Many countries, including the United States and Russia, gradually eliminated their chemical-weapons arsenals, but Syria refused to sign the U.N. Chemical Weapons convention and proceeded to develop an ever larger and deadlier stockpile. The CIA has concluded that Syria possesses a large stockpile of sarin-based warheads and was working on developing VX, a deadlier nerve agent that resists breaking down in the environment.
By early in the last decade, some weapons experts ranked Syria’s chemical stockpile as probably the largest in the world, consisting of tens of tons of highly lethal chemical agents and hundreds of Scud missiles as well as lesser rockets, artillery rockets and bomblets for delivering the poisons. Leonard Spector lays down some other scenarios in which Assad’s chemical weapons could be used. Let’s start with the possibility of civil war. According to researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, open sources indicate that there are at least four, and potentially five, chemical weapons production facilities in Syria. One or two are located near Damascus, the other three situated in Hama, Latakia, and al-Safir village, near the city of Aleppo. Hama is one of the hotbeds of the Syrian revolt, which Assad’s tanks attacked in early August and where, more recently, fighting has severely damaged the city’s hospitals. Latakia is another center of unrest; it was shelled by the Syrian Navy in mid-August. Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, has also seen significant demonstrations.
If anti-Assad insurgents take up arms, the chemical sites, as symbols of the regime’s authority, could become strategic targets. And, if mass defections occur from the Syrian army, there may be no one left to defend the sites against seizure. This could lead to disastrous outcomes, including confiscation of the chemical weapons by a radical new national government or sale of the weapons as war booty to organized nonstate actors or criminal groups.
In such chaos, no one can predict who might control the weapons or where they might be taken. With these chemical weapons in the hands of those engaged in a possible civil war, the risks that they would be used would increase substantially. The problem would be worsened further if some possessors were not fully aware of the extent of the weapons’ deadly effects.
And let’s imagine that Assad is eventually removed: What leaders would gain control of these weapons after he departed? Saudi-backed Sunni groups? Iranian-backed Shiite organizations? Whoever they might be, it is unclear that the newcomers would follow the Assads’ cautious-use doctrine and refusal to share chemical weapons with nonstate groups, or that the new leaders would be able to maintain strict security measures at the chemical sites.
Meanwhile, it’s possible that an existential threat will cause the Assad regime to abandon its previous policy of restraint regarding chemical weapons. It is not a huge leap from attacking civilians with tank fire, machine guns, and naval artillery to deploying poison gas, and the shock effect and sense of dread engendered by even limited use could quash a citywide uprising within an hour. h/t Carl