With concern over the Syrian regime's chemical weapons stockpile reaching a fever pitch this week, international experts are cautioning against alarmism, saying there's no confirmation that the Syrians are mixing weapons components or loading them into delivery systems, as some U.S. news organizations have reported.
Experts in the United States and Europe who monitor unconventional weapons said that President Bashar Assad's embattled regime certainly has moved parts of his nation's vast, acknowledged chemical arsenal. But that movement could be interpreted as reassuring rather than alarming, the experts said, if the intention is to keep the weapons from extremists in the anti-Assad movement who are at the forefront of recent rebel advances.
Syria has denied that it plans to deploy chemical weapons, likening such a move to "suicide" because of U.S.-led warnings that doing so would invite Western intervention in the nearly 2-year-old conflict.
"I'm skeptical about sarin being prepared or artillery shells being filled. I've just seen too much in the past with satellite photography making assumptions about chemical weapons, most infamously in Iraq," said Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association in Washington and an early skeptic of U.S. claims that Iraq had built up a chemical weapons arsenal prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003. At the time, Thielmann was acting director for the State Department office responsible for analyzing the Iraqi weapons threat. No such weapons were found once U.S. troops had vanquished Iraqi forces.
"Even if we could see them being filled, how do we know how they intend to use them?" Thielmann added. "There's no threat made by Assad of using them, and we've made our threats to a sufficient level that he could expect something pretty nasty if he did."
Unlike the debate over whether or not Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, there's no dispute that Syria has amassed a chemical arsenal. Assad admitted as long ago as January 2009 that his government had chemical weapons. Even before then, those who studied the issue had believed for years that Syria had a strategic capacity – including VX, mustard and sarin gases – which the regime billed as a counter to Israel's alleged nuclear arsenal.
Syria is known to have short- and mid-range missiles, bombs that can be dropped from jets and artillery shells, all of which could be used to deploy the gases. When asked about "growing concerns" surrounding Syria's chemical weapons, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, "Without commenting on the specific intelligence that we have with regards to these chemical weapons, I think there is no question that we remain very concerned, very concerned. That, as the opposition advances, in particular in Damascus, that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons."
But many who study the topic worry that the hysteria has gone well beyond what the facts warrant, and there are concerns that the intelligence hasn't really shown much change in recent months.
Jean Pascal Zanders, a senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies and one of the world's leading experts on chemical weapons, wrote in an email from Brussels that he has "concern that the Syrian chemical weapons threat is being ratcheted up to justify military intervention in a not too distant future."
He said that for the current news reports to make sense, Syria's chemical weapons capability would have to be as crude as, or cruder than, Iraq's in the 1990s, when, he said, the Iraqi mixing process consisted of "Jeeps with bomb trailers driving around the airfield to mix the two final precursors." He noted that Iraq did not mix its chemicals in advance. "The mixing was done literally minutes before the bombs were loaded onto the planes," he said – a sequence that obviously has not happened in Syria.
One top international chemical weapons official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he's involved in diplomacy on the issue, said he feared that news reports on the disposition of Syria's chemical weapons are based on a few pieces of reliable information that have been repeated again and again, amplifying the threat each time.
"The evidence that exists of chemical weapons in Syria is very widespread and very authoritative, but there is a circularity about how this information moves around in the media sphere," the official said.
So far, the official said, evidence suggests that the Syrian regime is storing sarin gas in "binary form," meaning the components are being kept separately and therefore safely. If credible evidence surfaces that shows the regime mixing the components, "that's an entirely different story," the official said, but quickly added that "it's very difficult to envision a reason they'd do this."
Gregory D. Koblentz, an expert on chemical terrorism for the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, noted that there are tactical reasons not to use chemical weapons in a civil war.
With battle lines fluid and supporters and enemies occupying almost the same space, deploying chemical weapons runs the risk of a disastrous backfire if, say, the wind shifts or an engine misfires. Tactically, when Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran, the weapons were used before an offensive, to weaken the resolve of Iranian fighters. And when Iraq used the weapons against the Kurds, they were dropped into northern regions where there was no Iraqi military presence.
Barring clearly defined battle lines, such as a national border, a military commander would have reservations about using chemical weapons.
"They have a limited utility," Koblentz said. "And they can mess up your own operations."
Experts agreed that the greatest threat regarding Syria's chemical weapons comes not from the Assad regime but from the Islamist radicals, including some with alleged links to al Qaida, who are at the forefront of the rebel fighting force. The experts are urging U.S. officials to work closely with the rebels to ensure the security of chemical weapons depots in contested areas, recommending that the rebels make clear that Syrian soldiers charged with guarding those facilities be allowed to remain on duty with assurances that they won't face retaliation and could be rewarded by a post-Assad government.
Leonard S. Spector, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, and Egle Murauskaite, a research associate at the center, put forth those and other suggestions in a grim report on Syria's chemical weapons for last month's issue of Arms Control Today. They added that, should the sites come under insurgent control, the rebels should be pressed to authorize inspections by international experts and should be reassured that the successful prevention of weapons falling into the wrong hands could be rewarded with foreign aid.
The two warned in the paper, however, that the international community should remain skeptical as the rebels sound alarms about the Assad regime's willingness to resort to chemical weapons.
"The political reasons behind recent rebel rhetoric on chemical weapons must be acknowledged," Spector and Murauskaite wrote. "Knowing that the international community regards the issue . . . as a potential trigger for intervention, the rebels may be inclined to place particular emphasis on that issue in their rhetoric in the hopes of keeping international attention focused on their plight."
Thielmann, the former State Department arms control official, said the Obama administration faces "a policy conundrum," because there are no appealing options for safeguarding Syria's weapons. Such weapons can't be destroyed in an airstrike without the likelihood of setting them off, the exact result the airstrike would be intended to avoid.
They also can't be seized in a ground operation without risking that Assad will actually use them. A Syrian Foreign Ministry official said recently that Syria's chemical weapons were reserved solely for an external threat, such as foreign troops entering the country, and would not be used against Syrians.
Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.