gas, the deadly and versatile nerve agent. The officials wouldn’t say where weapons have been moved.
The new intelligence comes as the U.S. and its allies step up pressure on Russia to join an international drive to dislodge Mr. Assad from power. But the new information could cut both ways, officials said: It could bolster calls for international action to remove Mr. Assad, but also underline the risks of intervening against a military armed with weapons of mass destruction.
“This shows how complex this is,” a second official briefed on the matter said.
The Syrian government denied the chemical stockpiles have been moved.
“This is absolutely ridiculous and untrue,” said Syria’s foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi. “If the U.S. is so well-informed, why can’t they help [U.N. envoy] Kofi Annan in stopping the flow of illegal weapons to Syria in order to end the violence and move towards the political solution?”
The White House, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon declined to comment.
Damascus is believed to possess one of the largest stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in the Middle East. Syria never signed the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, the arms-control agreement that outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of such weapons.
Despite the new intelligence, U.S. officials said they believe that the weapons remain under Syrian government control.
The State Department reiterated U.S. warnings: “We have repeatedly made it clear that the Syrian government has a responsibility to safeguard its stockpiles of chemical weapons, and that the international community will hold accountable any Syrian officials who fail to meet that obligation,” said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Syrian opposition leaders said that rebels have confiscated equipment from Syrian forces apparently meant to protect them during a chemical weapons attack.
Syria has long had the capability of placing its chemical agents in artillery shells and Scud missiles, U.S. officials have said. But chemical and biological weapons are difficult to deploy effectively. Sarin, for example, can be used either as a gas or to poison water supplies because it is heavier than air, but is hard to control when used as a weapon against a crowd of people.
The weapons are a danger not only to opponents, but also to the government’s own forces. In 2007, an accident at a chemical-weapons facility involving mustard gas killed several Syrians.
U.S. officials have held discussions with the Jordanian military, working on plans to have Jordan’s special operations forces secure the chemical and biological sites in the event that Assad’s government falls.
Because of the faulty intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction that were used to justify the Iraq war, U.S. officials are extremely cautious about using reports of Mr. Assad’s chemical stockpiles to support military intervention.
Some U.S. officials briefed on the matter said the information isn’t conclusive on what Mr. Assad’s forces intend to do with the weapons. These officials said the moves may be aimed at safeguarding the materials from enemies, rather than a sign Mr. Assad is preparing to use them.
Officials point out that Mr. Assad remains in power today largely because of international disagreement over how to handle the crisis. If he used a chemical weapon, they said, Western allies would likely rally around plans to more aggressively intervene and topple him from power.
But some American officials, who hold the view that the U.S. needs to do more to protect the Syrian population, fear that the chemical weapons have been moved in so they can be available for government-allied forces to use, should the rebels make further gains or the Syrian state begin to fall apart.
“The regime has a plan for ethnic cleansing, and we must come to terms with this,” the first U.S. official said. “There is no diplomatic solution.”
Update — Reuters reports: The Syrian government denies carrying out the operation, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, and there is no firm word on the materials involved. Syria’s undeclared [chemical weapon] stockpile reportedly includes sarin nerve agent, mustard gas and cyanide.
But the reports contribute to an impression of crumbling government control in parts of Syria, and are likely to heighten international concern about the security of what is believed to be the Middle East’s largest chemical weapons stockpile.
An Israeli official said however the movements reflected an attempt by President Bashar al-Assad to make “arrangements to ensure the weapons do not fall into irresponsible hands”.
“That would support the thinking that this matter has been managed responsibly so far.”
So, while the word from Damascus is that “terrorists” armed with “Israeli-made machine guns” conducted the massacre in Tremseh yesterday, the word from Tel Aviv is that Syria’s chemical weapons are nothing to worry about so long as they remain in the responsible hands of the government.
There might be a certain amount of truth in that statement. Still, it’s not exactly the rhetoric one might expect from a representative of an alliance that is supposedly gunning for Assad’s downfall. On the contrary, it reflects the fact that Israel would be much happier to see Assad remain in power.