The continued unrest in Syria, coupled with President Barack Obama's call for President Bashar al-Assad to leave power, has thrown the future of the country into flux. Among the most troubling uncertainties is the fate of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, which, if not protected properly, could fall into the wrong hands, with catastrophic results.
Syria is one of a handful of states that the U.S. government believes possess large stocks of chemical agents in militarized form -- that is, ready for use in artillery shells and bombs. The arsenal is thought to be massive, involving thousands of munitions and many tons of chemical agents, which range, according to CIA annual reports to Congress, from the blister gases of World War I -- such as mustard gas -- to advanced nerve agents such as sarin and possibly persistent nerve agents, such as VX gas.
In the hands of Assad -- and his father Hafez before him -- these weapons have been an ace-in-the-hole deterrent against Israel's nuclear capability. The Assad regime, however, has never openly brandished this capability: It did not employ chemical weapons in the 1982 Lebanon War against Israel, even after Israeli warplanes decimated the Syrian Air Force. Nor have they been deployed, or their use threatened, in attempting to bring Assad's current domestic antagonists to heel. And although Syria is accused of providing powerful missiles to Hezbollah, including some of a type that carried chemical warfare agents in the Soviet arsenal, Assad has not reportedly transferred lethal chemical capabilities to the Lebanon-based Shiite organization.
So despite their many faults and deplorable record on human rights, the Assads have treated their chemical arsenal with considerable care. But as the country potentially descends into chaos, will that hold true?
Let's start with the possibility of civil war. According to researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, open sources indicate that there are at least four, and potentially five, chemical weapons production facilities in Syria. One or two are located near Damascus, the other three situated in Hama, Latakia, and al-Safir village, near the city of Aleppo. Hama is one of the hotbeds of the Syrian revolt, which Assad's tanks attacked in early August and where, more recently, fighting has severely damaged the city's hospitals. Latakia is another center of unrest; it was shelled by the Syrian Navy in mid-August. Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city, has also seen significant demonstrations.
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 nonstate actors or criminal groups.
In such chaos, no one can predict who might control the weapons or where they might be taken. With these chemical weapons in the hands of those engaged in a possible civil war, the risks that they would be used would increase substantially. The problem would be worsened further if some possessors were not fully aware of the extent of the weapons' deadly effects.
And let's imagine that Assad is eventually removed: What leaders would gain control of these weapons after he departed? Saudi-backed Sunni groups? Iranian-backed Shiite organizations? Whoever they might be, it is unclear that the newcomers would follow the Assads' cautious-use doctrine and refusal to share chemical weapons with nonstate groups, or that the new leaders would be able to maintain strict security measures at the chemical sites.
Meanwhile, it's possible that an existential threat will cause the Assad regime to abandon its previous policy of restraint regarding chemical weapons. It is not a huge leap from attacking civilians with tank fire, machine guns, and naval artillery to deploying poison gas, and the shock effect and sense of dread engendered by even limited use could quash a citywide uprising within an hour.
The options available to the United States to minimize these risks are limited at best. 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 likely 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.
A pre-emptive Israeli military strike to destroy the weapons does not appear technically feasible: Even if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were ready to change the status quo, Assad is believed to have stored bulk chemical agents and filled (or quickly filled) shells and bombs in underground bunkers at multiple sites throughout the country. Moreover, even if Israel used incendiary bombs in an attempt to incinerate the chemical agents, the risk of dispersing large quantities of poisonous liquids would remain, with the potential to cause large-scale casualties.
The Obama administration needs to start planning now to manage Assad's chemical weapons legacy. If a new government replaces Assad -- or even if different groups compete for international recognition -- a U.S.-led coalition, including Turkey and the leading Arab states, should demand as a condition of support that the weapons immediately be placed under control of international monitors from the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and plans developed for their destruction. Hopefully, Syria's new leaders will have genuine legitimacy and will not need to prop up their credibility at home by clinging to these barbaric weapons.