The Syrian ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf al-Fares, has declared his opposition to the Bashir al-Assad regime in Damascus. He has made strong public denunciations of the regime and declared that Bashir would use his chemical weapons capability against the opposition. In interviews (notably with BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner in Doha on July 17, 2012), he stated that this view was based on his knowledge of the “mentality of the regime.”
There is little question that Syria has substantial CW and BW capability. There is no question that such material is a concern in the presently growing chaos. However, the statement by Ambassador al-Fares may be seen as “motivated reasoning.” The ambassador seeks greater US involvement on the part of the opposition—to include military support. There is a model for this in the recent history of Iraq—where he was ambassador and would likely have spent much time with individuals like Ahmed Chalibi. Chalibi mustered support in Washington for deposing Saddam based on many things, but highlighted the argument that Iraq WMD could fall into the hands of terrorists including al Qaeda.
Ambassador al Fares is making exactly the same argument…even though al Qaeda has been opposed to the Bashir regime just as it was ideologically opposed to Saddam (and vice versa). Bashir, like Saddam, has plenty of faults, but al Qaeda connections are not likely one of them.
There are more serious concerns about Syrian CW and BW. They concern the presence of Iranians and particularly the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps al Quds force.
Consider two simple points. One, there is a long history between the IRGC and Hezbollah. Second, Quds force was fingered as being behind the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington. These two things alone indicate that they have capability to do dangerous things and what seems logical to us may be irrelevant to them it seemed crazy to try and kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington).
Logically, we might assess that Syrian military should be deterred from using CW due to the potential consequences of being charged post-Bashir with crimes against humanity, the same may not apply with Iran in the mix.
With the presence of the IRGC al Quds, they may be influencing some Syrian military to do things with offers of protection or funding. They may view Syrian CW and BW as a factor within the Iran Nuclear standoff. They may be making completely unpredictable calculations about Syrian CW and BW relative to Israel. It is a dangerous and unpredictable situation.
It is logical that many Syrian officers would be deterred from using such weapons because of the likelihood of subsequent penalties when Bashir is gone. (They will be sharply aware that the Iraqi general who was in back of Saddam’s CW use against his own population, Chemical Ali, was hanged in 2010.) However, the more overwhelming and unknowable risk comes from the Iranian presence. God only knows what drives their calculations.
So to argue that the US should be more directly involved militarily on the ground because of potential Bashir WMD sharing with al Qaeda is noise in the system. The real risk is what IRGC forces are up to. This is a far more complicated situation and the uncertainties in any assessment are huge. Simple statements by the former Syrian Ambassador to Iraq should be seen in this light.