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The twin threat posed by Syria’s chemical weapons

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may not want to risk crossing "the red line" by using chemical weapons against his people. But that's only as long as he can maintain command-and-control.


Twenty months after the start of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the international community has its eye on the regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons, with US President Barack Obama warning Monday that the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people would cross the “red line”.

On Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen joined the chorus of international warnings, telling reporters that the use of chemical weapons would be “completely unacceptable for the whole international community". He also warned that, "If anybody resorts to these terrible weapons, then I would expect an immediate reaction from the international community."

NATO foreign ministers are largely expected on Tuesday to approve a measure bolstering Turkey’s air defences by sending the country Patriot missiles as a means to counter a possible attack from neighbouring Syria. Turkey approached NATO last month to request the arms, which can be used to intercept missiles and planes.

The latest threats come nearly 25 years after then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s military bombed the northern Iraqi town of Halabja with toxic gases, killing thousands of ethnic Kurds. The March 1988 attack involved a combination of some of the most toxic agents known to science, including sarin and mustard gas.

A toxic mix of deadly gases

International concerns have been mounting in recent days, with's military blog Danger Room, first reporting that the mixing of chemicals in the weaponisation process had started last week and was being carried out by engineers in central Syria.

The operation had reached the point where sarin could be loaded onto a plane and dropped as a weapon, Danger Room quoted an unnamed US official as saying.

"It seems that US drones have retrieved information suggesting that the Syrians manipulated a number of their chemical weapon stockpiles, including two deposits," said Olivier Lepick, a chemical and biological weapons expert at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS), in an interview with FRANCE 24.

On Monday, a US official, who requested anonymity, told AFP that the Syrian regime is trying to assemble chemical elements necessary for the militarisation of chemical weapons, probably sarin gas.

First developed as an organophosphate pesticide, sarin works by being inhaled or absorbed through the skin and kills by crippling the nervous system. Once the components are assembled, the gas is ready to be placed in a missile or bomb for military deployment. Sarin gas has been classified as a chemical weapon by the UN since 1987.

In an interview with FRANCE 24, Christian Leuprecht, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, noted that once sarin gas has been militarised, it becomes difficult and dangerous to eliminate by an aerial bombardment. “It might be a deterrent move [by the Syrian regime] against an intervention by the West,” said Leuprecht.

‘Fog of war’ increases risks

Most experts agree that Assad’s regime is keenly aware of the international ramifications of using chemical weapons. "Damascus cannot risk using its chemical arsenal, as the Syrian government knows that it would open the door to international military intervention," said David Rigoulet, a researcher at the French Institute for Strategic Analysis (IFAS).

It’s an opinion shared by Lepick. "The regime has absolutely nothing to gain from using chemical weapons. Assad is anything but stupid, he knows that crossing the red line will cost him the last support he enjoys within the UN Security Council,” said Lepick, referring to Russia and China.

But if there’s little doubt that Assad understands the risks of using chemical weapons, there are no guarantees that the Syrian military’s command and control would have the same self control if the regime implodes.

“A local commander of a base that has chemical weapons for instance could find himself under attack or overrun by rebels,” notes Leuprecht. “If he can’t get timely confirmation from Damascus on how to act, he might be tempted to take matters into his own hands.”

As the Syrian civil war gets increasingly brutal, there are also fears that jihadist groups within rebel ranks might get their hands on chemical weapons. “There are concerns that jihadist groups might try to emulate what happened in Benghazi and try to intentionally overrun a base that happens to have chemical weapons,” said Leuprecht, referring to the September 11 attack on a US diplomatic mission in the eastern Libyan city 

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