On Monday, Syrian officials became blunter about their chemical weapons stores than ever before, stating that they would not use them against civilians but would be used against “external aggressors.” The intent on the face of it is fairly straightforward – to signify to the international community that it will not use these against its own population, but that any country will face the consequences for intervening.
Underlying this statement, however, is how the Assad government will decide in the future what constitutes an “external aggressor.” Since nearly the beginning of this conflict, Syrian state television has been referring to the rebels as “terrorists” and talking about the foreign influence within their ranks. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are also known to have provided arms to the rebels, and Turkey allows the rebels to use their lands as a refugee camp and staging area.
With this history in mind and a situation that is becoming increasingly untenable for the Assad regime, it does not seem like a leap of logic that Assad may one day categorize those fighting against him as “external aggressors,” justifying by his government’s standards the use of mustard gas, sarin nerve agent, and cyanide. To see the effect this could have, one need not look further than Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988.
While an attack outside of Syria seems unlikely, a desperation act cannot be discounted, especially when it comes to Israel. Syria’s arsenal of missiles is short-ranged and inaccurate, and most meaningful targets in Turkey and Arab countries are located outside their range. They could try and hit rebel camps along the border, but that would inevitably kill many Turks as well. Israel seems the more logical option, with almost all of Israel within range. Either way, such an attack would almost certainly be a death sentence for Assad’s regime, bringing down the wrath of either NATO and/or the region’s strongest military.
The difficulty is what to do in the current situation. On the one hand, if a strike is attempted and doesn’t eradicate all chemical weapons, then Assad may use the rest of them. On the other hand, waiting for the Syrian rebels to possibly overtake the Assad regime may in turn cause these weapons to be used anyways, with thousands of deaths to follow.
At the very least, the intelligence communities of concerned countries should be focused on pinpointing the locations of these chemical weapon stores. It is too early to take any concrete action on what is now mostly hypothetical situations and rhetoric. But unless you’re willing to take the word of a government that has no problem with shelling its own cities and wiping out villages, then at the very least contingency plans need to be made in order to neutralize the dangers posed by this very real and very dangerous arsenal.