If in its final hours Syria’s crumbling government unleashes a chemical barrage — and some analysts certainly think that’s possible — the regime will probably rely on an arsenal of gas- or nerve agent-tipped ballistic missiles purchased from Iran and North Korea.
But precisely how many and what mix of missiles President Bashar Al Assad controls, and therefore how deadly a chemical strike might be, both remain unclear. Equally unclear is how far the world should go to defend against such a strike.
Chances are, Syria possesses at least three types of ballistic missile that can be fitted with chemical warheads, according to Dr. Jeffrey Lewis from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California. These include Scuds and SS-21s acquired from North Korea and, less clearly, Fateh 110s transferred from Iran.
The Fateh 110s and SS-21s, both around 20 feet long, can reach just 50 and 120 miles, respectively. The Scuds, at 35 feet long, have a longer range: up to 400 miles. All the missiles are mobile — that is, they’re carried and launched by wheeled or tracked vehicles. The Scud’s so-called Transporter Erector Launcher is a heavy-duty offroad truck the size of a tractor trailer.
At a press conference on August 20th, Chuck Todd asked President Obama to address the issue of Syria and chemical weapons. The MSNBC correspondent wanted to know if the commander in chief planned to use the US military to secure WMD in the war-torn country, and if he was “confident that the chemical weapons are safe.”
The president gave standard replies about President Bashar al-Assad’s loss of legitimacy, the ensuing humanitarian crisis, and “consultation” with Syria’s opposition groups. He then returned to WMD:
I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation. But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.
We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is: we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.
“So you’re confident … it’s safe?” Todd followed up. “In a situation this volatile, I wouldn’t say that I am absolutely confident,” the president replied, concluding the press conference. “What I’m saying is we’re monitoring that situation very carefully.”
Three weeks later, the situation is no less volatile, and growing instability presents the most arresting opportunity to date for terrorists and other troublemakers to acquire WMD.
Syria is without precedent in possessing missiles with chemical warheads while falling into a major civil war. Syrian forces could deploy chemical WMD by Scud missile more than 400 miles away, and the Center of Scientific Research and Study in Damascus has sufficient know-how to manufacture biological WMD, like anthrax, although none seem to be weaponized. Israel’s Operation Orchard demolished Syria’s nuclear program in September 2007, but chemical and biological weapons still pose a serious problem that could extend well beyond Syria.