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Monday, December 10, 2012

Calling wolf (again)

Last week we woke up to the unsettling news of Al Assad cooking sarin-filled ammunitions. It is not that we didn’t know that Syria has chemical weapons. We knew it. But some intelligence reports suggest now that the regime of Assad may be loading them on the delivery recipients.

Immediately, the US stated that using chemical weapons would be a “red line” that if crossed would carry “consequences”. It is easy to imagine those consequences in the form of a Libya-style intervention.

If the reports are true it would show significant weakness for the Assad regime. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. The rebels are closing the gap with Damascus' airport and fighting for its control, with flights having to be cancelled for hours at some points in the past few weeks. For now, the airport is open but the road to the city is a battlezone.

The recent blackout of the Internet seemed also like a desperate measure by the Syrian government to cut the leaking of videos and information from within Syria. Mixing the sarin and loading them onto the delivery recipients would be the prelude of another desperate measure. Because if done, it all becomes way more complicated.

Photo: TRDefence
While separate on their active ingredients, it is somewhat stable and relatively easy to store. But once mixed, and considering the decades-old technology employed by Syria, it must be used immediately or there would be risks of leaks and deterioration.

It is also more difficult to store, due to the sarin being extremely corrosive. Add to that the degradation of the quality of the gas. In fact, to avoid all these problems, Iraqi soldiers -who used the same tech when attacking the Kurds in the 80’s- mixed the gas on the spot just before firing the ammunitions or loading them onto the bombs.

However, some people see on these reports more of a remake of the Iraq invasion than a real threat. Calling wolf on weapons of mass destruction to fuel their own interest -whatever they could be. And it is not only the Russians, who have a clear conflict of interest with Syria, but also activists among the rebel ranks.

Those rebels, or at least some of them, are what several analysts have said we should be worried about. They are talking of a proper nightmare scenario. If the Assad government fails, all those chemical weapons that do really exist could end up in the hands of the rebel groups, some of them linked to al-Qaeda. And those rebels have already stated that they want those weapons, while their methods aren’t always that different from what they say to be fighting.

This isn’t a new problem. The US came up with a solution to a similar problem in Pakistan, setting a back-up plan in case the government failed to secure the nuclear stockpile of the country. However, Syria is not Pakistan. There are no dollars to put into Assad’s account to shield the sites storing the weapons -for now, Assad just keeps moving them around- and it is unlikely Russia would see with good eyes an intervention on Syrian soil by American soldiers -that was the plan B in Pakistan. 

Instead, the Americans are hoping to train Syrian rebels to secure and handle those weapons. But that plan can only work if those rebels arrive before al-Qaeda linked groups to the sites and if Assad’s government cooperates to some degree. Two very big if’s in a very volatile environment.

Either that or call the Israelis in.

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Are you afraid? Well, this works in that way. First you do what scares you and it's later when you get the courage
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