When NATO in Brussels gave the go-ahead, Dec. 4, for the deployment of Patriot surface-to-air missiles to protect Turkey against Syrian missiles, the USS Eisenhower, an American aircraft carrier that holds eight fighter bomber squadrons and 8,000 men, was on its way to  the Syrian coast where it arrived today, indicating US preparation for a potential ground intervention. This led Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to announce With this integrated system Turkey will have maximum protection. He added: The Syrian regime has 700 missiles,” and their location, storage method and holders are no secret to Ankara. This was the first time Ankara had made threats to destroy Syrian missiles, including any carrying chemical warheads.

In fact chemical anxieties have been the talk of the week. On 3 Dec. President Barack Obama warned al-Assad against chemical weapons declaring 'the world is watching'.

A comment echoed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

It remains doubtful that Damascus is at the point where the use of chemical weapons against rebels makes tactical or strategic sense. The Syrian regime's chemical warfare option, though capable of severely weakening rebel forces, will not solve the regime's problems. Syrian President Bashar al Assad's forces are depleted, beleaguered and in many instances isolated from the chemical weapons network. Plus what is more:

serious logistical and command and control effort would be required for the mass deployment of chemical weapons -- an effort that may already be beyond the regime's current capabilities.

A more alarmist view was yesterday presented by Jeffrey White of the The Washington Institute who writes: The Syrian military is trained to use these weapons and has the doctrine, forces, and munitions to carry out such attacks. These forces can reach anywhere in the country, and there is very little the opposition Free Syrian Army could do to stop them.

And finally as seen by what the Turkish Foreign Minister said above, the regime's use of these weapons would be extremely susceptible to discovery and exposure by ongoing international intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Thus it nearly guarantees a foreign intervention, in which the United States would play a key role despite its hesitancy to become deeply involved in the Syrian conflict. Aware of the United States' position, the al Assad regime's preparation of sarin precursors could be an attempt to gain leverage in negotiations over amnesty for the top leadership, as well as an attempt to deter increased support for the rebels. The United States could also hope to draw any remaining support away from the Syrian regime by portraying al Assad as desperate enough to resort to chemical weapons.

For Syria, chemical weapons are dangerous to handle, relatively inefficient, require a huge amount of resources and are difficult to employ. In an operational sense, Syria would be hard pressed to make significant reversals on the battlefield with chemical weapons. They serve best as a deterrent or negotiation tool. If used, their greatest impact would be psychological, but would also likely guarantee an international response that would negate any positive operational result.

That doesn't mean Assad will not ‘try’ to 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 will be 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. But 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.

Uncertainties regarding this crisis are pervasive, yet at least one outcome is highly probable: terrorist acquisition of chemical weapons if the regime falls. Although militarily ineffective for states, chemical agents still evoke disproportionate fear and anxiety with civilians. Used effectively, they are excellent tools for spreading terror beyond their immediate victims to a far wider audience.

The good news is that few terrorist groups would actually be able to use any materials they acquired. Nerve agents require precision and perennial care. Absent the scientific expertise to maintain and replenish various precursors, many of the agents' purity rates will degrade. Depending on how the particular precursor or agent is stored, its shelf-life could diminish rapidly. The United States, for example, applied certain techniques to its sarin-filled munitions that reportedly retained their purity rate at 90 percent for over three decades. In contrast, Iraqi agents, intended for use in a short period of time, degraded to less than 10 percent, and in some cases 1 percent, in less than two years. Actually delivering the weapons is another hurdle.

Unfortunately, some of the terrorist groups operating in or near Syria do in fact possess the operational capabilities to competently control various quantities of deadly chemical agents. Given Syria's porous border, there are legitimate fears that these agents could find their way to Western Europe, Russia, the United States, or elsewhere. Some could also remain in-country, complicating the transition to a post-Assad government. The ethnic and religious divisions that have plagued Iraq are likely to be replicated with the fall of the Syrian regime. Were chemical agents to fall into the hands of armed factions battling for control of the nation, the implications would be stark and ominous. So, the United States is right to worry about Syria's chemical weapons- it may just be worried about them for the wrong reason.

Update 8 Dec. 2012: In an interview British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the UK and the US have seen evidence that Syria is preparing to use chemical weapons. He did however not say ‘what kind of evidence’ pertaining to ‘what kind of use’ of chemical weapons. And this brings us back to what we mention above, this whole situation is very tenuous whereby as I suggested above Assad might indeed ‘try’ to use it for example by using a pretext.

 

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