Chemical weapons are Assad’s insurance policy

Bashar al-Assad speaks in Damascus last week

Bashar al-Assad speaks in Damascus last week

Recently the NY Times reported that the Assad regime had commenced mixing the ingredients to produce Sarin gas and loading it into 500-pound bombs.

But not to worry (for a while), said the Times, thanks to the intrepid Barack Obama and his international friends:

What followed next, officials said, was a remarkable show of international cooperation over a civil war in which the United States, Arab states, Russia and China have almost never agreed on a common course of action.

The combination of a public warning by Mr. Obama and more sharply worded private messages sent to the Syrian leader and his military commanders through Russia and others, including Iraq, Turkey and possibly Jordan, stopped the chemical mixing and the bomb preparation. A week later Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the worst fears were over — for the time being.

Well, actually not, because the article also strongly implies that the process went on for a week before Assad, obviously shaking in his boots over the “sharply worded” warnings, stopped it.

Now today it is reported that US officials admit that there is no way to prevent Assad from using the weapons that were prepared:

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that it will be nearly impossible to prevent the Syrian government from using its chemical weapons, so the US must rely on deterrence and continue warning Syria that using them would be unacceptable.

“The act of preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable,” Dempsey said during a Pentagon press conference. “You would have to have such clarity of intelligence, you know, persistent surveillance, you’d have to actually see it before it happened, and that’s — that’s unlikely, to be sure.”

All that would be necessary would be to load the filled bombs onto aircraft, which could be done in a matter of minutes or hours. The threat that he would use these weapons provides Assad with a good insurance policy against foreign intervention, freeing him to unleash the full force of his large conventional arsenal against rebels.

It also helps that some of the extremist rebel organizations are less palatable to the US and European nations that are providing limited support to the rebels than the Butcher of Damascus himself.

In a recent speech, Assad affirmed that he had no intention of stepping down. It is not unimaginable that he can pull it off.

It’s doubtful that any of the likely replacements for the Assad regime would be better actors. And the chaos that might reign before the succession is settled could permit weapons to fall into the hands of Hizballah or other terrorist groups.

This is actually the most dangerous possibility. It’s generally thought that Israel warned its neighbors that the use of any form of weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, chemical or biological — would be met with massive retaliation, presumably nuclear. Egypt and Syria both had chemical weapons capability in 1973, as did Saddam Hussein during the Gulf war. These were not used, and the restraint was not due to humanitarian feelings. It is not clear to what extent Hizballah could be deterred in this way — and certainly al-Qaeda could not.

I’m sure that the West and Israel would welcome the replacement of Assad by a liberal, democratic, social-media-savvy regime. But that isn’t going to happen.Whomever wins will most likely slaughter their former opponents, despite the outrage in the West.

It could be that the best outcome for everyone except his enemies would be the survival of Assad.

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