For obvious historical reasons the world views a nuclear threat with a much higher level of gravitas than that of a chemical or biological threat. Even though gas was used in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980’s and in various incidents in the Gulf War, it has really not been used extensively as a weapon since World War I after which it was outlawed. Now, the Middle East and the entire world face a genuine possibility that Syrian troops or rebels or renegades could get their hands on the Assad Government’s stockpile of CBW which could threaten the entire region. Should radical terrorists groups or other hostile elements gain possession of merely some of the material, they could hold hostages and create all types of mischief to say nothing of immediately setting off a major global incident.
Based on a news story from Reuters that appeared in Haaretz, the U.S., Israel, and the West appear to have gamed the possible dispersal of the CBW in Syria. They understand that they might be required to place in excess of 50,000 ground troops to gain control of the materials; this under the best of circumstances. If the materiel can be controlled before it is dispersed the worst case scenario can be avoided, but there are hardly any guarantees in Syria given the number of players fighting for control there.
On the other hand, an op-ed column in today’s The Times of Israel written by two scholars from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who had just returned from meetings in the region with refugees and Syrians outside the country, argues that European intercession could hold the key to toppling Assad. Their discussion is naïve. Arguing along strictly ideological lines, these writers suggest that a successful result can be achieved that could bring Syria headed into a democratic direction. They appear to discount the Muslim Brotherhood’s potential power as well as Hezbollah in a future Syria. They also never even address the consequences of failing to control the CBW dilemma.
It seems that this analysis misses not only the rapidly growing Islamic fundamentalist power inside the country as well as the enormous danger of loose CBW’s. Syrian rebels and those working to overthrow Assad need the confidence from within the Arab world that if they can overthrow the regime, Arab leaders—Sunni and Shiite–will let them stabilize the country. They want to be protected on the one hand and not interfered with on the other. They also need to believe that there is economic assistance forthcoming from the U.S. and the EU as well as assurances that Turkey will not develop an aggressive posture towards Syria. This is almost as tall an order as managing the CBW.