Will Syria use its Chemical Weapons?

The Syrian regime recently issued this statement that they
would not used chemical weapons:

Syria will not use any chemical or other
unconventional weapons against its civilians, and will only use them in case of
external aggression.

This is a regime of profound mendacity and viciousness, can they be believed?
The answer is a qualified yes. The official Syrian statement focuses on
external actors.
Outside powers have been cautious in their support for
Syria’s rebels.  There are many reasons
for this, political and operational.  The
heavy armor and air power remains a critical advantage for the Baathists.  A NATO air campaign could remove this
advantage fairly quickly.  The complaints
about Syria being a tougher target then Libya are probably more an issue of
logistics then of Syrian capabilities. 
Israel has demonstrated the ability to operate in Syrian air space at will.  It is tough to imagine that NATO could not do
the same.  However, the Libya operation
strained NATO’s capabilities substantially. 
Syria would require a far greater commitment (there are many, many more
targets) and there almost certainly would be accidents, which could result in
both civilian and NATO casualties.
Chemical weapons are a taboo and if the regime turns to
them, NATO’s dithering would come to a very quick end.  Understanding that, the Syrian regime loses
little by declaring it won’t use them domestically – since doing so would bring
international repercussions that would probably end its existence.  At the same time, the chemical weapons act as
a deterrent, sending the message that if foreign powers do get involved, Syria
will use them.  If the regime is going
down anyway, they could launch these weapons at Israel, Turkey, or some other
civilian target and potentially cause mass casualties.
The chemical weapons serve as a longer-term bargaining
chip.  If the Syrian regime is moving
towards an Alawistan, control of the chemical weapons (and the threat of loose
chemical weapons) could be useful in achieving some level of international
recognition – either dejure or defacto.
The problem with this sort of scenario is the extent to
which it limits the freedom of action of Americans and other opponents of the
Baathist regime.  If the regime is going
to fall eventually anyway, the US needs to engage the rebels to keep a hand in
the post-Assad era (which, knowing the Middle East has every opportunity to be
very ugly.)  But the rebels want substantial support, not more international resolutions.  Will that kind of support – if it is traced
back – be viewed by the Syrians as external interference and trigger chemical
weapons usage?  Maybe not, since the use
would just trigger the air-strikes the regime doesn’t want anyway.
Cyber Options?
If the West needs a careful, undetectable
tool to use against the Syrians – what about cyber-weapons?  Could cyber-strikes be used to interfere with
the Syrian regimes’ command and control? 
What if the orders for the planes to fly and the tanks to roll simply
aren’t transferred (or if the supplies needed to make these things happen are
not put in place)?
This is the kind of thing US planners have worried could
happen to the US in a conflict.  But
Syrian communications may in fact be technologically unsophisticated enough to
make such attacks unworkable.  Also,
Syria has been a victim of such strikes before and may have strengthened its defenses.
Even if the Syrian regime is an appropriate target for
cyber-weapons it is not cost free.  When
cyber-capabilities are used, they are no longer secret.  The attacks would probably not be detected in
the short-term, giving the attacker the plausible deniability needed.  But eventually, the information would emerge
and it would give potential adversaries (state and non-state) tremendous
intelligence about what the United States was capable of and ideas for how to
develop their own systems.
However, if these tools can be effectively applied to reduce
the bloodshed in Syria, it is an option that should be taken very, very
seriously.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on print
Share on email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Featured

Search

Browse

Archives
Categories