Why Assad may be unlikely to use chemical weapons

Charles P. Blair, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, writes: Syria’s weapons, produced beginning in the early 1970s with Egyptian assistance, have been intended to deter Israel’s nuclear capability and to offset Syrian conventional inferiority. It’s unlikely they could have served either purpose, but designed for use in large-scale, state-to-state warfare, Syria’s chemical weapons are particularly unsuited for the urban fights that have characterized the civil war. Close-quarters combat renders chemical weapons not only ineffective but counterproductive; with sarin or VX, a simple wind shift could turn the deadly agent against the Syrian military. Syria’s likely blister agent — so called “mustard gas” — is highly corrosive, remaining a hazard for forces attempting to occupy the affected area.

That doesn’t mean Assad won’t use chemical weapons — in particular, there is the possibility of irrational action if the regime is on the verge of collapse. The more isolated the top leadership becomes, the more likely it is to make unsound decisions based on an altered sense of reality. But the greater threat remains terrorist acquisition of chemical weapons if the military loses control over relevant sites and facilities. The Pentagon estimated earlier this year that it would take more than 75,000 troops to secure Syria’s chemical weapons against theft — and that assumes that U.S. intelligence knows precisely where they all are. After the fall of Baghdad, looters gained access to Iraq’s Al-Qaqaa military installation, and close to 200 tons of military grade explosives vanished, even though there were 200,000 coalition forces available and the International Atomic Energy Agency had specifically warned of the explosives’ vulnerability.

Some commentators have warned that, as with Iraq, intelligence could be faulty: perhaps Syria has no (or few) WMD. Alas, that is unlikely given Syria’s early chemical cooperation with Egypt and its perceived need to deter nuclear-armed Israel. Indeed, following the 2007 destruction of its al-Kibar nuclear facility, Syria may well have doubled down on its reliance on chemical, and possibly, biological weapons to afford the country a perceived deterrent against existential threats. Given all the variables in play, it seems all but certain that in the end an inventory of Syria’s chemical stockpile will reveal significant gaps in the current assessments.

Christian Science Monitor adds: By ordering “activity” at chemical weapons sites, Assad could be reminding the international powers demanding his departure that his fall would likely be followed by chaos – in which radical Islamists could get their hands on Syria’s weapons of mass destruction.

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2 thoughts on “Why Assad may be unlikely to use chemical weapons

  1. hquain

    Arguments like these seem quite incomplete. On the merits: chemical weapons are good for terror attacks on massed groups, be they soldiers or civilians in a rebellious town. There doesn’t have to be a ‘battlefield’ in the traditional sense. Many of Assad’s attacks so far (like Qaddafi’s) have been punitive; so it’s unclear why a man who’d bomb indiscriminately wouldn’t also spray nerve on his antagonists’ population base.

    As for the cited troop numbers from the Pentagon, they sound more like “we don’t want to do this.” Not hard to understand why! (And thus we have yet another faction weighing in, based on its own interests.) Yes, there were 200,00 troops in Iraq, but that large number wasn’t why the Oil Ministry sailed through untouched. Rumsfeld and his generals *assigned troops* to that mission, and not to the mission of protecting al-Qaqaa and other sites.

    Doesn’t it seem more likely that we’re witnessing a few visible signs of an intense behind-the-scenes game of threat and counter-threat, pressure and counter-pressure? With all the parties and counterparties involved, at so many levels, within and across so many countries, we have a hugely complicated, unstable dynamic about which we have very scanty information: it seems futile to try to parse it in simple terms. Even after it’s over, it will be very hard to make sense of what happened.

  2. Paul Woodward

    Blair’s point about chemical weapons being “unsuited” to an urban conflict seems pretty straightforward: if an army is given orders to use a weapon that is likely to end up killing its own troops, that’s a sure way of getting that army to turn against its commanders. And with Damascus as the battleground, the impact of chemical weapons would be hard to limit to the enemy’s population base. Assad would very likely end up killing his own supporters.

    On the point about troop numbers required to secure chemical weapons bases, I agree, this sounds like an explanation about why it can’t be done rather than a plan to do it. I have seen no accounts suggesting that these forces are ready to be deployed.

    Although much of the speculation about future scenarios (short or long term) is pointless, when the specter of WMD gets raised it’s worth trying to be speculatively analytical since the issue so predictably prompts knee-jerk reactions — that the issue is being raised as a pretext for military intervention, or conversely that it provides a compelling justification for intervention.

    One of the unfortunate outcomes of the war in Iraq is that it has created a lot of conditioned reflexes. A lot of people can’t hear the phrase WMD without automatically thinking they are being lied to. I even suspect that if Assad was to end up using CW, there would be some in the anti-war movement who would look for some way of rationalizing genocide on the basis that the regime was ‘forced’ into a corner and even at its worst remained a ‘victim of aggression’ by Western imperialists.

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