The last few weeks have been generous in events and catastrophes, from the Boston bombings to the attack on the French embassy in Libya. One event that has been strangely overlooked, but is of critical importance, is the suspected use of chemical weapons in Syria.
The French, British and Israeli intelligence community were clear when they accused Assad’s regime of using chemical weapons against the rebels, and the allegations were soon to be followed by several pictures of Syrian casualties presenting symptoms of chemical poisoning. The White House has acknowledged that the accusations may be true, but do not believe yet that there is clear and irrevocable evidence.
Obama had previously stated that the systematic use of chemical weapons was a “red line” not to be crossed and a “game changer”. As the conflict edges toward this so-called red line, or perhaps has already crossed it, the US has to decide what action they are to take, or they risk being accused of issuing empty threats or moving the goals posts.
Yet, as much as it seem that a potential intervention is unlikely giving the cautious rhetoric of Washington, the events on the ground suggest a wholly different approach, with Obama meeting key Middle East allies to discuss the Syria crisis.
The chemical weapons stockpiled in Syria are significant in numbers, to the extent that it is believed and assessed by various intelligence communities that they have one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals in the world.
Chemical weapons are the main source of alarm for the international community when it comes to the Syrian conflict, particularly because of the presence of Al-Qaeda affiliates in the battle ground, and because of the ease of use and deployment of such weapons in acts of terrorism.
But the governments that had been keen to arm the rebels to bring about an end to the conflict are now based with another problem. The Al-Nusra Front, one of the most powerful factions battling Assad’s regime and by far its most radical, has openly pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, but denied suggestions that the two were to merge.
The danger is now not only that terrorist groups will get hold of arms, but also get control of the supposedly sizeable Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons. Reports suggest the stockpile is primarily the highly toxic sarin, a nerve gas agent that can spread over large areas and induce quick death through inhalation. An attack of the chemical in the Tokyo subway in 1995 killed 13 people, and the fear is not only that it will be used within Syria, but also in Al-Qaeda linked attacks elsewhere.
It may be the ambitions of Al-Nusra Front to lay hand on one of Syria’s main sarin-producing facilities, al-Safira. With the rebel group fighting just a few miles from the factory, it seems to be prompting a sense of urgency in the corridors of the White House.
The weapons are now being recognized as more than just a domestic threat, possibly endangering the region at large. Most probably the chemical weapons would be directed towards the spots where Al-Qaeda has the strongest presence and the odds for success are in their favour.
Iraq, with its ever rising death toll, could be the first target for the chemicals outside of Syria, particularly given the ability of the Al-Qaeda operatives to smuggle the stockpiles into the country. Securing the chemical weapons, it seems, is a top priority for the Al-Nusra Front, and Syria as it stands now is not a safe haven to safeguard the precious prize.
Although many would recall the scandal of the “non-existent” Iraqi WMDs to refute the excuse of chemical weapons to intervene in Syria, the difference today is that we are faced with a situation where the weapon’s existence is not debated, nor is Al-Qaeda’s presence debated.
Many have started calling for a more strategic approach towards supporting the Syrian rebellion, seems to be more important than ever to adopt such a strategy if we are to avoid the horror of a nerve agent attack in an Iraqi shopping mall or a Lebanese public square.
Judging from the available mappings of Syrian chemical facilities, most installations trail along the western border with Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. This geographical occurrence is of high strategic importance: a potential intervention from regional or international corps launched from Lebanon and the Mediterranean shores will allow a quick takeover of the chemical plants to secure and systematically destroy the nerve agents.
The Libyan downfall and the following dispersion of vast amounts of artillery in the region have had a facilitating effect on the Malian crisis and the rearmament of Al-Qaeda groups in North Africa. But now we are faced with an even more devastating type of weaponry in an area known for its high volatility.
The consequences of chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands will inevitably set new standards for terrorist activities, and will have far reaching impacts regionally and internationally. This is a “game changer” whose significance the US administration and the Arab governments understand very well, but will this finally be the catalyst for an intervention?