The news that Washington and London finally believe Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against its own people is both an opportunity and a series of traps. Both the opportunity and the traps are huge, and President Obama needs to tread carefully to quickly exploit the first and avoid the second.
Credible observers of Syria like my colleague at the Brookings Doha Center, Salman Shaikh, have been reporting since December on the evidence that Assad’s forces have used small quantities of chemical weapons in the civil war that has been raging in Syria for more than two years. Like almost everything else in Syria, Assad’s arsenal of missiles and chemical weapons are a legacy of his father Hafez Assad. After the Syrian army and air force was defeated by Israel in Lebanon in 1982, Hafez ordered development of a chemical arsenal to provide a deterrent against the Israelis. Syrian scientists developed an effective chemical weapons program using the nerve agent sarin, a substance 500 times more toxic than cyanide. In 1988, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used sarin in his war against the Iranians and in attacks on Iraqi Kurds with devastating impact.
Syria mated the nerve agent with Scud missiles acquired from the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. When Israeli learned of the Syrian program, it considered military action to destroy it but concluded the program was too developed and too disbursed to be susceptible to air attacks without an unacceptable risk that Syria would respond by firing chemicals into Tel Aviv, potentially killing thousands. The Syrian arsenal remains disbursed in numerous facilities making it a complex military challenge.
By using chemical weapons Assad has crossed not only an American red line but an international consensus against the use of chemical weapons that goes back to the First World War. He has given Obama the opportunity to break the Russian and Chinese diplomatic support for Syria that has paralyzed the United Nations from imposing harsh sanctions on Syria as well as a total arms embargo on the Assad regime. Washington is right to demand an immediate UN-led inspection on the ground in Syria with a very short deadline.