With the Syrian military fighting to maintain control of Damascus, the capital city, there is fear around the world that Syrian President Bashar Assad is growing increasingly desperate and may be on the verge of using chemical weapons against his own people in a last-ditch bid to stay in power.
In any civil insurrection, it’s always complicated for outsiders to know which way to lean. Provide too much help and support to the ruling party and have no influence within the rebel forces if they overthrow the ruler and take power themselves. Provide arms and aid to the rebels and be accused by the ruler of encouraging civil war if he manages to stay in power.
This is the position that faces the United States and Europe as they watch the situation unfolding in Syria. The U.S. has been vetting the rebel factions to see which ones are free of ties to Al-Qaeda and aren’t overly influenced by radical Islamist tendencies. At the same time, the U.S. and President Obama have remained in contact with Assad to warn him there will be dire consequences if he decides to use his stockpile of chemical weapons, which observers say is the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the Middle East.
Events in Egypt and Libya have demonstrated to the U.S. how crucial it is to closely vet the rebels during the continuing evolution of the Arab Spring. The U.S. helped in the overthrow of Gaddhafi in Libya—only to have the U.S. Embassy attacked by terrorists and U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens killed in Benghazi. In Egypt, after the U.S. helped the people take down Hosni Mubarak, now the new leader, Mohammed Morsi, appears on the verge of handing the keys to the nation over to the heavily Islamist-influenced Muslim Brotherhood, which is intent on adding elements of sharia law into the constitution.
Russia is the only real ally Syria and President Assad has left in the world, but even the Russians are trying to figure out if there is a rebel group that it will work with if Assad goes down.
Assad has cultivated loyalty amongst the military and the social elite for many years, so it is not certain that he is on the verge of defeat—particularly as long as he retains control of the jets and bombs in the military. But analysts are alarmed by recent developments, with the Syrian military increasingly resorting to crude and less effective weapons like Scuds to use against the rebels—meaning he may be running out of more conventional weapons. This makes it more likely he could resort to chemicals like mustard gas, which was used in World War I, and sarin, one of the most deadly chemical weapons, which can kill victims within minutes.
Already more than 44,000 Syrians have died in the conflict. Those numbers could quickly skyrocket if Assad resorts to chemical weapons on his own people. U.S. and allied officials say Assad’s forces in recent weeks have prepared several dozen bombs and shells loaded with sarin.
“We simply cannot allow the 21st century to be darkened by the worst weapons of the 20th century,” President Obama said in comments directed at Assad. “If you [Assad] make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
According to the BBC, the world community is already taking steps to prepare for a chemical weapons attack in Syria, such as making plans to quickly dispatch medical personnel to Syria and having the Czech Republic take the lead in training because it has expertise in chemical weapons. There is even talk of reaching out to the Syrian population to describe the symptoms of exposure to chemical weapons and NATO is considering dropping medications by air into Syria that could be used if their president decided to attack them with chemical weapons.