America and its allies must prepare to secure Syria's weapons of mass destruction

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The killings of Syria’s Defense Minister and other key officials last week by opposition forces threaten to shatter Bashir al-Assad’s regime.  Without a devastating response, his days are numbered.  Sergei Lavrov, Foreign Minister of Russia, Syria’s closest ally, warned darkly that “the battle for the capital, the decisive fight” for the country, was underway.

Final collapse of the Ba’ath Party dictatorship will have profound, if still unpredictable, consequences.  One absolutely critical issue is Assad’s weapons of mass destruction (“WMD”).  Even before the deadly bomb attack, the regime, for unknown reasons, had begun moving stockpiles of chemical weapons from secure storage locations.

The most immediate question is whether Damascus will use chemical weapons (“CW”) against the opposition, as Amnesty International reported his father did during the 1982 Hama massacre. If Bashar concludes his regime will collapse and expose his fellow Alawites and other supporters to a bloodbath, he may calculate that resorting to CW is his only hope.

But the future dangers raised by Syria’s chemical, biological and nuclear programs are perhaps more important.  The global threat to innocent civilians is tremendous, including not just actual weapons, but also critical precursor materials and manufacturing equipment.  We must not permit terrorists like Al Qaeda or Hezbollah in next-door Lebanon, rogue states or a radical Syrian successor regime to acquire these capabilities.  The time available is short, and the risks we face in attempting to secure or destroy Syria’s WMD are high.

Assad’s chemical weapons, which, as noted, are already in motion, are extensive and sophisticated.  America’s Director of National Intelligence (“DNI”) recently reported that “Syria has had a CW program for many years and has a stockpile of CW agents, which can be delivered by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets.” Moreover, we still do not know whether Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, before his 2003 overthrow, sent CW assets into Syria, as unconfirmed reports indicated.  If such Iraqi CW stocks exist in Syria, their current locations are unknown.

Syria’s possible biological weapons (“BW”) are also a grave danger.  The DNI has warned that “Syria’s biotechnical infrastructure is capable of supporting BW agent development,” and earlier intelligence reports concluded it “highly probable” Syria was developing offensive BW capabilities.  Obviously, more information is still classified, but Syria’s BW efforts undoubtedly pose a real danger if acquired by terrorists or other rogue states.  While actual weaponization may not yet have occurred, terrorists could benefit enormously from Syria’s research and development efforts.

Syria’s nuclear capabilities are less certain.  What is certain is that in September, 2007, Israel destroyed a reactor North Koreans were constructing near Al Kibar, part of an ongoing, covert Syrian nuclear program.  Subsequent to the Al Kibar reactor’s destruction, Syria allowed International Atomic Energy Agency (“IAEA”) inspectors only limited access to the site, and refused access to other locations the IAEA requested.

Given Syria’s limited economic resources, it is entirely possible that Iran financed the reactor, making it a three-way joint venture.  There has been considerable speculation that Iran and Syria were also engaged in other illicit nuclear weapons-related activities which they were obviously intent on concealing from the IAEA.  This would be yet another explanation why Iran has so assiduously tried to maintain the Assad regime in power.  Anything we learn about Syria’s nuclear activities could provide compelling evidence of Iran’s weapons intentions.  And, of course, keeping whatever nuclear-related materials exist out of the hands of a radical successor regime or terrorists should be obvious.

Given the extraordinarily uncertain, dangerous environment that will prevail inside Syria immediately after Assad’s downfall, any military operation to secure or destroy WMD facilities and assets would be enormously dangerous.  Nonetheless, the United States and its allies should be urgently preparing contingency plans to do just that.

Moreover, it should be made abundantly clear to Syria’s opposition forces that they must immediately secure or turn over all WMD-related facilities or materials in a satisfactory way.  Any inconsistent behavior (looting or concealing WMD materials, transferring them abroad, or otherwise impeding their inspection and destruction) should immediately disqualify the opposition from any American assistance.  Perhaps some monitoring work could be entrusted to the thus-far hapless United Nation observer mission if that would make it more palatable internationally.

There will undoubtedly be an imminent risk of humanitarian disaster if Assad falls, including a bloodbath against his supporters or massive flows of refugees and displaced persons.  But even faced with a humanitarian tragedy, we must not forget the compelling risk of far larger tragedy that could be visited on innocent civilians elsewhere if Syria’s WMD capabilities reach terrorists or radical regimes.