Syrian Situation Takes An Ominous Turn: Chemical Weapons Edition

Well, this certainly isn’t good news:

The Syrian military is prepared to use chemical weapons against its own people and is awaiting final orders from President Bashar Assad, U.S. officials told NBC News on Wednesday.

The military has loaded the precursor chemicals for sarin, a deadly nerve gas, into aerial bombs that could be dropped onto the Syrian people from dozens of fighter-bombers, the officials said.

As recently as Tuesday, officials had said there was as yet no evidence that the process of mixing the “precursor” chemicals had begun. But Wednesday, they said their worst fears had been confirmed: The nerve agents were locked and loaded inside the bombs.

Sarin is an extraordinarily lethal agent. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces killed 5,000 Kurds with a single sarin attack on Halabja in 1988.

U.S. officials stressed that as of now, the sarin bombs hadn’t been loaded onto planes and that Assad hadn’t issued a final order to use them. But if he does, one of the officials said, “there’s little the outside world can do to stop it.”

If you’re looking for an event that would turn what has been a civil war that has lasted nearly two years now into an international incident, this would be it.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Middle East, Military Affairs, National Security, , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Cheryl Rofer says:

    That NBC report is internally contradictory.

    That’s not to say that Bashar isn’t preparing – just that NBC has botched their job.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    It is a badly composed story. And the idea that there’s nothing we can do to stop it is false. We have air assets that could hit Syrian bases within hours of hearing that such a strike has occurred and we have missiles that could fly from the med within minutes of an order being given by Assad.

  3. Stonetools says:

    So Doug would you be OK with an intervention to stopp chemical attacks on rebels?

  4. tps says:

    According to some reports, Assad’s father used lewisite and/or cyanide against rebels in the city of Hama in the 1981. As some have mentioned, Assad has nowhere to go. If he leaves Syria his own tribe will be slaughtered and the survivors will want him dead. If he stays, the rebels will probably kill him. What do you have to lose?

  5. michael reynolds says:

    I wish I knew more about the potential for destroying Sarin on the ground. I assume we have incendiaries that could burn it off, but I’d love someone to find good data on this.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    It’s interesting that if Assad uses nerve gas it will cast doubt on the “reasonable man” assumptions that also extend to the Tehran regime.

  7. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @michael reynolds: Yeah, but if, in fact, these guys aren’t “resonable men,” it opens the possibility that Ariel Sharon’s son is right and genocide is the answer to the question of what to do.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:
    Yeah, not a lot of good comes from Assad deciding to use chemical weapons. If he throws a Sarin shell toward Israel Damascus will go up in a mushroom cloud. This is very dangerous sh!t. It is past time for the Russians to put a leash on Assad.

  9. Tim says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It is past time for the Russians to put a leash on Assad.

    You assume the Russians (the government, that is) even has the ability to restrain Assad at this point. Not necessarily so.

  10. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Nukes do a very thorough job of sterilizing chemical (and, for that matter, biological) weapons.

    Thermobaric weapons, such as FAEs, are also good, but nowhere near as efficient.

    And as bad as Assad has been… do we have any idea what the rebels want, besides Assad gone? We’ve seen in Egypt and Libya just what can happen when we start thinking “anything has to be better than who’s in charge now.”

  11. Just Me says:

    I think the best anyone can hope for is that this is posturing on Assad’s part, but Assad at this point is in a corner-he doesn’t have a lot to lose and I am not sure if he cares about the good will of the west at this point either.

    I do know one thing-I don’t want to see the US in another middle east war-especially one where there isn’t a clear side to support (at this point it seems to be changing the secularish tyrant for the religious one).

  12. Anderson says:

    Every officer participating in such an attack would be committing a war crime. I’ve opposed intervention from day one, but if they use nerve gas, it’s time to pull the plug.

  13. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I wish I knew more about the potential for destroying Sarin on the ground.

    The greatest challenge would be finding it to begin with, as it’s likely the Syrian regime would keep the delivery systems hidden until just before launch.

    If someone were able to determine where the launchers were hidden, or see them soon enough after they were brought out, a couple of well-placed JDAMs would take care of them. Sarin is a non-persistent agent, meaning it disperses rapidly and its effectiveness drops quickly. (What I recall from military training is 45 minutes to non-effectiveness, but it’s been a while.)

    As far as cleaning it up, bleach works just fine.

  14. superdestroyer says:

    @michael reynolds:

    And does random bombing and cruise missile fit into the Powell Doctrine? What is the exit strategy for Syria and how do you define success.

    Maybe future diplomacy is much harder than nitpciking other’s decisions in retrospect.

    Maybe the U.S. should just stay out of the civil wars of other countries. Such a policy would have keep the U.S. out of many foreign relations mistakes in the past and should be the policy of the U.S. in the future.

  15. michael reynolds says:

    Our priority has to be to keep this from widening out to involve Turkey, Israel and Jordan – our friends in the region. And since we’ve defined nerve gas as a WMD we have to punish its use. And finally we have to keep it from falling into the hands of non-state actors.

    Any of those three objectives may require a major intervention on our part, entirely setting aside the geopolitical fallout of standing by while Sunni populations are gassed.

  16. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds:

    And since we’ve defined nerve gas as a WMD we have to punish its use.

    Not only is it classified as WMD, it is illegal under international law to stockpile the stuff (and its precursors).

    a major intervention on our part

    If the Syrian regime is going to put Sarin into bombs, we could rubble their airbases and crater the runways.

  17. Dave Schuler says:

    What’s being published in the Russian language press doesn’t suggest that the Russians are moderating their “non-interventionist”, i.e. pro-Assad, stand. The Chinese media, e.g. here, are downplaying this report.

    I think we should be careful of getting ahead of ourselves. What we have now is one news source (NBC) quoting one unnamed U. S. government official. Not exactly a rock-solid story.

    I also think that we should be very clear about what our objectives and interests in intervention would be. If it’s a moral case, is avenging the use of chemical weapons more moral than preventing their use?

  18. Geek, Esq. says:

    The big question is always how reliable intelligence is on WMD matters.

    The only thing worse than Assad using WMDs would be for the Al Qaeda elements of the resistance to get their hands on them.

  19. anjin-san says:

    This would be a good time to send Assad a quite back channel message telling him that he is a dead man if WMD are used. One of the nice things about have a commander in chief who has shown he is prepared to take out leaders who engage in wholesale slaughter is that the message will be believed.

  20. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @anjin-san: Just what leaders did Obama “take out?”

    Bush took out two governments that opposed us and engaged in wanton slaughter of their own people (among other reasons), and got other governments to comply. Obama did nothing about Egypt, and “led from behind” on Libya.

    And Assad knows he’s a dead man if he is toppled and can’t flee the country. He’s seen Qaddafi murdered (after being sodomized with a stick) and Mubarak… I dunno why he’s still alive, but he’s pretty much dead man not-quite-walking.

    Here’s a thought: we offer Assad free passage out of his country, with a lot of the loot he’s assuredly stashed away, so he can live out his days comfortably and safely. In exchange, he turns over his WMDs and info on his support of terrorists. Yeah, he escapes justice, but sometimes that has to happen.

  21. anjin-san says:

    Bush took out two governments that opposed us and engaged in wanton slaughter of their own people

    So “opposing” us is now an act of war? And we respond how? Oh yes, by the wonton slaughter of people in Iraq. While guys like you watched on tv and got pumpled up by the “shock and awe” bombings.

    And in Afghanistan, Bush took his eye off the ball to pursue his Iraq obsession after a strong start, pretty much ending our chance for a good outcome there.

    At any rate, Bin Laden and Gaddafi are gone, and conservatives are still pissed about it. Why? Because it was Obama.

  22. anjin-san says:

    Obama did nothing about Egypt

    Most of our problems in the middle east are the result of us “doing something” – supporting despotic governments to keep the oil flowing and further our strategic agenda(s). Guess systematic torture is cool, as long as you don’t “oppose” us.

    High moral ground, conservative style.

  23. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @anjin-san: If you need a reminder of the casus belli, then you’re even dumber than I thought. And “wonton slaughter?” Abuse of Chinese food is ALWAYS an act of war.

    And do NOT make me bring up again how the “getting” of Qaddafi and Bin Laden were demonstrations of Obama’s incompetence — and successful despite him.

  24. anjin-san says:

    the “getting” of Qaddafi and Bin Laden were demonstrations of Obama’s incompetence

    We know what Fox told you you think – no need to repeat it.

  25. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @anjin-san: The other day, I actually saw you say something of substance, and not just mindless snark and pointless mouth-breathing taunts.

    Then I woke up, and my pillow was gone. (Whoops, wrong punchline. But you’re not worth an original one.)