Is Assad dangling WMD bait?

(Update below.)

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.

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5 thoughts on “Is Assad dangling WMD bait?

  1. Norman

    What is that smell? All things considered, isn’t WMD in what ever form, mostly produced in the West? How soon will there be use of such in this regime change scenario? Questions, questions. The world would be a better place if the the U.S. & NATO folded up their tents and went home. One item, that being all the Military equipment as well as the Military personnel-combat ready & tested-what to do with them? The treasury is bleeding, yet the war mongers keep beating the drums. Old fashioned tactics, don’t work today, except in killing the innocent.

  2. Denny

    Why is a Wall Street Journal piece being quoted? Please. Per Fagering has an excellent piece out NOW about the Syrian ‘freedom fighters’. Regime change is quickly becoming an art form which the bankers, Wall Streeters, Pentagonians and Clinton’s state dept. are practicing with increased ruthlessness and frequency. I know where regime change should occur; but I can’t say it or the goons will be asking me questions.

  3. Yonatan

    Darn, I had a bet that the next thing reported would be that Assad had stolen incubators from children’s hospital, with a fallback bid on him shredding his opponents feet first in industrial shredders.

  4. Tom Hall

    This particular item is the product of an unsubstantiated claim planted in a notoriously partisan publication with a record of ramping up public opinion in advance of US wars of aggression.

    The article forms another element of an all-out propaganda blitz against the Syrian regime, the dimensions and intensity of which share a thematic and stylistic unity with a number of related campaigns in our recent past. As for the introduction of the WMD threat, it’s almost like seeing a familiar actor returning to the screen after some years of relative obscurity. We recognize him at once for his crowd-pleasing potential.

    It’s nearly impossible at present for a serious observer to determine the truth of individual accounts of massacre and other crimes in Syria. The campaign to unseat Assad and associated racketeers- by an even bigger, nastier gang of racketeers based in New York, Washington, London and Brussels- is being waged with a fully mobilized mass media every bit as politically committed as Assad’s own state controlled outlets.

    The notion, advanced in the Wall Street Journal piece, that Assad actually now courts foreign aggression in order to enhance his status within Syria is frankly so bizarre as to merit the description “delusional”. Who in the US government sits down and thinks up this junk? And the further speculation that Assad has begun to publicly juggle nerve gas and cyanide cylinders like some cackling super-villain menacing Gotham City is of the same order and magnitude of idiocy.

    The Assad regime is locked in a death struggle it will probably and deservedly lose. There is absolutely no need to defend in print a government which has long since shown itself unworthy of that designation. But the sort of unsourced, plainly propagandistic hackwork fed to us from such centers of integrity as Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and the liberal imperial press must be challenged and identified as the screen of muck behind which new crimes are launched.

  5. Paul Woodward

    A knee jerk response to the issue of Syria’s WMD being raised is the assumption that Assad’s possession of chemical weapons will be used as a justification for regime change, but on the contrary, his possession of these weapons is one of the reasons so many in Washington actually fear his downfall.

    Charles Blair from the highly respected Federation of American Scientists wrote in March:

    Although the United States and its allies are reportedly monitoring Syria’s chemical weapons, recent history warns that securing them from theft or transfer is an extraordinary challenge. For example, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, more than 330 metric tons of military-grade high explosives vanished from Iraq’s Al-Qaqaa military installation. Almost 200 tons of the most powerful of Iraq’s high-explosives, HMX — used by some states to detonate nuclear weapons — was under International Atomic Energy Agency seal. Many tons of Al-Qaqaa’s sealed HMX reportedly went missing in the early days of the war in Iraq. Forensic tests later revealed that some of these military-grade explosives were subsequently employed against US and coalition forces.

    Even with a nationwide presence of 200,000 coalition troops, several other sensitive military sites were also looted, including Iraq’s main nuclear complex, Tuwaitha. Should centralized authority crumble in Syria, it seems highly unlikely that the country’s 50 chemical storage and manufacturing facilities — and, possibly, biological weapon repositories — can be secured. The US Defense Department recently estimated that it would take more than 75,000 US military personnel to guard Syria’s chemical weapons. This is, of course, if they could arrive before any WMD were transferred or looted — a highly unlikely prospect.

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