The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime is moving chemical munitions out of storage depots. It remains unclear whether the regime is deploying these weapons in the field or is trying to keep them from falling into the hands of rebels, who have gained considerable ground in recent weeks.
Syria has a vast arsenal of chemical weapons that includes sarin nerve agent, mustard gas, and cyanide. Although there have been no confirmed reports that chemical weapons have been used in the current fighting, the Syrian government reportedly used cyanide gas in its brutal campaign to crush the 1982 Hama uprising.
As James Carafano and I noted in a February Issue Brief, the United States should deter the Assad regime from using these banned weapons and be prepared to prevent them from leaking out of Syria if the Assad regime implodes:
The U.S. needs a strategy for the worst-case scenario. Washington must closely monitor the evolving situation in Syria and make contingency plans in cooperation with allies to prevent the proliferation of such dangerous weapons, if necessary.
Concern over the status of Syria’s chemical weapons has been heightened by the influx of Islamist militants joining the fighting in Syria, drawn like moths to a flame. If the regime implodes, Syria’s chemical weapons could fall into hands of terrorists, who would be more likely than the Assad regime to use them against the United States or its allies.
The Alawite-dominated Assad regime, which is losing control of increasingly large swaths of territory, appears to be using scorched-earth tactics to drive Sunni Muslims, who form the backbone of the rebellion, out of areas in western Syria near the Alawite heartland. Assad’s Plan B would be carving out a rump state in which his Alawite brethren could maintain their dominance.
The regime may be hoping that reports of the chemical weapons movements, or their actual use, may make it easier to consolidate its control by stampeding nervous Sunnis out of sensitive areas. Or it may be taking precautions to prevent the chemical weapons, its crown jewels, from being grabbed by the opposition.
Either way, Washington should vigilantly monitor the situation and be prepared to take prudent action in close coordination with allies to secure, remove, or destroy chemical munitions or hazardous materials, if practicable, to keep them from leaking out of Syria and posing a greater threat to the United States and its allies.