The U.S. threat a few months ago regarding Syria’s unconventional weapons was, to quote BBC Newsnight’s diplomatic and defense editor Mark Urban, “one of those ‘sit up and take notice’ moments.” More recently, we have had to sit up and take notice once again.
In August, President Barack Obama warned that he could deploy American forces in Syria if “we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised,” his first direct threat of force against the Assad regime since the uprising began. He added that contingency plans had been drawn up. A British echo swiftly followed, with the government talking of a “revisit” of its approach so far.
Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued another “strong warning,” repeating Obama’s statement that this would be a “red line” for the U.S., and proving wrong the belief of Qadri Jamil, Syria’s deputy prime minister for economic affairs, that “Obama’s threats are simply propaganda linked to the U.S. elections.”
Clinton added: “We’re certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur.” This was followed by similar words from Britain and France. These new warnings are as curious as when Obama made them. The Assad regime had previously said it would only use unconventional weapons against “external aggression,” and “never” against Syrians, “no matter what the internal developments.” It has since repeated this pledge.
As such, a deployment by the U.S. or Israel - which has also raised the possibility of military action - may actually cause the use of chemical weapons by an increasingly desperate regime, rather than prevent it. One can doubt the sincerity of the regime’s assurance, but it has not shied away from talking tough and acting brutally throughout the revolution.
Furthermore, it has been made fully aware that using such weapons against the Syrian people would be unacceptable not just to its most powerful enemies, but also the UN (Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said it would be an “outrageous crime” with “serious consequences” for the perpetrators, who “will have to be brought to justice”) as well as the regime’s main allies.
Indeed, Iran’s foreign minister has said this would be “a situation that will end everything. If any country...uses weapons of mass destruction, that is the end of the validity, eligibility, legality, whatever you name it, of that government.”
Hence the Assad regime’s statements on the terms of their use, as well as direct assurances to Russia and Ban, who said on Dec. 7 that there are no confirmed reports that the regime is preparing to use chemical weapons. This did not stop British Foreign Secretary William Hague from speaking the next day of “evidence during the last couple of weeks that the regime could use them.”
Such claims are being made predominantly by anonymous sources, some with obvious agendas. As such, they must be treated with scepticism. For example, last week U.S. TV station NBC News reported that the Syrian military has loaded precursor chemicals for the deadly nerve gas sarin into aerial bombs and is awaiting final orders from Assad. The source? American officials.
Similarly, a few days later Britain’s Sunday Times cited “Middle East intelligence sources” as saying a ballistic missile battalion has been equipped with chemical munitions. The article does not state from where these sources originate, but they are surely from countries whose governments have a vested interest in the Syrian conflict.
They may well be, or include, Israelis, whose prime minister last week said “we are closely following developments in Syria related to its chemical weapons stockpiles.” In addition, CNN reported this month that Israeli intelligence is in close contact with its U.S. counterparts on this issue.
I have supported the goals and aspirations of Syria’s revolution from the outset, but I oppose the realisation of Obama’s threat, and so should those, like me, who yearn for an end to the Assad regime. The warning was not made out of concern for the Syrian people - if that was the case, Obama’s and Clinton’s “red line” would have been the killing of thousands upon thousands of civilians, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands.
The “concern” Obama highlighted was among “allies in the region,” of which Israel was the only one specifically named. This compounds the suspicions of many in the Middle East and beyond that U.S. involvement regarding Syria stems primarily from the desire to increase its regional hegemony, and that of Israel. Indeed, his contingency plans involve working with allies including - you guessed it - Israel.
Given its attempts to thwart direct foreign intervention by threatening to use such weapons against external aggressors, it would not make sense for the Assad regime to transfer them to its allies.
Neither would its allies, particularly Hezbollah, necessarily want to receive them, given the threatened and likely reaction by Israel and the U.S. “We don’t have chemical weapons, and we can’t use them for reasons linked to the Sharia and for humanitarian reasons,” said Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
For such a serious threat, Obama’s wording is worryingly - and perhaps intentionally - vague. What if such weapons are used against a foreign deployment rather than against Syrians?
What if unconventional weapons are moved to ensure their safety rather than for offensive purposes? In late September, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the regime had moved some of its chemical weapons capability to better secure it. Such movements will likely increase as it crumbles.
“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” said Obama. Likewise, Hague last week cited several “dangerous scenarios,” including such weapons falling into the hands “of other people.” Who exactly are the ‘right people’? Presumably not even the Assad regime. And who are the “other people”?
Such wording leaves much open to interpretation and misinterpretation, which is very dangerous given the highly combustible situation on the ground, and subsequent condemnation from Russia and China.
“There should be no interference from the outside,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who, after meeting China’s ambassador, added that Moscow and Beijing were committed to “the need to strictly adhere to the norms of international law...and not to allow their violation.” China’s state news agency Xinhua accused the West of “digging deep for excuses to intervene militarily,” describing Obama’s warning as “dangerously irresponsible.”
The U.S. president “was clearly trying to forestall the possibility of an Israeli move into Syria - and the reaction it might provoke,” wrote Mark Landler in the New York Times. I do not see how the U.S. acting in Israel’s stead would be any more palatable to Arabs and Muslims than direct Israeli action.
It also highlights the hypocrisy of the world’s largest possessor of weapons of mass destruction - and the only country to have used nuclear bombs in warfare - acting on behalf of the Middle East’s only nuclear power. Like Syria, Israel has not signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international agreement - signed by all but eight of the world’s countries - that bans the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.
I doubt Syria’s opposition would even want such unconventional weapons to be destroyed or confiscated by the U.S. They are just as likely as the Assad regime to view such weapons as a strategic counterweight to Israel’s nuclear weapons, or as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with Israel over the return of the illegally annexed Golan Heights, a cause dear to all Syrians.
Besides the issue of whether Obama should make good on his threat, is whether he could do so successfully. Intelligence on Syria’s unconventional weapons is patchy and lacks consensus, and one need only look to neighbouring Iraq for a stark example of the huge risks and repercussions of acting on flawed intelligence.
“Such a mission would require significant numbers of ‘boots on the ground’ in highly volatile circumstances,” according to BBC defence and diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus.
“For the U.S. to attempt to secure the sites in the face of armed resistance by Syrian forces would be extremely demanding, given the number of the sites involved and their considerable size,” says Leonard Spector, executive director of the Washington-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
“If the information about dozens of storage sites is right, then there is a distinct possibility that significant quantities of these weapons could go missing, even if the U.S. plans were 95% effective,” writes Urban.
An American deployment would certainly deepen the involvement in Syria of a range of outside powers, as well as widen the conflict further beyond the country’s borders. With jihadist and other foreign fighters bolstering the opposition in Syria, such a deployment may cause them to fight what will be seen as another imperialist threat from a country with a terrible record of interference in the region.
It would divide a newly unified opposition, and enflame Arab public opinion that has thus far been predominantly sympathetic to Syria’s revolution. The result could be a quagmire as deep, intractable and destructive as the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was justified on the basis of the alleged threat posed by weapons of mass destruction. Sound familiar?
(Sharif Nashashibi, a London-based writer and Arab commentator, is a regular contributor to Al Arabiya. Twitter: @sharifnash.)