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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Obama Warns Syria on Chemical Arms

Kelsey Davenport and Daniel Horner

President Barack Obama last month warned the Syrian government that using or moving chemical weapons would be seen as a step that was so serious it could trigger a U.S. military response.

At an Aug. 20 press conference, Obama said “at this point” he has “not ordered military engagement,” but emphasized that “[w]e cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.”

He said the United States “has communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a redline for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.”

Obama’s comments came as the civil conflict in Syria worsens and President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power appears to be increasingly tenuous. The situation has led governments and independent experts to worry about the possibility that Syrian government forces might use the weapons or that the weapons could spread to other states or nonstate groups, by Syrian design or inability to secure them.

The U.S. military reportedly has completed the “initial planning” for operations in Syria, including securing chemical weapons, in the event of a regime collapse. (See ACT, July/August 2012.)

Obama made his comments about a month after remarks by Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi were widely interpreted as confirming for the first time that Syria has chemical weapons. After reading a statement in Arabic at a July 23 press conference, Makdissi recapitulated it in English: “Any stocks of WMD or any unconventional weapons that the Syrian Arabic Republic possess would never be used against civilian, or against the Syrian people during this crisis at any circumstances.… All the stocks of the weapon that the Syrian Arab Republic possess are monitored and guarded by the Syrian army.”

Later in the press conference, he used a similar formulation, but added a qualifier: “Any stocks of any unconventional weapon, any chemical weapon, if it exists, it won’t be used—never, ever—against civilian, against the Syrian people.” The weapons would be used only against “external aggression,” he said.

According to the Associated Press, the Syrian government subsequently sent a statement to journalists, saying that “all of these types of weapons—IF ANY—are in storage and under security.”

A report sent to Congress earlier this year by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Syria has had a chemical weapons program “for many years” and possesses a stockpile of agents that “can be delivered by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets.” The program is dependent on “foreign sources for key elements,” the report said.

In an Aug. 23 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a State Department official said that “Syria has a stockpile composed of nerve agents and mustard gas” and that the U.S. government monitors Syria’s chemical weapons activities “very closely.”

During the July 23 press conference, Makdissi also alluded to biological weapons. According to the intelligence report sent to Congress, “Syria’s biotechnical infrastructure is capable of supporting [biological weapons] agent development.” In the Aug. 23 e-mail, the State Department official said Syria “may be engaged in activities that would violate its obligations” under the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) if it were party to the convention.

Syria is not a party to the BWC or the Chemical Weapons Convention. Since 1968, however, it has been a party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibits “bacteriological methods of warfare” and the “use of asphyxiating, poisonous, or other gases.”

In a statement on July 24, the day after Makdissi’s press conference, the Russian Foreign Ministry noted Syria’s ratification of the protocol and said it was “confident” that Syria would “henceforth keep to its international commitments.” Russia has been a staunch ally of Syria; along with China, it has blocked efforts in the UN Security Council to apply pressure on the Assad regime.

In a July 25 interview with the ITAR-TASS news agency, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Russia had conducted “urgent work with the leadership of Syria so that reliable protection of chemical weapon storage sites could be guaranteed. And from Damascus we received firm assurances that the security of these arsenals is fully guaranteed.”

He said that the situation in Syria, however, makes it “impossible to rule out” the possibility that chemical weapons “can somehow fall into the hands of the armed opposition as well.”