What’s worse than a power-mad dictator with weapons of mass destruction? A power-mad dictator who may be about to lose them. This is the situation the world may soon be forced to face in Syria as the Assad regime begins to crack. It is a potential nightmare that ultimately might lead to the use and proliferation of WMDs across the region.
Despite the rhetoric coming out of Washington, there are no easy solutions to the problem, and beyond the tragic possibility of actual WMD use, how this plays out in the near term could have deep strategic consequences by strengthening the resolve of other nations like Iran to acquire or retain WMDs.
How bad is it? Earlier in the year, reports surfaced out of the Pentagon that it might take up to 75,000 troops to handle Syria’s illicit arsenal. And that’s one of the better scenarios. In the last few days open source reports indicated that the Assad regime is moving Syria’s chemical weapons from their storage locations. This has fueled speculation about possible use against rebel forces and stoked fears of regional proliferation.
Congress is clearly concerned. On Sunday, Sens. McCain, Graham, and Lieberman issued a joint statement expressing their alarm over the movement of the chemical weapons and urged President Obama to “respond accordingly.” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers recently told the National Journal, “I am convinced that the administration needs to be much more aggressive in its contingency planning regarding chemical weapons.” Of course the military and intelligence communities are monitoring Syrian developments, but prudent options are hard to come by.
While details of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons remains a mystery, the United States believes the regime has significant quantities of sarin nerve agent, mustard gas and cyanide.
The best open source reporting available from the CIA and groups like the Nuclear Threat Initiative indicate that Syria has a robust, decades-old chemical weapons program that has produced a variety of both mustard and nerve agents for use on multiple weapons systems ranging from missiles, rockets, artillery, and aerial bombs. There is also a great deal of unconfirmed reporting that Syria may also have a biological weapons program, but that the program has yet to produce weapons. The most threatening long-range delivery system that Syria possesses is the North Korean produced 700-km range SCUD-D. This arsenal makes Syria a forbidding regional threat, especially if the regime becomes seriously threatened by the rebellion or outside intervention.