Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi announced recently, what everyone in the region already knew; that Syria has stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. Makdissi tried to relieve fears that Bashar’s regime would not use these weapons by saying, “No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria,” with the small caveat that, “unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.” Considering that the Syrian government has long claimed the rebels and the Free Syrian Army are foreign sponsored and armed, this statement, far from reassuring, is actually quite troubling. Even in that statement, Makdissi noted that Bashar’s regime isn’t facing an internal enemy.
There have been profiles on the conventional weapons the Syrian government has, but so far there is only speculation on the chemical and biological weapons it maintains. Foreign Policy Magazine recently had an article discussing the weapons that Syria might have. The list includes mustard gas, sarin, and possibly VX, along with Scud missiles on which these deadly agents can be launched. What’s also worrying about these weapons is the possibility they could fall into the hands of militias or terrorist groups who would not be afraid to use them. Charles Blair, a specialist in chemical and biological weapons at Federation of American Scientists, said that it would take tens of thousands of personnel to guard the weapons if the regime fell, and any plan to protect the weapons, which are probably scattered among different sites, would be difficult to implement. The Syrian regime is also probably moving them in order to protect the weapons against a possible attack from Israel. As Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu stated on an American television show recently, that “We will have to consider our action. Do I seek action? No. Do I preclude it? No.” However, this action remains unlikely at present.
There is no clear solution to this quandary, as any outside intervention could have the unintended effect of the Syrian regime using the weapons. Articles from Andrew Tabler and Sara Sorcher raise questions and have some suggestions for ensuring the weapons are neither used nor fall into the wrong hands. But both fail to mention probably the most important thing Arab and western nations should do, which is pressure Russia and Iran to secure, remove, or destroy the weapons. Destroying the weapons would be ideal and having Russia and Iran in the conversation would be helpful. It is in the best interests of both Russia and Iran to ensure that the weapons will be secured if Bashar’s regime falls, as the weapons they have long been supplying to Syria could fall into the hands of groups that would use them against those two countries as well as other interests in the region.
Jonathan Bertman runs “The Old UAR”, a blog dedicated to events in the Middle East. He has had extensive experience in the Middle East, living in Egypt for 4 years as well as having experience with a number of Middle Eastern focused Think Tanks.