WASHINGTON, DC – Reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government may be preparing chemical weapons for deployment, presumably against its citizens or neighbors, have triggered alarm bells worldwide, and thrust Syria’s civil war into a new, more dangerous phase. But there is significant diplomatic potential in this development, which global leaders have barely begun to realize.
To be sure, reports that Syria’s air force could deploy the prepared munitions within two hours of receiving the order may amount to little more than a bluff designed to deter Western support for rebel groups. But the possibility that Assad’s increasingly desperate regime would deploy chemical weapons – as Saddam Hussein’s government did against Iranian troops and civilians, as well as Iraqi Kurds, during the Iran-Iraq War – cannot be discounted.
Last August, US President Barack Obama warned Syria’s government that any move toward chemical-weapon deployment would cross a “red line,” giving the conflict a broader strategic dimension and, in turn, increasing the likelihood that the United States would intervene. This public warning was reinforced with an intensive behind-the-scenes diplomatic effort to send Assad’s government a strong signal that chemical-weapon deployment could not be ignored by Arab countries or global powers, including China and Russia.
But the situation remains highly volatile. American policy toward Syria should now be guided by the specific objective of preventing the deployment of chemical weapons in and around Syria. The Obama administration should capitalize on recent international coordination, taking the lead in organizing an international coalition devoted to containing Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal. Coalition partners should include key NATO allies, such as the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and, most important, Turkey, as well as regional partners like Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and possibly Egypt.