Written by James Phillips and Adam Gianella
On Monday, President Obama warned the beleaguered Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad not to use chemical weapons against its own people.
“Today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching,” Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
President Obama’s warning came on the heels of a similar statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and was later echoed by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. The warnings came after reports that Syria’s military has prepared binary chemical weapons for use by combining the chemical components needed to weaponize sarin nerve gas and has moved some chemical munitions from storage depots.
According to an anonymous U.S. senior official, “Physically, they’ve gotten to the point where they can load it up on a plane and drop it.”
President Obama previously warned Assad not to use chemical weapons in August, and a Syrian defector had raised alarm bells when he reported in September that the Assad regime was mulling the use of such weapons.Israel has warned that it would intervene if Syria transferred chemical weapons to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese Islamist terrorist group that has dispatched fighters to help the Assad regime battle the mushrooming rebellion.
The Pentagon has quietly deployed a 150-person task force to Jordan to help coordinate international efforts to address the threat posed by Syria’s chemical weapons. Pentagon officials have assessed that a military intervention to secure Syria’s increasingly insecure chemical arsenal could require up to 75,000 troops.
Heritage Foundation defense expert Steven Bucci has stressed the need for U.S. contingency planning to address the problem of Syrian chemical weapons if the regime implodes.
Even if Assad decides not to unleash his chemical weapons, there is a growing danger that such weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists, as increasing numbers of Syrian bases are seized by Syrian rebels who have gained considerable territory in recent weeks.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which had developed a support infrastructure in Syria to move men and material across the border to fight U.S., coalition, and Iraqi troops from 2003 to 2011, has made a resurgence inside Iraq after the withdrawal of U.S. troops and has expanded its operations in Syria.
In October, Jordanian officials announced that they had foiled an AQI plot to carry out suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks in Amman, Jordan, using weapons and explosives smuggled across the border from Syria.
Despite the arrest of a senior leader on Sunday, AQI poses a substantial threat not only inside Iraq, where it murdered 166 people last month, but increasingly outside Iraq as well. In July, AQI threatened to launch terrorist attacks in the “heart” of America.
That makes it all the more important for the United States to help contain the destabilizing spillover effects of the intensifying conflict in Syria, which offers AQI and other terrorist groups an important staging ground for expanding their operations.
Adam Gianella is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm.
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