Syria chemical weapons threat: how real?

The Obama administration is suddely making much of Assad's supposed preparations for a chemical weapons attack on Syria's opposition strongholds. Conspiranoid blogs, including one with the unappetizing name Sic Semper Tyrannis, assert that the supposed intelligence is coming from neocon groups like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) which is in turn getting the claims entirely from Syrian insurgent sources. However, the lead story on the WINEP website, "How Would Assad Use Chemical Weapons?," starts off: "US intelligence has detected increased activity at Syrian chemical warfare facilities, raising concerns about the regime potentially using chemical weapons (CW) against the opposition." Are the sources for that "US intelligence" WINEP istelf? Could things really be quite that incestuous? And—contrary to the conspiranoid assumption of a neocon-jihadist plot—the jihadists, like al-Nusra Front, seem to have made the neocons a little gun-shy in Syria. Insurgent sympathizers have been placing lugubrious propaganda videos on YouTube (via a stream called SyriaTube) luridly warning of an imminent chemcial attack. NBC News merely quotes anonymous US "officials" to the effect that "nerve agents" were loaded into warheads, without saying how this was determined. The agents are apparently "precursor chemicals for sarin," the gas that was used by Saddam at Halabja in 1988. Fox News merely cites the NBC account. The New York Times vaguely warns that stockpiles are being moved around to various of Syria's chemical weapons facilities, and that US officlals repeatedly warn Assad will be "held accountable" for their use…

NBC also noted:

Aides told NBC News that Clinton was expected next week to officially recognize the main opposition movement, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, with which she is scheduled to meet in Morocco. Britain, France, Turkey and some key Arab leaders have already recognized the opposition.

That seems to fit the going conspiracy theory that a "false flag" attack is in preparation to faciliate military intervention that would install the rebels in power. However, an LA Times account leads thusly:

BEIRUT — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton indicated Wednesday that Washington is as concerned about Syria’s chemical weapons falling into the hands of Syrian rebels as it is about the possibility that Syrian President Bashar Assad  may decide to deploy them.

"Our concerns are that an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons,  or might lose control of them to one of the many groups that are now operating within Syria," Clinton told reporters at the end of two days of NATO ministerial meetings in Brussels. "We have sent an unmistakable message that this would cross a red line and those responsible would be held to account."

So, contrary to the going conspiracy theory, Clinton's warning seems to be aimed as much at the rebels as at the regime. Indeed, we argue that the imperative for US intervention is less to topple Assad than to control the trajectory of the Syrian revolution. If the rebels ride US intervention to power, their leadership (at least) will be beholden to imperialism from day one—as in Libya.

The LA Times offers no greater clarity on where all this supposed intelligence on chemical weapons originated, saying only that the US and Israel are "closely monitoring known Syrian chemical weapons depots." We'll bet.

The Syrian war is meanwhile spilling into both Israel and Lebanon. Israel is mobilizing troops to the Golan Heights after a Syrian mortar landed near an IDF base there from across the line of control. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accused Syria of violating the 1974 ceasefire agreement. (JP, Algemeiner, Dec. 5; AP, Dec. 3) And at least five are dead in the Lebanese port city of Tripoli in armed clashes between pro- and anti-Assad factions. (FT, Dec. 5; AP, Dec. 3)


  1. Paleocon backlash behind Syria conspiranoia?
    Sic Semper Tyrannis (if you don’t get the reference, that’s what John Wilkes Booth shouted as he jumped to the stage of Ford’s Theater after shooting Lincoln; it was also Timothy McVeigh’s fave slogan) appears to be the blog of one Patrick Lang, who History Commons informs us was formerly “head of worldwide human intelligence gathering for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).” The DIA is exactly the agency that is supposed to monitor things like Syria’s WMD capability. History Commons also cites Middle East Policy (Chas Freeman‘s outfit) of June 2004 to the effect that one Albert Wohlstetter (a former RAND analyst), who is identified (overstatedly?) as the “neoconservative founding father,” attempted to “recruit” Lang, and was rebuffed.  He now appears to be on board with the paleocon backlash in a big way. This is further evidence of a deepening split in the national security establishment, as revealed by the Benghazi affair

  2. US training Syrian rebels to secure WMD?
    A website called Syria Deeply cites (typically) unnamed diplomatic sources to the effect that US military contractors are training Syrian rebel brigades in “chemical weapons security,” with the apparent aim of making sure the stockpiles don’t fall into jihadist hands when the regime collapses. The training is supposedly underway in Turkey and Jordan. The claims are loaned credibility by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who is quoted saying “They’re probably trying to provide near real-time surveillance at all these sites.”

  3. Assad using chem weapons already?
    That’s the claim on al-Arabiya today:

    On Saturday, Syrian [sic] told the United Nations that it would never use chemical weapons against its peoples and warned that opposition fighters are the ones who could use chemical weapons.

    But videos uploaded on the web by activists proved otherwise.

    The video showed the destruction caused by what they identified as chemical weapons. They said the fire was caused by a tank dropped from a Syrian warplane and was uncontainable by either water or dirt and was releasing toxic substance as it was bubbling underneath the ground.

    In another video, armed opposition captured equipment used as a protection against chemical weapons or gases. 

    Watch the videos and judge for yourself.