Inching toward the precipice: Syria readies chem weapons

On the heels of my post yesterday on Syria's possible preparations for using chemical weapons on its own people comes word that US intelligence is convinced that Assad is readying a "go" order and that the agents have been mixed and placed into bombs.


U.S. officials told NBC News that as soon as Syrian President Bashar Assad gives the order, the country's military will use chemical weapons against its own people.  

Tuesday there seemed to be no firm evidence that the Syrians were mixing the "precursor" chemicals for the nerve gas sarin. The chemical weapon could be loaded into bombs that would be dropped from Syrian Air Force fighter-bombers. But on Wednesday, NBC News said, American officials came to believe the bombs had indeed been readied with the lethal agent. The sarin bombs were not yet loaded onto the fighter planes, however, and Assad has not issued the "go" order.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned President Assad once again that he would be crossing "a red line" if he used nerve gas against the country's rebels.  But "there's little the outside world can do to stop it," one official told NBC News. Secretary Clinton, in NATO headquarters in Brussels, said the Assad government was "increasingly desperate" and on the verge of collapse. The 21-month civil war has cost 40,000 lives already.

"We believe their fall is inevitable," Clinton said. "It is just a question of how many people have to die before that occurs."

Next week Clinton is expected to officially recognize the main opposition movement, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, aides told NBC News, and the secretary will meet with them in Morocco. Britain, France, Turkey, and some Arab leaders have already recognized the opposition.

U.S. officials had long believed that the Syrian government was stockpiling the banned chemical weapons before it acknowledged possessing them this summer. NBC News reported in July that U.S. intelligence agencies believed Syria had access to sarin, tabun, a chemical nerve agent, as well as traditional chemical weapons like mustard gas and hydrogen cyanide.

It is impossible to overstate how dangerous the use of chemical weapons by Syria would be. In addition to mass casualties, it is the series of unknowns - the unpredictable responses of various regional actors, as well as the reaction of the west - that makes Assad's decision potentially catastrophic not only for his own people, but for the region and the world.

A few frightening unknowns:

1. Israel has indicated that it would swoop into Syria and take control of Assad's WMD stockpile if it appeared they would fall into the wrong hands. The use of chemical weapons would mark the certain end of Assad and the resulting chaos could create conditions for an Israeli incursion.

What would be the reaction of Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab states to an Israeli thrust into Syria? What about Iran?

2. If Assad is crazy enough to use WMD on his own people, Turkey may figure he's crazy enough to launch against them. The urgency to supply Turkey with Patriot missiles has never been greater, even with the objections by Russia. An attack by Assad on Turkey would trigger an automatic NATO response, placing the western alliance in direct conflict with Putin and the Russians.

3. What form would intervention by the US and NATO take? If the goal would be to unseat Assad, ground troops would almost certainly be necessary. Would Syria's master Russia stand by and allow NATO troops in Syria?

4. The fall of Assad would cause chaos in Syria - chaos that terrorists and jihadist groups already in Syria would take advantage of. How would the west deal with the political ascendancy of extremists in Syria?

Again, it's not the known variables that make this situation so radically dangerous. It is the unfathomable moves and countermoves of others down the line that have the potential to start a regional conflict.

Assad is assembling the fuel for his own funeral pyre. If Gotterdamerung is his goal, he has the wherewithal to achieve it.