Has Syria crossed the chemical weapon "red line"?

Reports of Assad's nerve gas bombs have U.S. officials "concerned," but why the focus on chemical warfare?


Natasha Lennard
December 7, 2012 12:55AM (UTC)

U.S. officials reported that Syria's government is preparing nerve gas bombs and would use chemical weapons against its own people. According to an NBC report, "The [Syrian] military has loaded the precursor chemicals for sarin, a deadly nerve gas, into aerial bombs that could be dropped onto the Syrian people from dozens of fighter-bombers, the officials said."

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta followed up the reports Thursday, noting "we are very concerned that as the opposition advances particularly on Damascus that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons."

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Chemical weapons have for the U.S. been an expressed "red line" in regards to Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated previously that should Assad deploy chemical weapons against his people, "suffice to say we are certainly planning to take action.”

But what sort of "action" is yet unspecified. Furthermore there are lingering questions as to why the U.S. has focused on chemical weapons in particular.

Syrian government officials have already denied U.S. reports about nerve gas bombs. "Syria stresses again, for the tenth, the hundredth time, that if we had such weapons, they would not be used against its people. We would not commit suicide," said the Assad regime's deputy foreign minister Faisal Maqdad. "We fear there is a conspiracy to provide a pretext for any subsequent interventions in Syria by these countries that are increasing pressure on Syria," he had.

NATO has moved forward with its plan to place Patriot missiles and troops along Syria’s border with Turkey to protect against potential attacks, but the AP suggested that the limited scope of the operation "reflects the low appetite in Western capitals for direct military intervention in the civil war."

A number of commentators have noted that the Obama administration have been problematically quiet on the reasons for the chemical "red line." An estimated 40,000 Syrian civilians have been killed in the conflict -- why should it matter is it be by rocket, bullet or deadly nerve gas? Foreign Policy's blog suggested that the "red line" could be less about civilian deaths and more about warning Assad to keep chemical and biological weapons out of the hands of Islamist militants:

Syria's robust chemical weapons program, with an estimated budget of $2 billion, has produced hundreds of tons of Sarin and VX -- the most toxic nerve agent ever synthesized. Hezbollah, a militant organization with a record of attacking civilians, is now fighting on the Assad regime's behalf in Syria and has established training camps near CBW sites. Foreign jihadist fighters, which are playing an increasingly important role in the Syrian opposition, could present an equally dire threat.

Foreign Policy notes, however, that intervention in the civil war on based on keeping chemical weapons out of Islamist terrorist hands "would risk resurrecting the deeply flawed Bush doctrine of preemptive self-defense."

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Political scientist Dominic Tierney wrote in the Atlantic that the chemical "red line" was rooted in the U.S.'s "strategic self-interest":

Powerful countries like the United States cultivate a taboo against using WMD partly because they have a vast advantage in conventional arms. We want to draw stark lines around acceptable and unacceptable kinds of warfare because the terrain that we carve out is strategically favorable. Washington can defeat most enemy states in a few days--unless the adversary uses WMD to level the playing field.

Meanwhile, despite concerns over nerve gas bombs, the latest reports have not prompted a significant push towards military intervention. Rather, more diplomatic strategizing is underway in Ireland, where Hillary Clinton joined Russia’s foreign minister and the U.N. peace envoy to Syria to hash out a strategy over the beleaguered country. The U.S. has criticized Russia for shielding Syria from censure in the U.N. earlier this year. However, with Assad's regime edging closer to collapse as rebels capture key positions in Damascus, it is likely that the Irish discussions are focusing on how to deal with Syria once the government is toppled, rather than military intervention against Assad.


Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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