Syrian civil war at tipping point

West fears ‘desperate’ Assad will resort to chemical weapons.

Boy holds bread as others line up outside bakery in Aleppo 3 (photo credit: reuters)
Boy holds bread as others line up outside bakery in Aleppo 3
(photo credit: reuters)
The stalemate appears to have finally broken in the 20- month fight between Assad loyalists and rebels forces in Syria, as an influx of weapons and foreign jihadists has invigorated the Free Syrian Army’s bloody campaign to topple President Bashar Assad. The minority Alawite dictator has lost control over much of the countryside and is now hunkering down in a besieged Damascus, with even his Russian backers admitting the endgame is near. Yet fears have grown that an “increasingly desperate” Assad could resort to using his large stockpile of chemical or biological agents in a last-ditch effort to stay in power, or that the deadly arsenal could fall into the hands of radical Islamic militias.
Coming off his successful reelection bid in November, US President Barack Obama immediately gave more urgency to the festering Syrian civil war. Analysts speculated why, but perhaps the grim round figure of 40,000 dead had something to do with it.
Then sketchy reports in early December cited American intelligence sources as claiming that special Syrian army units had been detected “mixing precursors” for chemical artillery shells. In response, Obama sternly warned Assad that using such weapons would cross a red line.
“The world is watching,” Obama insisted. “If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
Other NATO allies instantly joined the dramatic shift into higher gear, with Britain announcing it would deal directly with rebel military leaders in order to “shape the opposition” into a coherent fighting force. Meanwhile, Turkey urgently sought deployment of Patriot missile batteries – a sensitive move staunchly opposed by Moscow, Tehran and even once by Ankara itself.
Syrian officials denied the intelligence reports, assuring it would never target its own people with chemical weapons and accusing the West of whipping up fears as a “pretext for intervention.”
Yet even Russian leaders admitted the Syrian regime was close to collapse and fretted over what a trapped Assad might do. One Russian commentator said the Kremlin has concluded Assad is resigned to dying inside his country, knowing if he tries to flee abroad his own Alawite sect will kill him for abandoning them to slaughter by the Sunni majority.
Indeed, Assad may now be thinking less about political survival and more about physical survival. One Israeli analyst surmised that the detected movement around his main chemical weapons depots was more a signal it marks his last line of defense against any mass retaliation against his Alawite clan.
But Syria’s extensive chemical and biological arsenals – estimated to be the third largest in the world – pose a serious threat, and Western nations – especially Israel – appear unwilling to take any chances with them.
“These weapons are so outlawed, they’re so disfavored, they’re so abhorred by the international community that they resonate in a different way than explosives,” said Leonard Spector of the Monterey Institute for International Studies. “I think [Obama] needed more justification to step forward, and I think the chemical weapons would do it.”
Damascus began developing its ambitious CBW programs in the 1970s under the ruse of providing the Arab states with a deterrent against Israel’s assumed nuclear arsenal. The Syrian armory includes deadly sarin and VX nerve gases first concocted by the Nazis, as well as lethal poisons and nasty blistering agents.
The possibility that the regime may use chemical weapons might be remote, but the question of who will take possession of them if and when the regime loses control cannot be left to chance. Even the most optimistic assessments are that at least some chemical weapons and delivery platforms will fall into the hands of Hezbollah or other Islamic extremists.
Thus, the Pentagon has spoken openly of the need to deploy as many as 75,000 ground troops to secure the regime’s known chemical and biological stockpiles and thousands more disposal experts to secure them.
NATO also plans to dispatch teams of experts to train troops in Jordan and other regional allies in methods of chemical weapons disposal.
Meantime, Israel has warned that it, too, could get militarily involved if Islamists get close to the chemical stores. Dr. Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, recently told Fox News that if Syria were to transfer chemical weapons to Hezbollah or other militant groups, it would be a “game changer.”
“We have a clear red line about those weapons passing into the wrong hands,” Oren cautioned. “Can you imagine if Hezbollah, with its 70,000 rockets, could get its hands on chemical weapons? That could kill thousands of people.”
When the Syrian civil war first erupted nearly two years ago, Israeli leaders preferred the “devil-we-know” Assad, assessing that although he had often used proxies in Lebanon and elsewhere to strike out at Israel he was too cowardly to risk a direct confrontation. Over recent months, however, the thinking in Jerusalem had begun to shift as the prospects of Iran losing its top regional ally outweighed the uncertainty of what might emerge from the Syrian bloodbath.
Yet concerns are now mounting over the chemical stockpiles landing in the hands of Hezbollah, as well as the rising number of cross-border incidents on the Golan.
Rebel forces are now in control of the Syrian side of the Golan, and jihadist elements have already used mortar and gunfire to try to ignite tensions along that border, which has been Israel’s quietest front since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. A senior Israeli intelligence officer recently warned it will soon be “the hottest border in Israel,” even more dangerous than those shared with Egypt and Gaza.
The main problem is not local rebels but some 3,000-4,000 foreign fighters who have come from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere.
“We are talking about very dangerous people with experience fighting the US Army,” said the IDF officer.
Indeed, rebel forces have managed to wrest control of most of Syria’s borders, with help from Sunni allies in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. This has allowed them to bring in more weapons and foreign militiamen, while also isolating the pro-Assad elements and preventing them from being resupplied.
“With the Free Syrian Army controlling most of the border, we have an opportunity to overwhelm the godless regime of Bashar Assad,” a senior jihadi told The Jordan Times last month. “With open borders, true believers from across the world will be coming to defend their Muslim brothers and sisters.”
Once the Islamist groups help finish off Assad and the Alawites, some are already set on turning their weapons on Israel. Others have been busy infiltrating and destabilizing Lebanon and Jordan. Chances are the jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood will also face off against the secular rebels for control of different parts of Syria.
So, whichever way the current civil war ends, Syria’s central role in the Iranian axis is drawing to a close, but the bloodletting is far from over.