The nearly two-year-old Syrian conflict has seen a few key developments in the past weeks. The newly-unified opposition has taken strides towards creating a unified military structure. Previous attempts to solidify a military framework were plagued by disagreements. The new structure came about after three days of talking among 260 rebel commanders. The structure is “built strictly around commanders from inside Syria.” The are still chances that the agreement could come unglued, especially if Qatar and Saudi Arabia do not deliver on their promises to send advanced weaponry to the rebels. The promise hinges on the existence of a central military command among the opposition groups. Moves towards further arming of the opposition, however, continue to raise the question of how those arms will be used–and whether those arms may end up in the wrong hands (just as some arms did in Libya).
However, much of the discourse on Syria has been focused on fears that the Assad regime is preparing its chemical weapons for use against opposition forces. A previous post on this blog discussed the implications of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, focusing on the possibility of the theft and use of the weapons by terrorist organizations. News reports now indicate that use of the weapons by the Syrian government itself is a growing possibility. New US intel has indicated that Syria has taken steps towards readying its chemical weapons stockpile for military use. The UK has confirmed that intelligence. The intel points towards increased activity at several chemical weapons bases, with at least one military base showing evidence of combining components for Sarin nerve gas, the same gas used on the Kurdish populations of Iraq by Saddam Hussein.
Responses to the intelligence have been varied. The US has warned that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would be the straw that breaks the camel’s back as far as intervention is concerned, though this response represents a shift in policy, as previously the Obama administration said that merely the movement or preparation of chemical weapons would suffice.
Charles P. Blair writes at Foreign Policy that it is still very unlikely that the Assad regime will use its chemical weapons. He cites that the past use of chemical weapons in conflicts has played little decisive role in victories. He also describes the international stigma against chemical weapons–if used, Assad would likely use any support he now has from China and Russia. Finally, Blair highlights the fact that chemical weapons are risky to use, especially in urban areas. The intended targets may not always suffer, while unintended targets–like the Syria military–could be exposed depending upon shifts in wind. Blair concedes that Assad could use the weapons out of desperation, as actors often become more irrational as they become more isolated. However, Blair warns that the more potent and possible threat still comes from the extremist actors in Syria, who could gain control of chemical weapons if the regime collapsed without an adequately prepared government and military to replace it.
A recent discussion at Al Jazeera revolves around the same doubts about the likelihood of Assad’s chemical weapons use. However, the question at the heart of the discussion is less about who is more likely to use the weapons–Assad or terrorists–and more about whether the threat of Assad’s chemical weapons use is exaggerated by the West in order to justify the possibility of a military intervention.
As for Assad’s response, the current regime has emphasized that the real threat comes from the rebels, who have purportedly seized control of a toxic chlorine factory east of Aleppo. The Assad regime has reiterated its promise not to use chemical weapons against its own people.