by Stephen Bryen
The U.S. and the international community have voiced serious concern about the movement of some of the Syrian chemical warfare stockpile apparently in the direction of Aleppo, which is the seat of Alawite population and power in Syria. Like Damascus, Aleppo is under siege by Syrian rebels and the fighting is reportedly bitter. There is talk that the Syrian Army is beginning to disintegrate, that Damascus itself could soon fall to the rebels, and that countries in the Middle East, South America and elsewhere have informally offered asylum to Syrian President Bashar Assad and his family.
Whether Assad stays or leaves will not, in and of itself, resolve the Syrian security situation. The civil war is only the start of Syria’s problems, not its end point. Unresolved is the situation of the Alawi population and its security, the Kurdish minority, and the Christians among others. While many thousands have already gone to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon they represent only a fraction of the at risk populations and the potential for retaliation again civilians, the military, government employees, business leaders, educators and thousands of others.
In this context, the Syrian situation is nothing like Egypt’s, where there has been regime change, or even Libya where there are sharp, unresolved tribal differences. Syria is far more treacherous and there is very little an outside power can do to prevent attacks that will target diverse groups in the country.
The decision, apparently by the Syrian army, to collect chemical weapons needs to be understood in this context.
There are at least five, and perhaps more, chemical weapons storage facilities in Syria plus manufacturing facilities that were acquired with help from European countries and from Iran. It is highly unlikely that all the chemical weapons have been moved, or that all can be moved easily given current security conditions. News reports indicate that the Syrian army has grabbed artillery shells filled with Sarin, a highly toxic nerve agent. Sarin was used, with other chemical agents, by Saddam’s Iraq in the ten year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s. It played a big role in certain battlefield situations, especially the fighting on the Fao peninsula. But the most dramatic use of nerve gas was against the Kurdish population in the village of Halabja, on March 16, 1988.
Halabja was an attack using aircraft bombs filled with sarin and other chemicals and helicopters to spray chemicals on a defenseless population. Sarin was one of the chemical agents, along with Tabun, another nerve agent. Also used were mustard gas, a blistering agent, and cyanide. Upwards of 5,000 civilians were killed outright in an attack that went on for some five hours; another 10,000 or more people became very ill as a result of the attack and many died later. There are also reports of cancers and other diseases caused by the WMD attack.
Halabja is a more likely “model” of what might happen in Syria if chemical weapons are used, because conventional rebel military targets hardly exist. The rebels tend to operate inside the population and in built up areas, not out in the open field. The battles are not territorial and strategic as much as they are psychological and, often, murderous. Add a chemical component to what has transpired so far and it is easy to see significant civilian casualties. Furthermore, it is likely the rebels will, at some point, get their hands on chemical weapons that were not in-gathered by a retreating Syrian army.
So far as is known, training, chemical protective gear, and nerve gas antidotes such as atropine, hardly exist in Syria. This means that any population concentration will pay a heavy price if chemical weapons are used.
Of course the United States and its friends and allies can demand that poison gas not be used. In a devolving, chaotic situation, the chance that these demands will have effect is difficult to say. Clearly holding Syria’s leaders to account, both civilian and military, may help but no one can be sure if they will be persuaded. As more and more defections occur, the rise in angst inside Syria within the government and military may outweigh rationality.
Much of the capability that Syria has, that was in the hands of the Iraqis, and that is today in the hands of Iran, is a Western moral and political responsibility because the supply of manufacturing equipment, precursor material, and WMD know-how happened with little active intervention by governments, and sometimes on a complicit basis. If chemical weapons are used against populations, it will be a black mark on Europe and the others who supplied Syria just as the supply of nuclear know-how to Iran endangers world peace in an unprecedented way.