The battle for Syria has raged for the last 17 months, turning from an initial uprising to an all-out, bloody civil war. Assad, unlike others such as Gaddafi in Libya and Mubarak in Egypt, has managed to cling to power until now, receiving crucial support from the Syrian security forces. However, numerous high-ranking officials from the regime have now defected, including the former prime minister, and the regime is struggling to hold its two major cities: Damascus and Aleppo, the losing of which would surely signal defeat for Assad.
Many are concerned, however, that in a last ditch effort to hold on to power, Assad might play his trump card and do the unthinkable: employ chemical weapons against those seeking to oust him. This is not beyond the realm of possibility by any means. The very same was done by Saddam Hussein against Iraqi Kurds in 1988 as the Iran-Iraq War drew to a close. In fact, the use of chemical weapons can be seen in history dating back to ancient times, and in the last century it was a prominent method used in World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War.
Of additional concern is the fact that the Syrian regime last month announced it would use chemical weapons against any nation that chose to attack it. The government has denied it would use such weapons against its own people, but as defeat looks more likely for Assad, it is not inconceivable that he might commit such an atrocity. He would certainly have little to lose at this point, and has shown little regret for the thousands killed so far in the conflict, many being innocent civilians.
The extent of Syria’s chemical stockpile is unknown. As one of only seven countries not signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention, Syria has until recently denied having any such weapons. However, it is widely believed that Syria has for some time been manufacturing mustard gas, as well as the nerve agents Sarin, Tabun and VX. The use of these compounds in even limited quantities would inflict widespread death and disease. The weapons were most likely developed as a means of protection against Israel. The two are longtime foes and in 2007 Israel bombed Syria, claiming it was developing its own nuclear reactor. Israel has always expressed concern that Syria would transfer nuclear or chemical weapons to groups such as Hezbollah.
In desperation, Assad may resort to using chemical weapons against the Syrian rebels. This would inevitably seal his fate, as the outside world would be forced to intervene and he would either be taken or go down fighting. It seems then, that whichever way Assad looks at the coming climax in Syria, he should not hope to be in power for too much longer.
That being considered, a second concerning scenario should be addressed. With an unknown stockpile of chemical weapons somewhere in Syria, and as rebels threaten to assume control of the country — a group about which the world knows very little — what should be done to secure those weapons? It would be catastrophic if large quantities of lethal nerve agents ended up on the black market and fell into the hands of terrorists and militant groups. The situation would then become an issue of international security, and while building relations with the rebels would go a long way, it is almost inevitable that other countries would have to intervene to secure such weapons. This could subsequently be very complicated and a headache to coordinate.
Early conversations about such a scenario are currently being conducted between the United States and Turkey, yet for consensus on the issue it will be critical to gain the cooperation of China and Russia, who up until now have been greatly obstinate over the Syria situation. Meanwhile Iran, never far from the headlines, has recently solidified its ties with the Syrian regime and is thought to be assisting with training a pro-Assad militia. As if tensions between Iran and the West were not high enough, any intervention in Syria will likely bring the two one step closer to confrontation, highlighting what could prove to be a critical few months in Middle Eastern affairs.