NATO’s Syria Red Line

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What began in March 2011 as peaceful protests against the Syrian regime has developed into a bloody civil war with an estimated 40,000 people killed. The launch of Scud missiles this week has escalated the conflict and has been seen by some analysts as a sign that President Bashar al-Assad is becoming increasingly desperate and willing to use increasing levels of indiscriminate brutality in order to hold onto power. 

An alternative analysis suggests that Assad is running out of conventional weapons and money, in part due to the closure of overland routes previously used for bringing weapons in from Iran through Iraq. If true, then there is an increased risk that chemical weapons will be used in substitute for access to other weapons. 

NATO is stepping up planning for this eventuality. A central concern to the transatlantic community is both the use of chemical weapons as an act in itself and the leakage of these weapons, should Assad fall, into the hands of rebel groups—in particular al-Qaeda-linked fighters. 

This is a pivotal moment at which the US and its allies need to make clear that the use of chemical weapons will lead to decisive military intervention. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama announced that a red line for the United States would be Assad’s movement, transfer, or use of Syria’s ample chemical weapons stockpile. A powerful statement needs to be backed up with limited troops on the border and the restriction of arms transportation into Syria. In combination these policy options could hasten the fall of the regime without actual military intervention—something even the most capable NATO countries are reluctant to engage in. 

The story so far 

In the past week, between three and eight Scuds were fired from the capital Damascus, according to Pentagon sources, toward rebel positions around the northern city of Aleppo, a distance of some 200 miles. As highlighted by the Washington Institute, “using a strategic asset like long-range missiles against a widely distributed insurgency, with no critical military targets to strike, represents desperation rather than sound military strategy. Given that the regime now seems to be using whatever weapons it has regardless of their effectiveness, the question becomes whether the Scud launches are a prelude to chemical strikes.” 

Analysts say Syria has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the Middle East, an arsenal that includes tons of chemical agents along with hundreds of bombs and missiles that can be loaded with chemicals. It is believed that a portion of these chemical weapons were moved during the summer in order to protect them from the main areas of fighting. 

In addition officials have said that Syrian bombs and shells loaded with chemical agents have been located at one or two air bases and were found to contain a mixture of two precursor chemicals creating sarin which holds a limited shelf life. “Once they have mixed them together, they’re in a circumstance where it’s kind of a use it or lose it,” Charles Duelfer, a former U.N. weapons inspector, told NPR’s All Things Considered. “That’s why that indicator is quite troubling.” 

Apprehension about the use of such weaponry by the international community has seen the United State and its allies stepping up preparations for addressing the chemical weapons threat. Although Syrian government officials have said that chemical weapons will not be used against the Syrian people, use against external aggression has not been ruled out. 

A regional propagation of conflict 

As worries grow that the Syria conflict could mushroom regionally, the Czech Republic has sent NATO chemical weapons specialists to Jordan and the US military, as reported by the New York Times, has sent a task force of more than 150 planners and other specialists to help the armed forces there handle a flood of Syrian refugees, prepare for the possibility that Syria will lose control of its chemical weapons and be positioned should the turmoil in Syria expand into a wider conflict. This follows on from the US organised training exercise ‘Eager Lion’ designed to portray realistic, modern-day security challenges this summer. NATO has also been ‘identifying medical personnel who could be quickly dispatched to Syria to assist any casualties’, officials said. 

The regional implications of the conflict are becoming increasingly visible through the mass movement of Syrians. Senior figures from the United Nations and the European Union are working to mitigate against a gathering refugee crisis in which more than 500,000 Syrians have fled for neighboring borders and between 1.2 million to 2 million Syrians are believed to be internally displaced. 

Hastening the fall of Assad 

As the tipping point in Syria gains clarity the international community needs to position itself and its policy formulation to mitigate against both the threat of chemical weapons usage inside Syria, and of those weapons leaking beyond Syria’s borders. 

The alliance already has reached out to the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, recognized by 130 countries, in order to put in place plans for chemical weapons disposal should Assad fall.  Patriot missile batteries have been dispatched to Turkey and experienced personnel have been brought into Jordan to support chemical weapons fallout. 

Sanctions were imposed in May 2011 by the European Union in response to the violent repression by Syrian government forces of peaceful protests. The sanctions included an embargo on the supply of arms, military equipment, and other equipment which might be used for internal repression. To address the flow of arms the sanctions were subsequently strengthened to try to prevent arms being transported from other countries through the EU to Syria. At the EU summit there was a push by the UK government to review the arms embargo in order to potentially support the flow of equipment to rebels. This was resisted by Germany. The international community should hold off on reviewing the sanctions. The restriction of arms, and growing reports on the limited amount of weaponry held by Assad, indicate that further restricting cross border movement of arms and equipment will hasten Assad’s fall without boots on the ground. 

Alongside continued arms restrictions there needs to be an unequivocal statement by the international community that the use of chemical weapons will lead to decisive military intervention. Obama’s red line has been critiqued for initially stating the red line was the movement of weapons, something that is believed to have already happened, and the subsequent removal of the wording ‘movement’ from public pronouncements. As reported by the New York Times “The new warning is that if Mr. Assad makes use of those weapons, presumably against his own people or his neighbours, he will face unspecified consequences.” Any revision of the red line statement needs to be clearly communicated to the Assad regime and tied to clear military implications should they be crossed. 

Despite the war in Syria becoming increasingly violent and Turkey (a NATO country) suffering a spill over of the conflict into its territory, there continues to be limited support for war by NATO members. Domestic elections, declining military budgets, and the prolonged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are all factors that have weakened support.

Israel has been more forthcoming with officials announcing that, should chemical weapons fall into the hands of Hezbollah or other anti-Israel groups, they will intervene. Such an attack could legitimize Assad and his claims that the insurgency is led by foreign operatives serving Israel’s interests. This would be dangerous. Syrian officials have not ruled out the use of chemical weapons against external aggression which is what Israeli intervention would be immediately classified as by Assad.

Whilst stating that overstepping red lines will lead to decisive military intervention brings concerns of an escalation into a policy to overthrow Assad, the intensification of sectarian violence, potential involvement by Israel, and movement of chemical weapons mean that NATO should re-think intervention and consider the use of air power and small troop numbers to support anti-government elements. A limited number of troops on the border of Jordan or Turkey would help to substantiate policy dialogue and reassurances by the international community that the use of chemical weapons will be not tolerated.

As Assad runs out of options the alliance needs to make sure it has all the right ones in place— and quickly.

Joanna Buckley is a member of the Young Atlanticist Network.