Syria's Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress*

By Nikitin, Mary Beth D.; Kerr, Paul K. et al. | Current Politics and Economics of the Middle East, July 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Syria's Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress*


Nikitin, Mary Beth D., Kerr, Paul K., Feickert, Andrew, Current Politics and Economics of the Middle East


POLICY ISSUES

The Syrian case may be the first time the international community has faced a civil war in a state with a known stockpile of chemical weapons. This contingency raises two major policy concerns: whether the Asad regime would use chemical weapons; and whether it could lose control over these weapons.

U.S. officials have expressed confidence that chemical weapons stocks in Syria are secured by the Asad regime, which dispatched elite Special Forces for that purpose. Due to the urgency of preventing access to these weapons by unauthorized groups, including terrorists, the United States government has been preparing for scenarios to secure the weapons in the event of the Asad regime's loss of control. However, this presents unique challenges. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 7, 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, "It's 100 times worse than what we dealt with in Libya. And for that reason, that's why it's raised even greater concerns about our ability to address how we can secure those sites." The Pentagon has estimated that it would take over 75,000 troops to neutralize the chemical weapons.1

Specific scenarios have not been discussed in open testimony, but some analysts have proposed that advanced planning for international teams may be required. Press reports say that a joint exercise in Jordan in the spring of 2012 included scenarios for securing chemical weapons stocks. The United States and the Czech Republic, which leads NATO chemical defense preparation, are also cooperating to prepare for various scenarios. Israeli President Shimon Peres has appealed to Russian President Putin to urge Asad to ensure chemical weapons' security. Senator Richard Lugar has proposed that the United States and Russia cooperate to ensure chemical weapons security in Syria and eventually dismantle them.

Possible scenarios of highest concern include Syrian government use of chemical weapons- authorized or unauthorized by local commanders; or Syrian government loss of control through either defections by local commanders in charge of chemical weapons sites or a facility turnover in the course of battle. The United States and other governments have warned Syria that use of chemical weapons could prompt unspecified response, presumed to be military intervention. At the same time, the United States has been urging Russia, historically a patron of Syria, to encourage Asad to maintain control over chemical weapons.2 Some have suggested that the United States should communicate to Syrian government commanders at the sites that they will be rewarded for maintaining control of these weapons and protecting these facilities from extremist elements. Other possible options include training or assisting the Free Syrian Army in securing chemical weapons, should that army capture such facilities. Preventing chemical weapons from falling into the hands of extremist elements is the ultimate goal of such policies. There will continue to be limits, however, to the United States' ability to monitor the security of these stockpiles and limits to intelligence about where, how well, and by whom they are being secured.

In addition to concerns over loss of control, there has been widespread concern that Asad could decide to use chemical weapons. In a speech at the National Defense University on December 3, 2012, President Obama stated, perhaps in reaction to recent reports of chemical weapon preparations: "I want to make it absolutely clear to Asad and those under his command: The world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there where be consequences, and you will be held accountable." Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that use would be a "red line" and that the United States was "planning to take action" should it occur. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has made similar statements. …

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