In an interview with the U.K. Guardian, Mr. Assad described Washington as the "main arbiter" in the Middle East peace process, and said he looked forward to the appointment of a new U.S. Ambassador--the first in almost four years.
"There is no substitute for the US. An ambassador is important," he said. "Sending these delegations is important. This number of congressmen coming to Syria is a good gesture. It shows that this administration wants to see dialogue with Syria. What we have heard from them - Obama, Clinton and others - is positive."
Reading Assad's comments, it's obvious that he expects new overtures from Washington. But we'd also ask what gestures--if any--that the Syrian leader would offer in return. Fact is, the Assad regime is proceeding with a dangerous build-up of its chemical weapons stockpile, a move that will further destabilize the Middle East. And, as you might have guessed, Mr. Assad shows no willingness to surrender part of that arsenal, as part of a broader peace process.
As the U.K. Telegraph reports:
Syria has maintained stockpiles of chemical weapons, including Sarin gas and blister agents, for decades. But satellite images from two operators, GeoEye and DigitalGlobe, appeared to show significant efforts to update known facilities.
The Janes's report said that new structures for warehousing and manufacturing complex chemical materials had been built. The buildings had sophisticated filtration systems and cooling towers. Bays for specially adapted Scud missiles had also been built.
It has long been suggested in intelligence circles that Syria had acquired chemical weapons munitions from Iraq in the run-up to the US-led assault on the country. An analysis by JIR suggested that the work on the al-Safir facility in the north-west of the country had started in 2005, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, and was continuing last year.
Jane's analysts said that al-Safir was among the most significant chemical weapons production, storage and weaponisation sites in Syria. "Its presence indicates Syria's desire to develop unconventional weapons either to act as a deterrent to conflict with Israel or as a force enhancer should any conflict ensue," said Christian LeMière, editor of JIR. "Further expansion of al-Safir is likely to antagonise Israel and highlight mutual mistrust, even as peace talks between the two neighbours progress intermittently.
But the upgrades at al-Safir are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Damascus has long had an active chemical weapons program, conducting periodic tests with live agents. Almost six years ago, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that the U.S. had "evidence" of live CW tests during 2002 and early 2003. In 1999, the Washington Times reported that a Syrian MiG-23 had dropped a chemical weapon on a bombing range. The test was detected because the agent left a tell-tale sign on the soil around the impact point.
There is also evidence of subsequent testing at Al Jufway, the bomb range where that MiG-23 released that CW weapon a decade ago. The periodic missions are a reminder that Damascus retains a potential chemical arsenal and its fighter aircraft are a primary delivery platform. Alternately, some analysts have suggested that the air drops are a sign that Syria has experienced difficulty in perfecting a chemical warhead for its short and medium-range missiles.
However, work on the missile option is continuing. The aforementioned al-Safir facility has reportedly housed a joint Syrian-Iranian project, aimed at developing chemical warheads for ballistic missiles. These efforts have continued, despite a disastrous 2007 accident that claimed the lives of "dozens" of Iranians and at least 15 Syrian military personnel.
According to Janes Defence Weekly, the mishap occurred as the Iranians tried to fit a warhead filled with mustard gas to a SCUD-C missile. A massive explosion destroyed the missile, its warhead and other containers of chemical agents, spreading VX and sarin nerve agents (along with mustard gas) across the compound.
Then, of course, there's the little matter of Damascus's apparent nuclear program, which suffered a severe setback when Israel bombed a secret complex in September 2007. While the function of that facility has been debated, the IAEA announced earlier this week that it had discovered traces of uranium and other nuclear-related materials at the site. The IAEA is pressing Syria to provide more details on the facility.
Against that backdrop, Mr. Assad wants closer ties with the U.S.--and the Obama Administration appears determined to fulfill that request. The Bush Administration had ample reasons to downgrade relations with Damascus, and WMD was only a small part of that rationale. Assad's regime still sponsors terrorism and allowed thousands of Al Qaida terrorists to transit his territory enroute to Iraq. The Syrian government has also been responsible for political assassinations in neighboring Lebanon.
Not much of a resume for better relations, but Washington has a recent history of overlooking aberrant behavior and broken promises by rogue states. North Korea is a prime case in point; the Six Party process continued despite repeated stalling by Pyongyang, a refusal to live up to the bargain and that nuclear complex they built in Syria.
Now, Damascus is playing a similar game. And sadly, we seem to be playing along.