3. Chemical Weapons Let Loose?
The Assad regime’s stocks of chemical weapons — developed decades ago ostensibly as a strategic hedge against the presumed nuclear capability of its prime enemy, Israel — have become an urgent focus of discussion among Western powers and Israel as the regime has begun to teeter. Fears that Assad would use such weapons to suppress a domestic rebellion may be overblown — they don’t exactly lend themselves to urban combat, and Assad’s conduct until now has suggested a keen sense of keeping the level of violence his regime unleashes below a threshold that would bring direct foreign intervention. Chemical weapons would not only cross that threshold but also almost certainly result in him seeing out his days in a prison cell at the Hague. President Obama on Monday warned Assad that he would be “held accountable” should those weapons be used.
(PHOTOS: The Syrian Arms Race)
The chemical-weapons problem, however, may be more acute post-Assad. A senior Israeli official told Haaretz on Monday that Assad “is handling chemical weapons responsibly,” taking steps to avoid them falling into rebel hands by moving them to more remote locations away from the fighting. Syria’s Foreign Minister on Monday vowed that such weapons would be kept safe and used only in the event of “foreign aggression.” Israel’s concern, of course, is that should the regime fall, those weapons could find their way into the hands of Hizballah, Syria’s longtime ally, or else be commandeered by jihadist elements in the rebel camp.
The official told Haaretz that while there are no signs that Assad intends to move chemical weapons to Hizballah and is securing them from the rebels, “Israel is still very concerned because it is hard to know if these steps will be sufficient on the day Assad falls.”
Thus the irony: as long as Assad is in power, he can probably be relied on to refrain from using those weapons and keep them out of the hands of nonstate actors. But should the regime collapse precipitously, he’d be in no position to do so. And while the U.S. and Israel are weighing contingency plans to neutralize the threat posed by those weapons, any such intervention carries plenty of additional political risk.