Why We Should Be Worried About Syria

21/12/2012 14:20 GMT | Updated 20/02/2013 10:12 GMT

Europe and America are trying to ignore the Syrian conflict. That is a dangerous complacency. Quite apart from the humanitarian issues at stake, there are huge risks that the country's chemical weapons arsenal falls into the wrong hands.

The civil war in Syria is a curious affair for the West. Although Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is the most brutal dictator in the region, outside support for the uprising has been muted. But there are other reasons to pay attention to Syria, and they are being strangely played down: the country is sitting on some of the largest chemical weapon stocks in the world.

Syria is thought to have up to 2,500 tonnes of sarin, mustard gas and other chemical weapons stocked in various depots across the country. Cornered and desperate, Assad could resort to them, although insists he insists he would never use them against opponents in Syria.

Horrible though that would be, the West should worry about even direr scenario. It is that the rebels succeed, Assad falls, and the chemical arsenal falls into the hands of extremists from Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda, whose affiliate groups are currently operating amongst the ragbag rebels fighting Assad, has said it would use WMD if it got hold of them. Meanwhile, Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Assad, has set up camps close to some of the depots.

Intelligence officials in the US and Israel are expressing increasing alarm at the idea that the stocks should be seized by groups with little regard for the consequences of a chemical attack. Yet they have limited options to prevent it happening.

Fears have been further stoked by reports from former Syrian maj. gen. Adnan Silou, a high profile defector from the Assad regime, who once led the army's chemical weapons training programme. Silou has said that the main storage sites for mustard gas and nerve agents are supposed to be guarded by thousands of Syrian troops but they would be easily overrun and then moved to Iran, to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, or to Iraq.

Last month, the Pentagon said any military effort to seize Syria's stockpiles of chemical weapons would require upward of 75,000 troops. The estimated size of the potential effort suggests the United States would struggle to raise the resources to act quickly. In any case, there is currently almost zero appetite in Washington or Europe for military intervention in another Middle Eastern country, especially one that could put up more of a fight than Libya under Gaddafi last year.

The end game is fast approaching for Assad. Earlier this month, Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bagdanov acknowledged that Assad might not survive as the opposition gains momentum. But as Assad's support base crumbles, uncertainty is growing about how it might play out.

There are signs that the West is taking precautions. The United Nations is sending chemical weapons kits to UN troops in the Golan Heights because of growing fears over Assad's intentions. US defense secretary Leon Panetta recently visited Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, about 100km miles from the Syrian border and authorized the deployment of 400 troops for two Patriot missile-defense batteries.

At the same time, the Pentagon has its own weapons specifically designed to thwart chemical threats by penetrating and destroying storage containers. However, these risk dispersing the agents though the blast and heat of an explosion, and may be ineffective if the chemicals are stored in bunkers deep underground.

Meanwhile, there are reports that the CIA is coordinating arms shipments to rebels from within Turkey in concert with allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Other reports say the CIA has been working with Jordan's special forces to seize and neutralize stockpiles.

Ilan Mizrahi, the former deputy chief of Mossad and former head of the Israeli National Security Council estimates that there are more than 2,000 Al Qaeda fighters already in Syria. "There have not been any other situations where terrorist organizations have been so close to chemical weapons. At the same time, we don't know the logic and calculus of the dying Assad regime," he says. Mizrahi says the US, Israel and Turkey cannot afford to allow the stockpiles to fall into terrorist hands. He says that despite their differences, Israel and Turkey would be inclined to cooperate on a joint action if the situation became too risky. "It could be special forces or a commando operation if necessary," he says.

Politically, the US, Britain, France and other allies have formerly recognized the umbrella Syrian Opposition Council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. This could lead to a trade off: the US and its allies provide vital weaponry finish the job of toppling Assad, in exchange for commitments to weed out Al Qaeda and other extremists from the militia, and an agreement to hand over control of the chemical stocks to international authorities. Officials say that the US and key European allies are already using defense contractors in Jordan and Turkey to train Syrian rebels on how to secure chemical weapons stockpiles.

But there are huge ifs in these plans, not least the scale of the task. Even if secured, destroying chemical stockpiles takes years. The US and Russia agreed in 1990s to eliminate their chemical weapons, but the task is far from complete.

It means that Assad's fall, while widely welcome in the West, will generate more than a few concerns in Washington and elsewhere. When it happens, there will be a scramble to secure the stockpiles, and some anxious moments until we know for sure that they are in the right hands.