Threat of chemical weapons use in Syria has not decreased

A U.S. national security expert from the Council on Foreign Relations recently argued that, despite some media reports to the contrary, it is wrong to assume the danger of chemical weapons use in Syria is waning.

Paul B. Stares, a senior fellow for conflict prevention at the CFR and director of its Center for Preventative Action, recently said there are good reasons to believe the threat from chemical weapons could grow in the coming weeks and months.

Stares said that it appears that warnings from the United States and other countries threatening Damascus with dire consequences if it uses its chemical weapons have had their intended effect, although he added it is just as plausible that the regime only fabricated its preparations as a warning to deter outside intervention in the country's 21-month civil war.

The expert outlined several possible scenarios that would prompt the Syrian regime to use its stockpile of principally nerve and blister agents.

"For example, should rebel forces progressively gain the upper hand--as they seem to be doing--the regime or elements of the regime might retreat to predominantly Alawite areas of Syria to create a rump state," Stares said. "Chemical weapons could eventually be employed to deter further encroachment or defend these areas when they are assaulted. And if defeat looked inevitable, their use as a final act of defiance cannot be discounted."

Stares said that as the Syrian regime collapses, military units with control over chemical weapons may increasingly have to make decisions independent of the normal command and control structure.

"For those in the field, any ambiguity about who is in charge and in the chain of command heightens the prospect of unauthorized use," Stares said.

Ultimately, Stares said, preventing these additional threats will be harder challenge than issuing repeated warnings to Damascus and a broader, more selective strategy is required.