The Other Red Line: Chemical Weapons in Syria

For the past 19 months, Syria has been wracked with a devastating civil war between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and several rebel movements. Despite the devastation being visited on the people of Syria, global powers have refrained from intervening and have not been able to find a solution to the conflict. Some nations (read: Iran) are even assisting the al-Assad regime by providing weapons and advice to military forces on the ground. This conflict has led to a debate in the U.S. concerning whether to arm the rebels and strengthen their ability to bring about regime change, a debate that has many differing views. Aside from this dissonance, there is one concern several parties hold in common. Syria possesses a large arsenal of chemical weapons posing great threat to the domestic population as well as to global security, either by terrorists gaining control of the weapons or the Syrian government using them to repel foreign attacks. Syria has neither signed nor consented to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and has one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals in the world. It is assumed the stockpile contains sarin and mustard agents and possibly VX nerve agents. The government is also believed to possess Scud-class missiles and SS-21 missiles capable of delivering these weapons. The locations of the stockpiles and their production facilities are unclear, but are said to be under control of the Syrian military. In late September, U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta indicated that some stockpiles were subject to “limited movement” to ensure their continued safety. A major concern is that these chemical weapons could fall into the hands of groups who could use them to incite ‘terror,’ namely Hezbollah or al-Qaeda. The Obama administration has acknowledged that chemical and biological weapons pose a great threat in the short-term. President Obama remarked on August 20th “that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” and emphasized that such actions by the Assad regime would change U.S. strategy. A group of U.S. military planners has assembled in Jordan to help the Amman government monitor the chemical weapons threat, develop Jordanian military capabilities, and assist Syrian refugees. The Syrian government reportedly has been using cluster bombs against citizens, an act condemned by Human Rights Watch. Although Syrian officials claim  their chemical weapons would never be used inside Syria, it’s easy to be skeptical. A look back to Saddam’s era in the 1980’s recalls the use of mustard gas and other chemical weapons against the Kurdish population resulting in thousands of deaths. The Kurds sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and some participated in the guerrilla movement against the Iraqi regime, much like how the rebels in Syria are fighting against the Assad regime today. To eliminate the threat or use of chemical weapons, most countries have signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention which entered into force in 1997 and now boasts 188 member nations. Syria is not party to the Convention. The use of chemical weapons against a population is an egregious act with important international repercussions. Any use of chemical weapons, even by states not Party to the CWC, limits the effectiveness of the treaty. It is imperative that Syria join the Chemical Weapons Convention and refrain from the use of these weapons during the current conflict. Civil war or not, the use of chemical weapons against any population is abhorrent behavior for which there is no excuse.