Syria and Chemical Weapons: What Can the U.S. Do Now?

Syria has the Arab world’s most lethal arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, hundreds of chemical warheads, dozens of Scud missiles and bombs which can deliver them anywhere in the Levant. Stopping them from falling into terrorist hands should be our top intelligence priority.

Syrian scientists developed an effective chemical weapons program using primarily the nerve agent sarin, a substance 500 times more toxic than cyanide, in the 1980s. Syria mated the nerve agent with Scud missiles and with bombs and artillery shells. When Israel learned of the Syrian program it considered military action to destroy it but concluded the program was too disbursed to be susceptible to air attacks without an unacceptable risk that Syria would respond by firing chemicals into Tel Aviv. Securing all of the arsenal today would require a very large military intervention.

As Syria collapses further into chaos over the next few months the most immediate danger is that al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, the al-Nusra front, will take control of a military facility with a cache of chemical weapons. They could use them against Assad’s forces, or more likely spirit them into a third country to attack an American target. Jordan foiled an al-Qaeda plot to attack our Embassy in Amman this fall with mortar fire. How well al-Qaeda could maintain and use chemicals is unknown. Chemical weapons in amateur hands can be very dangerous both to the amateur and his enemy. We don’t want to take the chance.

The key to stopping al-Qaeda or Hezbollah gaining control of a cache is good real time actionable intelligence. The CIA and Mossad have had almost two years to ramp up intelligence collection on Syria but it’s a formidable challenge. U.S. and Jordanian commandoes need to be ready to secure any loose bombs.