“Chemical Weapons in Syria: Fact, Fiction, and Fib,” by Aron Lund

Saturday, December 8th, 2012 – Syria Comment, December 8, 2012 – On the WMD discussion in your last post, which I think was spot on: My guess is that what’s happening is that some intelligence agencies are really picking up signals of WMD motion on the ground, but that the dramatic “mixing sarin and putting it into bombs” info is pure propaganda. It seems designed to spook the public, make a case for intervention, and, to some extent, force the hand of the Obama administration.

In the unlikely event that Assad has really started activating his WMD capacity, it could be for a military purpose or as a political signal. There are basically three things he would be interested in: 1) to threaten any would-be intervention force, e.g. Turkey, 2) to remind everyone that he could carry out a lethal last strike on Israel if the regime falls, 3) possibly, to shift chemical material over to allies in Lebanon, to create a kind of second-strike capability if the regime is attacked and unable to respond.

None of these things involve gassing populated areas in Syria with air-dropped bombs. It could perhaps be done, but it would be hugely counter-productive, not least in terms of an international response, and it’s obviously dangerous on a complex close-quarters battlefield such as Syria’s. It is certainly possible that the regime could have an internal meltdown and start making irrational choices, but so far its decision-makers seem to be acting rationally and in their own best interest. Given that, they’re not going to be poison-gassing Aleppo anytime soon.

On the other hand, some opposition groups and their sympathizers try to plant these stories all the time. As you’ll remember, there was a similar WMD scare in Syria in the summer. That time, US officials eventually came forth and said that they were reassured that Syria had their WMD under control – reassured by Syria itself, I imagine. There’s an odd confluence of interests here. Neither Obama nor Assad want the media to report that a publicly declared US red line has been breached, since that would compel the US to either do something or lose face.

All that said, I think it’s very likely that Assad is currently shifting around his WMD infrastructure to retain control over it, which would mean there is some actual motion on the ground. For example, one of the main chemical warfare installations is allegedly in al-Safira (S/E of Aleppo). That means it would be liable to fall into rebel hands as of right now, if Assad didn’t do something about it. SCUD launch pads and other relevant material would also have to be brought out of rebel reach, or away from areas that have been deprived of effective SAM cover through the loss of air defense installations – rebels are taking these in large numbers. So it’s not surprising at all that the regime is moving stuff around.

As a backgrounder on Syria’s WMD situation, this 74-page report from Sweden’s FOI is very good: www2.foi.se/rapp/foir1290.pdf. It’s in English.

*Aron Lund is author of a report on Syrian jihadism for the Swedish Institute of Foreign Affairs, a shorter version is at Foreign Policy: “Holy Warriors: A field guide to Syria’s jihadi groups,” He also is author of  Drömmen om Damaskus (“The Dream of Damascus”) and a regular contributor to Syria Comment.