Sunday, April 28, 2013

When Chemical weapons and terrorist groups are better excuses

Syria's Chemical Weapons are a true "game changer" for international terrorism

The last few weeks have been generous in events and catastrophes, from the Boston bombings to the Iraqi bloodshed, from the attack in Libya against the French embassy to the Somali terror wave and the Iranian devastating earthquake, yet the landmark that has been highly overlooked and is of critical importance is the suspected use of chemical weapons in Syria.

The French, British and Israeli intelligence community were affirmative in proclaiming that Assad’s regime indeed had recourse to chemical weapons against the rebels, and the allegations were soon to be followed by several pictures of Syrian casualties presenting symptoms of chemical poisoning which the White House deemed possible yet not supported by clear and irrevocable evidences.

Deemed a “red line” not to be crossed and a “game changer” by Obama, the systematic use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime seems to be a victorious challenge to the current administration who cannot but push away the red line further, hoping that Assad would deign cross it and save the US another humiliating and embarrassing stance.


As much as it seem that a potential intervention is unlikely giving the cautious rhetoric of Washington, the events on the ground suggest a wholly different approach. The US has witnessed the last week a convening of various Arab leaders who, by coincidence or design, have been scheduled in the oval office for private talks with the president at around the same time period. From the Emirati crown prince of Abu Dhabi to the leaders of Qatar and Jordan, the choice Obama made is highly strategic since these countries are the main regional players in the Syrian conflict, described by Fox News as “believed to be arming or training the rebel forces that are seeking to overthrow the Syrian government”[1] in a recent article tackling the meetings Obama held with the aforementioned leaders.
The timing of the meetings and the announcement of the usage of Chemical weapons by the Syrian government suggest a covert preparation for an imminent action in Syria. If the evidence about a determinate US plan to intervene military against Assad are blurry, the arguments for such action are not lacking with regards to US interests and national security imperatives.

The chemical weapons stockpiled in Syria are significant in numbers, to the extent that it is believed and assessed by various intelligence communities that “The Syrians have one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals in the world.”[2] Chemical weapons are the main source of alarm for the international community when it comes to the Syrian conflict, first because of the prevalent presence of Al Qaeda affiliates in the battle ground and their noted superiority in combat and organization, and second because of the ease of use and deployment of chemical weapons in terrorist incidents as in the 1995 subway Tokyo attacks.[3]

The Al Nusra rebel front, one of the most powerful factions battling Assad’s regime and by far its most radical, didn’t hide its allegiance to Al Qaeda as not only a small part of the network, but as significant enough to rush the Al Qaeda in Iraq into a merger with the Islamist jihadist cell. The merger was announced by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, head of the Islamic state in Iraq, who proclaimed: "We announce the abolition of the Islamic state of Iraq's name and Jabhat Al-Nusra's name and their amalgamation in one state under one name: The Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant."[4]

The news stirred a wide controversy regarding the armament of Syrian rebels, an armament pursued with eagerness by Qatar and Co who cannot wait to see Assad regime falling apart. Yet the issue of channeling the weapons to the right people is of little concern compared to the chemical weapons acquisition. The weapons delivered to the Syrian rebellion are of tactical use and have a low range of destruction, aimed primarily at inducing small-scale, targeted damage, while the chemical stockpile of the Syrian government contains primarily Sarin, a nerve gas agent that can spread over large areas and induce quick death through inhalation.[5] (The Tokyo subway attack stands witness to the deadly effect of Sarin that claimed the lives of 13 Japanese in 1995).

The ambitions of Al Nusra front, and of Al Qaeda de facto, to control and lay hand on chemical nerve agents is no news, yet how close the group is to attain such goal is alarming, and indeed helps explain the sense of urgency the intervention in Syria is prompting in the corridors of the White House.

In a recent article in the Telegraph, Colin Freeman writes:

The fight for al-Safira is no ordinary turf war, however, and the prize can be found behind the perimeter walls of the heavily-guarded military base on the edge of town. Inside what looks like a drab industrial estate is one of Syria's main facilities for producing chemical weapons - and among its products is sarin, the lethal nerve gas that the regime is now feared to be deploying in its bid to cling to power.[6]

The prospects of the Chemical weapons falling in the hands of extremist groups are recognized to be not only a domestic threat, but also a severe security breach for all regional actors including Israel and the Arab nations. Most probably the chemical weapons would be directed towards the spots where Al Qaeda is mostly present and where the odds for success are in the group’s favor. Iraq, with its weekly ever rising toll of deaths and attacks, would be the first country outside of Syria where the Sarin nerve agent would be deployed given the ability of the Al Qaeda operatives to smuggle the stockpiles into the wrecked country. Securing the chemical weapons is the priority of al Nusra front, and Syria as it stands now is not a safe haven to safeguard the precious prize. The need to move the chemical weapons to Iraq, if ever recovered by extremist cells, is apparent since the deployment of Sarin gas doesn’t need to be in large proportions. The rationing of the Chemical weapons into mobile portable loads carried by individuals for targeted locations is the modus operandi Al Qaeda would adopt given the restricted access it might have to the substance, and from then on the branching out of the chemical agent would take effect until tracking the initial containers becomes a futile intelligence efforts. The network of dormant cells Al Qaeda manages throughout the MENA region and beyond makes from the acquisition of nerve agent a true “game changer” in international terrorism.

Although many would recall the scandal of the “inexistent” Iraqi WMDs to refute the Chemical weapons excuse to intervene in Syria, the difference today is that we are faced with a situation where WMDs existence is not debated but held as a fact. The Syrian Chemical weapon stockpiles and the omnipresence of Al Qaeda affiliates in the battlefield is not debatable, and the recent battles ranging near military bases harboring nerve agents production and stockpiling facilities hint clearly to the possibility that a catastrophe situation might rise at any moment, a catastrophe where later containment is not an option.

Many have started calling for a more strategic approach towards supporting the Syrian rebellion, and it is now more than ever critical to adopt such a strategy if we are to avoid the unpleasant occurrence of a nerve agent attack in an Iraqi mall or a Lebanese public square.

Judging from the available mappings of Syrian chemical facilities, most installations trail along the western border with Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. This geographical occurrence is of high strategic importance: The necessity to control these facilities is easier since most rebel secured areas lay on the western part of the country, and a potential intervention from regional or international corps launched from Lebanon and the Mediterranean shores will allow a quick takeover of the chemical plants to secure and systematically destroy the nerve agents. The establishments of no-fly zone partly over Syria, and specifically over the Western border will enable a constant monitoring of the facilities and an instantaneous response if hostile groups are seen entering the bases.

Moreover, the differing strength of Al Nusra group and the more liberal rebellious factions suggests that the commanders in chief of the free Syrian Army should redirect their efforts and progressions towards the Western border to help secure the stockpiles of chemical weapons, leaving the battle for Damascus and the most costly fights for Al Nusra faction in order to undermine the capabilities of the group and let it bear most casualties and damages in an effort to overtake it financially and logistically in the post-Assad Syria. The redeployment of the free Syrian army fully in the Western part of the country, leaving the Deir Ezor and eastern Aleppo area for the Al Nusra Group will help mildly separate the two rebellious groups and facilitate the directed armament and logistical provision to the Free Syrian army instead of blindly empowering both factions.

The Libyan downfall and the following dispersion of vast amounts of artillery in the region have had a direct effect on facilitating the Malian crisis emergence and AQMI rearmament. Today we are faced with an even more devastating type of weaponry in an area known for its high volatility. The consequences of Chemical weapons falling in the wrong hands will inevitably set new standards for terrorist activities, and will have far reaching impacts regionally and internationally. This is a “game changer” whose significance the US administration and the Arab governments understand very well, therefore the necessity for intervention has turned from a debate into a consensual agreement whose first signals were the series of meetings with Middle Eastern leaders in Washington, and whose ultimate ending will be a dramatic military action in Syria; the road to the final action is and remains convincing an ever skeptical public opinion, a conviction that seems all too well settling down after a tragic set of events that shook the public consciousness and laid a state of fear we have so many times encountered before major military implications in foreign countries.

Mohamed Amine Belarbi