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Preventing Syrian Chemical Weapons Threat From Becoming Deadly Reality

December 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Though the White House and State Department made statements about the possibility of Syria deploying chemical weapons against rebels, much remains unknown about when, how and what combination of chemicals might be used by Assad's forces. Jeffrey Brown talks to Leonard Spector of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And with me now is Leonard Spector, a weapons and nonproliferation expert with the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

That can be hard to say.

(LAUGHTER)

LEONARD SPECTOR, Monterey Institute of International Studies: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome back.

The White House says it has increased concern that the government might be prepared to use these weapons. What does that mean? What are they seeing?

LEONARD SPECTOR: Well, I don’t think we know precisely what they’re seeing.

There have been rumors that they have observed some kind of preparation of the chemicals that would actually be used in these weapons. There are some preliminary steps that sometimes must be taken.

There may be other things going on. They may see the delivery of protective gear to certain locations. We don’t quite know, but I don’t think the president would have made this comment and then Secretary Clinton afterwards without there being some pretty serious indicators that we were getting close to possible use.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things we’re also hearing different reports about is the potential for mixing compounds. What would that mean?

LEONARD SPECTOR: Well, a lot of at least the sarin is thought to be in two parts, a binary weapon.

And it has to be mixed together prior to the time that the weapon is actually used. Sometimes, the mixing occurs in the weapon itself, and sometimes the mixing occurs beforehand and then the weapon is filled with the actual dangerous, lethal chemical agent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, if this is said to be one of the world’s largest stockpiles, how hard is it to stop, or how hard is it to deal with? Would we even know if he was ready to use it?

LEONARD SPECTOR: Well, that’s one of the big problems. You might not know precisely how close he was to using them. And it might be very hard to head this off at the moment of imminence, just before it was about to occur.

And, also, if you try to do it at that moment, you may actually cause the chemicals themselves to explode into the air because of your effort to stop the attack, which could have its own consequences, which would be pretty horrifying.

So we may be in a mode where to really take substantial military action, we may have to wait and see the actual use. There may be some kind of evidence that would be so compelling and so persuasive and so easy to explain to the world that this was just about to happen, that we have to send troops in, or something of that kind.

But it’s hard to imagine, especially with the legacy of the Iraq war, where we…

JEFFREY BROWN: We have a map that your organization created. So, I want to put that up so you can explain how spread out the sites are.

LEONARD SPECTOR: Correct.

So you have, I think, on that particular map a number of sites where there are major storage areas and a number of production sites. And then what one is hearing is that the weapons have also been dispersed perhaps to military bases, not necessarily recently, but historically.

So, you have a number of locations that would have to be secured if you were really trying to go in and control everything. You might not get it all. And you certainly don’t want to take the approach of destroying it from the air, because, again, you almost certainly will have off-site consequences.

The Gulf War Syndrome that everyone has heard about may have been the result of the destruction of chemical weapons in Iraq in the first Gulf War, which, you know, even though it was a cloud of very, very dilute chemicals that may have had this impact on American forces.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, that’s the problem with a potential bombing.

LEONARD SPECTOR: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Then there’s talk about a ground — and I saw — a ground effort — and I saw The New York Times recently quoted Pentagon officials saying it would require more than 75,000 troops.

Now, that’s because of how disperse this might be?

LEONARD SPECTOR: Well, it’s a little of dispersal, because you would have to go after many different sites, but also, depending on the circumstances, you might have to fight your way in.

The hope would be that, as some of these sites come within the territory controlled by the Free Syrian Army, they will invite in outsiders to assist them in securing the sites, that they will in negotiation with the custodians and so forth.

And this can be done peacefully, in which case the number of troops would be quite limited. But some of the worst-case contingencies do involve larger numbers.

JEFFREY BROWN: There were some reports that Hezbollah had set up training camps close to some of these sites. It sort of leads to the question of — and I don’t know how much we know about — how secure are the site? Who is protecting them at this point? Who is in charge?

LEONARD SPECTOR: Well, in charge are elite troops, as far as we can tell, still loyal to Assad, and more or less, we hope, sitting tight and doing their job of maintaining — managing the sites in a safe manner.

What could happen in the case of some of these troops deserting the sites with Hezbollah having training locations nearby, lots of contingencies can be imagined. So we have to in a way hope that at least these government troops are able to maintain their position and stay, in effect, loyal to their mission, perhaps even more so than to the government.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s what I assume when we just heard Hillary Clinton refer to the possibility that President Assad might lose control of the weapons, or who they would devolve to in a sense.

LEONARD SPECTOR: Well, that’s right.

I mean, certainly, some will devolve into the region controlled by the rebels. But the hope is that the individual rebel groups that are operating near these sites will be ones that we are working with or that the Jordanians are working with, and they will approach these sites carefully, and with the goal of maintaining security and ensuring that none of the material goes missing. But there are a lot of sites and there’s a lot of material.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when she says the fear, of course, is an increased — I think her words were increasingly desperate President Assad might turn to the weapons. That’s the real fear here.

LEONARD SPECTOR: Correct.

And, unfortunately, there are some scenarios you could imagine where the weapons could be very effective. The troops that are in the Free Syrian Army are unprotected.

And so if they were used, if the chemical weapon were used against them, the government troops would be able to probably overrun a position rather quickly. People would start to die and others would flee.

And you would anticipate this. You could have other cases where civilians might be implicated if there was an urban setting and a whole area of a city might evacuate for fear of what was coming. I think the counter to that is the threat against Assad and the regime and the threat of intervention.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Leonard Spector, thanks so much.

LEONARD SPECTOR: Thank you.