Syria’s nerve agents

July 18, 2012

THE BOMB BLAST in Damascus on Wednesday blew a hole in the regime of Bashar al-Assad and could lead to the government’s loss of control over territory. That, in turn, could leave his chemical weapons vulnerable.

Syria holds one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the Middle East, composed of blister and nerve agents, including sarin, for which it has manufacturing facilities. It is believed to have sought out the deadliest nerve agent ever created, VX. The chemicals have been weaponized in aerial bombs, missile warheads and artillery shells. Details about storage locations are sketchy, and there have been reports of recent transfers, but it was believed the weapons were distributed among 45 sites around the country. Intelligence agencies say that Syria has prepared chemical weapons for use with its Scud and SS-21 missiles.

Even if Mr. Assad is not inclined to use chemical weapons in this civil war, there is a danger that they will be up for grabs as the regime’s power crumbles. One drop of sarin can kill an adult. Thirteen people died and hundreds were injured when the nerve agent was released on Tokyo subway cars in 1995 by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. One can only imagine the terror and uncertainty that would follow the disappearance of sarin shells or warheads from Syria.

Syria never signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, and it must be assumed that international inspectors would not be welcomed by the Assad government. But if Syria begins to crack up, international intervention may be required on an emergency basis. If carried out while the street fighting rages, such intervention would be dangerous. The planning should be underway. Russia, after so many months of supporting Mr. Assad, ought to see that controlling these weapons is in its interest, too, and join in the planning.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, located in The Hague, which oversees the treaty and carries out chemical weapons destruction, has no legal mandate for work in Syria, but it does have valuable expertise for inspection and monitoring, and it could get involved if asked by the United Nations. However, an armed force may also be required to secure the weapons, and that will demand careful coordination with the opposition.

Israel understandably sees the chemical weapons and missiles in Syria as a serious threat. But any Israeli intervention could inflame an already deteriorating situation. One reason for the United States and others to begin planning now for what to do with Syria’s chemical weapons is to keep Israel from acting unilaterally. But the larger reason is to head off a nightmare scenario, when an artillery shell filled with sarin goes missing in the middle of a civil war.

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