The recent US sanctions against 18 senior Syrian officers for chemical weapons (CW) employment seem to represent little more than a last-ditch compensation for the hands-off record of the outgoing Obama administration. However, despite their poor timing, these sanctions are considerably more meaningful than they might at first appear.
Chemical weapons (CW) continue to be employed frequently in Syria and Iraq. While the scale of attacks has been relatively minor so far, the possibility remains that the Islamic State (IS) might attempt a high-impact WMD attack. Hezbollah, too, which is present in both Syria and Lebanon, might wish to be – or indeed, already may be – equipped with CW
The Syrian regime unleashed full military grade chemical weapons against IS several weeks ago, a move that occasioned little response from the wider world. The assault demonstrated that the dismantling of the Syrian chemical arsenal has not been fulfilled. If repeated, the attack might precipitate a dangerous escalation of the conflict in which IS accelerates its own pursuit of WMDs.
The risk of ISIS employing chemical, biological, and radiological warfare agents is real. In fact, ISIS already has attacked with chemical agents. ISIS has mobilized Iraqi and Syrian scientists who are assisting in the development of chemical weapons, particularly nerve and mustard gas, alongside foreign experts. It also has reportedly moved its labs, experts, and materials from Iraq to Syria.
The reluctance of the international community to act forcibly regarding undeclared Syrian chemical weapon capabilities is a very bad sign. It raises doubts about full implementation of intelligence-gathering operations and effective monitoring of the Iranian nuclear program.
June 30 marks the due date for the complete disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Although Assad may have relinquished the majority of his chemical weapons stockpile, the regime most probably possesses additional ‘undeclared’ facilities.
Efforts to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons are running months behind schedule. Even if Assad abides by his commitment, Syria’s equally dangerous biological weapon stocks will remain.
Disarming Syria's chemical arsenal will be a big challenge. The US-Russia timetable seems too condensed, even if good will is assumed. Syria possesses a huge chemical weapons arsenal, and is likely to further develop biological weapons, which the US-Russia accord does not discuss.
Bombing Syrian CBW stockpiles could result in significant environmental pollution. If Assad falls, the West needs to ensure secure transposition of these arms to a stable, sane central authority.
It is practically impossible and very unlikely that Western intelligence could detect an unambiguous order from Iranian leadership to build a nuclear bomb.