That doesn't mean Assad won't 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 remains 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. Indeed, following the 2007 destruction of its al-Kibar nuclear facility, Syria may well have doubled down on its reliance on chemical, and possibly, biological weapons to afford the country a perceived deterrent against existential threats. 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.