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News Analysis

New Signs Assad Preparing to Use Chemical Weapons

Wed, December 12, 2012

Ryan Mauro

The Syrian regime’s insertion of sarin gas into aerial bombs prompted the U.S. to warn Bashar Assad of “consequences” if he uses his huge chemical weapons arsenal. Now, Assad is setting the stage to blame any attack on the rebels, reportedly even printing pamphlets accusing “terrorists” of using the weapons. And he doesn’t have much time: A senior U.S. official says the weaponized sarin gas expires in 60 days.

On Saturday, the Assad regime warned that the “terrorists” had captured a toxic chlorine factory and may unleash a chemical attack, likely referring to the seizure of a facility near Safira by the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusrah Front. The statement came at the exact same time as a video was posted online allegedly showing “jihadists” testing chemical weapons on two rabbits, a video whose authenticity should be questioned.

There is no information available about these “jihadists,” a group who calls themselves the Almighty Wind Brigade. Not only are we supposed to believe that a new group sprung out of nowhere, we are also supposed to believe that the group managed to get its hands on the prized chemical weapons before anyone else. The ingredients supposedly came from a Turkish company, right in line with the regime’s argument that the terrorists are foreign proxies.

The “jihadists” state they will carry out a chemical genocide against the “infidel Allawite” minority, a declaration that encourages the Allawites to die fighting by Assad’s side. It also underscores the regime’s line that its preservation is necessary in order to stop Syria from descending into a sectarian free-for-all.

Again, consider the timing. This video is released just as Assad prepares his chemical weapons and just as his regime tells the West that the rebels are the real chemical threat. It’s all very convenient for the Assad regime and fits right into its propaganda.

A Syrian army defector, Captain Abdul-Salam Abdul-Razzaq, says that the regime has already printed the literature to assert that chemical weapons have been used by “terrorists.” He also says the weapons were tested in eastern Aleppo with the assistance of Iranians about six weeks ago. This is important information because there is the possibility that the movement of sarin gas into bombs is a bluff. (Assad has enough sarin gas to spare.)  But, if Captain Razzaq is correct, making those pamphlets doesn’t make sense as a bluff.

Russia Today, a media outlet financed by the Russian government, claimed in June that the rebels obtained chemical weapons from Libya and were going to stage an attack to pin on Assad. On August 29, a Syrian channel stated that it learned of a plot involving Saudi Arabia, the Al-Arabiya media outlet, the U.S. and Yemen that involved rebels using mortars to carry out a chemical attack. The “news” channel purported that NATO then planned to blame Assad and use it as a pretext to establish a buffer zone. The report claimed that a Saudi company had already upgraded ambulances for use in a chemical warfare environment.

A video has been posted that the rebels claim shows the regime’s use of a chemical weapon. They say that a toxic substance was released after a tank was dropped and sparked a fire that could not be put out with water or dirt. There have been assertions in the past that the regime was using chemical weapons in a limited way. Abdul-Razzaq says they were used in Baba Amr last year.

Another defector, Major-General Adnan Sillu, says that the regime’s forces have used pesticides and white phosphorus. He says he was the chief of staff for Assad’s chemical weapons program until September 2008 when he retired. He believes that Assad will use the weapons, possibly as Aleppo falls. He also warns that the weapons could be given to Hezbollah or Iraqi Shiite militiamen led by Moqtada al-Sadr. The Assad regime’s likely involvement in a bus bombing in Tel Aviv designed to torpedo peace talks indicates that the regime believes that conflict with Syria is beneficial to its prospects.

Sillu says that the main weapons in Assad’s arsenal are VX, sarin gas, mustard gas and tabun and that Assad has 600 chemical warheads. Abdul-Razzaq says that the weapons are overseen by personnel from Iran, North Korea and Russia.

On the contrary, a senior regime official who recently defected told CBS News that he does not believe Assad will use chemical weapons because of their limited effectiveness against the small and mobile rebel forces. Defense Secretary Panetta says that the intelligence of chemical warfare preparation has “really kind of leveled off,” and Assad has not taken any more steps towards their use.

The question is what to do now. Assad wants to remain in power but he’s already looking at Latin America as a place of refuge if he can’t. He likely believes that he can cut a deal if chemical and biological weapons fail to save his regime. He understands the West does not have the appetite for another war and the enormous bloodshed that will happen if the rebels assault his final Allawite strongholds.

The best way to stop Assad is to let him know that if he uses chemical weapons, any possibility of a deal will vanish. The West will make sure he cannot escape Syria, and that he will either die or be arrested by  floating the possibility of sharing intelligence of his location with the rebels or even declaring him a legitimate military target for any intervening force.

Of course, the success of this option rests entirely on the notion that Assad’s ultimate objective is to live happily ever after. If he’s like Qaddafi and would rather die than be deposed, then his use of chemical weapons is inevitable, unless someone destroys them before they are used.

The depressing reality is that, under every credible scenario, Syria becomes a dramatically worse place in the days ahead than it is even now unless a miracle happens, and Assad decides to leave. Even in that case, rebel forces are likely to enter Allawite areas and recycle the hideous headlines we saw from Iraq in 2006.

If the anonymous senior U.S. official is right, Assad has less than 60 days to use or lose those sarin-filled aerial bombs. The countdown has begun.

Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org's National Security Analyst and a fellow with the Clarion Fund. He is the founder of WorldThreats.com and is frequently interviewed on Fox News.