For many who have followed the events in Libya, the obvious question keeps popping up. Why does U.S. led NATO attack Libya’s military assets for “humanitarian” reasons, yet continue to allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to brutally assault his countrymen in the same way Gaddafi did his people?
Thousands of Syrians have been slaughtered in the streets throughout that nation, and it would appear that NATO members’ righteous indignation ran dry after the Libyan intervention. While that would be the logical conclusion, it would be wrong. The reasons are legitimate and perplexing. Unlike Gaddafi, who turned over all of his WMDs to the U.S. years ago, Assad is sitting atop massive stockpiles of highly lethal chemical weapons, the kind that are neither easy to find nor adequately countered if released. Alarmingly, there have been extremely few press accounts of the sizeable stockpiles in Syria and what they comprise, the “blistering agent,” mustard gas, and nerve gases sarin and VX.
Syria’s chemical weapons (CW) program, its manufacturing facilities and massive stockpiles of lethal chemicals are placed strategically underground. In addition, warheads armed with the toxic chemicals are scattered in bunkers nationwide. All of this makes launching NATO air strikes on Syria implausible at best, and suicidal at worst. Finding the hidden caches is a boots-on-the-ground mission, one that Obama wants to avoid at all costs, largely because Americans have grown weary of that concept, and there are too many boots on the ground in too many other countries now.
Assad, ignoring growing international pressure to step down, appears to be orchestrating a brutal Libyan déjà vu. If the uprising is symptomatic of the Arab Spring, it’s not going well for those in pursuit of fundamental government change. Lying in wait to be used as political antibiotics if necessary are chemical weapons facilities that have been there since the current dictator and his father, Hafez al-Assad, began to procure and weaponize highly lethal chemicals and nerve gases during the 1970s and 1980s.
In fact, except for intelligence officers navigating the labyrinth of file cabinets and dusty storage shelves at the NSA and the CIA, little has been reported about the burgeoning Syrian stores of lethal CWs. But unlike Iraq’s vanishing WMDs, we know for certain these noxious agents are indeed in Syria.
Researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) believe there are four and possibly five weapons production facilities in Syria. At least one and possibly two is/are located near Damascus, the Syrian capital, and three others are in Hama, Latakia and al-Safir village, near the city of Aleppo, according to CNS. Hama and Latakia are epicenters of the current uprisings in Syria, and Aleppo is the country’s second largest city.
Today, the threat of chemical weapons is far greater to the region over all, and to Israel in particular. According to CIA reports, during the 1970s Hafez al-Assad began stockpiling weaponized agents to counter Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Those reports indicate that some of the hoard is believed to have come from Soviet stockpiles. The Soviets were allied with Syria since well before the Iron Curtain fell, and Russia continues the close relationship to this day. While no such alliance existed between Russia and Libya, any attack on Syria would come with unknown geopolitical repercussions, which makes crisis resolution all the more difficult.
Despite major losses in the Lebanese-Israeli War in 1982, the Assads exercised considerable restraint in the use of these weapons, a CNS report points out. Reticence to use chemical weapons may be due to certain international condemnation that would follow it, or it could have triggered a nuclear retaliatory strike from Israel. Regardless, Bashar Assad clearly understands that releasing these agents would invite enormous consequences on a global scale.
In “Gas, Guile and Germs: Syria’s ultimate weapons,” appearing in Middle East Quarterly (Summer 2002), Dany Shoham writes about how the CW program is structured. “[All] research, development, and production activities and facilities associated with the CW program are under the direct control of the Centre D’Etude et Recherché Scientifique (CERS). This agency is run by a Director-General, with the rank of minister, who is directly responsible to the President.”
The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a nuclear and chemical warfare think tank co-chaired by ex-Georgia Senator Sam Nunn and CNN owner, Ted Turner, goes on to explain that Western companies may have been duped into providing ingredients used to make the lethal weapons. “The Centre D’Etude et Recherché Scientifique provides most of the research and development functions for the Syrian military. Since the 1970s, the Centre D’Etude et Recherché Scientifique has also been responsible for the development of civilian science and technology in Syria, and it was in this context that the institute was able to develop cooperative relationships with Western chemical companies.
“All the production facilities,” the Center maintains, “are described as heavily defended and located underground to maximize survivability in the event of conflict, as Syria has apparently accepted that it is not currently capable of effectively maintaining control over its airspace. In addition, some sources claim that the Syrian CW program has been able to use the increasing number of pharmaceutical plants spread around the country as a covert means to import restricted precursors.”
Indeed, some companies in the West were involved in the manufacture of some of the facilities, as well, according to Gordon M. Burck and Charles C. Flowerree, authors of International Handbook on Chemical Weapons Proliferation. All Syria’s chemical weapons production facilities appear to have been constructed in the same period of the early to mid-1980s. The construction of these facilities would have been impossible without technical and material support from foreign companies, especially West European firms.
Intelligence agencies in the West believe that the most elite Syrian forces are guarding the facilities and bunkers. Only a complete overthrow of the Assad regime, the wide scale defection of Syrian troops and the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria would leave them exposed. Intelligence agencies in the West have doubtless worked up scenarios that will allow them to respond quickly to safeguard the manufacturing centers if Assad falls. But finding and securing the warhead bunkers will be far more difficult.
The greatest concern for the West is what happens if any of these weapons or facilities winds up under the control of a terrorist group or groups. Given Syria’s well-known terrorist ties and its marionette-like relationship with Iran, there is any number of terrorist groups that could gain control of the stockpiles. Among Syria’s client terrorist organizations are Hezbollah, which inhabits much of Syrian-controlled Lebanon, and Hamas, located in the Gaza strip. Affiliation with other such groups can hardly be ruled out.
According to an article at ForeignPolicy.com, “If anti-Assad insurgents take up arms, the chemical sites, as symbols of the regime’s authority, could become strategic targets. And, if mass defections occur from the Syrian army, there may be no one left to defend the sites against seizure. This could lead to disastrous outcomes, including confiscation of the chemical weapons by a radical new national government or sale of the weapons as war booty to organized non-state actors or criminal groups.”
This makes the Syrian uprising very different from the one that has loosened Gaddafi’s grip on power in Libya. After the U.S. conducted its shock-and-awe campaign in Iraq, Gaddafi, believing his WMD program would be our next target, surrendered his entire stockpile to us, and by so doing he could obviously not use his CWs to stop the Libyan revolution.
But the CW facilities and warheads hidden throughout Syria will make it very difficult for us to shape our approach to finding a solution to the uprisings against Assad and will require a diplomatic as opposed to a military track. According to the Foreign Policy article, “Washington has certainly warned Assad against using the weapons domestically. But with Assad already at risk of indictment for crimes against humanity, and given his belief that the United States will not intervene militarily due to its commitments elsewhere—including its politically unpopular and still opaque involvement in Libya—U.S. warnings may have little deterrent effect.”
Israel’s Mossad, arguably the world’s best intelligence agency, doubtless knows the specific locations of the facilities and where some of the warhead bunkers are hidden, but do they know where all of the bunkers are? The U.S. could ask the Israelis for help, but not without chutzpah. Current U.S.-Israeli relations have cooled to an all-time freeze given the decidedly pro-Muslim agenda of the Obama administration and its shameful treatment of our strongest Middle East partner. If Israel were willing to launch an attack, it would be an act of war and suicide. Any bunkered warheads missed could and likely would enable Syria to launch CW-laden rockets into Israel.
How the Obama administration deals with this issue, especially assuming Assad is somehow unseated, would involve a cooperative pact with Turkey and other Arab countries to make certain that a responsible new government secures or destroys the stockpiles, something hardly taken for granted. It would require Special Forces units from the U.S and other NATO countries to find and secure them.
In a post-Assad Syria, that becomes a particularly tough task, and keeping those weapons out of the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has clashed with Syria before, and/or known terrorists would be virtually impossible. This is one foreign policy crisis that hasn’t seen much press coverage, but it’s a crisis that Obama is going to have to resolve or risk assuming the blame for allowing the CW’s to fall into our enemies’ hands and their use against us here on our soil or against Israel.
As the uprising in Syria continues to grow, the higher the stakes become for the U.S., Israel, and the rest of the Western world. With substantial stockpiles of chemical weapons at his disposal, Assad, or his successor if the president is overthrown, becomes far more unpredictable and as dangerous as a cornered cougar, unless a pro-Western group assumes power, hardly an assured outcome.
Should he remain in power, a desperate Assad could decide to use his arsenal not only against his own people, but Israel, as well. At that point, we are treaty bound to assist Israel. The questions remaining are: 1. Do we have the necessary intelligence, forces and military assets to find and neutralize all of the facilities and bunkers and avoid a proliferation nightmare? 2. Can we afford to get involved in yet another Middle East war? 3. How do we handle the geopolitical issues with the Russians and other nations sympathetic to both Syria and Iran?
What’s not in question is our obligation to come to Israel’s aid, especially because they may be forced to use nuclear weapons in self-defense, a desperate act to assure their survival as a nation, but one that could trigger World War III.