Monday, September 17, 2012

Crossing the Red Line?

Last month, President Obama warned Syria that "signs" of use or movement of its chemical weapons arsenal would constitute a "red line" that could trigger an American military response.

Now we've learned that if Damascus hasn't crossed that line, it's on the verge of doing so. From Der Spiegel, via the Jerusalem Post:

Syria tested firing systems for poison gas shells at the country's largest chemical weapons research center at Safira, east of Aleppo, last month, German weekly Der Spiegel reported on Monday, citing statements from various witnesses.

According to the report, Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers were flown in by helicopter to witness the testing.

Several empty shells, designed to carry chemical weapons, were fired by tanks and helicopters in a desert location near the research center, Der Spiegel quoted the witnesses as saying.

The timing and location of the test was hardly coincidental. The Safira complex is located near Aleppo, Syria's largest city, and a center of the anti-government violence that has flared for more than a year, threatening the regime of dictator Bashir al-Assad.

By conducting the test, Damascus was sending a message not only to the rebels, but to the Israelis and the U.S. as well. Facing regime survival, Assad is clearly prepared to use weapons of mass destruction against his enemies, foreign and domestic.

Indeed, this is not the first time that Syria has been detected conducting chemical weapons testing and related activities. On several occasions over the past two decades, western intelligence has picked up indications of live chemical weapons testing at various ranges in Syria. On some occasions, the weapons have been dropped by fighter jets, such as the MiG-23 Flogger. Damascus has a large inventory of potential delivery systems for its chemical arsenal, including artillery, attacks helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and ballistic missiles.

It's also a well-known fact that Iran has been an active participant in Syria's WMD activities. In July 2007 "dozens" of Iranian engineers were killed (along with 15 Syrian military personnel) in an explosion at a research complex in the Aleppo region. According to Jane's Defence Weekly, the incident occurred when rocket fuel caught fire and Iranian and Syrian technicians attempted to load mustard gas onto a SCUD C missile. The blast also released a cloud of mustard, Sarin and VX nerve gas across the compound.

The 2007 disaster was detected--and analyzed--by western intelligence, as were previous tests involving chemical weapons. Syria has a sophisticated denial-and-deception (D&D) program, but there have been only modest efforts to conceal this activity. Indeed, one could make the case that Mr. Assad wants to remind Israel (and other adversaries) that his regime has a large inventory of chemical weapons and is quite prepared to use them.

It is worth noting that yesterday's test did not involve live chemical agents. That may have been a calculated move to avoid so-called "red lines" that would invite outside military intervention.

Another possibility is that the Syrians were testing some type of new binary shell design, perhaps of Iranian origin. Before filling shells with live agent, it's necessary to make sure they function as designed. If the tests were successful, series production of the "new" rounds could begin in as little as a few weeks.

Tehran has long used Syria as a proxy for the development and testing of chemical weapons, largely avoiding the risk (and international condemnation) that comes with conducting such activity on your own soil. Beefing up the Syrian arsenal also provides another benefit for Iran, forcing Israel to contend with a growing WMD threat, literally on its doorstep.

However, the systems tested at Safira are also useful for domestic applications, such as suppressing rebel forces. That's why the recent drill should be viewed as something of a dry run, both literally and figuratively. As the Assad regime continues to crumble, it is facing the choice of using WMD to retain power. And that decision may come sooner rather than later, based on the timing of the recent test.

When Syria recently confirmed its WMD weaponry (perhaps the worst-kept secret in the Middle East), the Assad government vowed they would only be used against "outside" forces. But that's a hollow vow. Collectively, Bashir Assad and his late father slaughtered tens of thousands of Syrians to maintain their hold on power. The younger Assad has no qualms about using chemical weapons against the rebels in Aleppo or other locations.

The recent test was also aimed at gauging outside reaction, particularly from Israel and the United States. Judging from Israeli media coverage, it's clear that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his advisers are paying very close attention. As for the U.S., it's difficult to say. so far, there's been no public reaction from the White House or the Pentagon, and with President Obama MIA from recent intelligence briefings, there are concerns about how much attention the activity is receiving at the highest levels of our government.

One thing is certain: Mr. Assad is tip-toeing along the edge of Mr. Obama's WMD red line, and appears poised to cross it in the near future. At that point, we'll learn if the red line is real, or just imaginary.

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