Syria’s Chemical Weapons
Escalating violence in Syria leaves the U.S. and other Western countries facing a dilemma of bad options. Will punishing al-Assad mean supporting al-Qaeda?
This week, American, British and Israeli officials have accused the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons against its own people.
BBC reported April 25, “US intelligence agencies believe ‘with varying degrees of confidence’ that Syria has used chemical weapons against rebels. …
“US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters in Abu Dhabi that the use of sarin ‘violates every convention of warfare.’ …
“US Secretary of State John Kerry said there had been two instances of chemical weapons use in Syria.
“The UK Foreign Office echoed the US claims, saying it had ‘limited but persuasive information from various sources’ of chemical weapons use in Syria. …
“‘Material from inside Syria tested positive for sarin,’ a Foreign Office spokesman said” (BBC, “US Has ‘Some Confidence’ Syria Used Chemical Weapons”).
U.S. President Barack Obama had warned Syria in December that using chemical weapons would bring consequences. So now that the red line has been crossed, will the United States follow through? Not so fast.
Why Western reluctance to arm the rebels?
Why has the United States been reluctant to act more forcefully against the Syrian regime? Some point to the intelligence that wrongly warned of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the lead-up to the American invasion. President Obama wants to avoid being accused of acting prematurely by trusting in incomplete reports.
But perhaps more serious is the lack of good options America faces in one of the world’s most volatile neighborhoods.
BBC North America editor Mark Mardell wrote, “It is clear President Obama doesn’t want to go to war in Syria. He regards it as too complex, too difficult, too uncertain. … Yet the US is, perhaps, moving slowly and cautiously toward taking action.”
What action will the U.S. take? Committing American troops seems out of the question, but arming the rebels also seems fraught with dangers. The enemy of your enemy often does not turn out to be your friend. What if the rebels then turn those weapons against their benefactor? It’s happened before in the war-torn Middle East.
Al-Assad or al-Qaeda?
The New York Times reported April 24 about the Syrian regime’s efforts to scare America away from supporting the opposition by claiming many of the rebels are allied with al-Qaeda. “As Islamists increasingly fill the ranks of Syrian rebels, President Bashar al-Assad is waging an energized campaign to persuade the United States that it is on the wrong side of the civil war. Some government supporters and officials believe they are already coaxing—or at least frightening—the West into holding back stronger support for the opposition. …
“‘We are partners in fighting terrorism,’ Syria’s prime minister, Wael Nader al-Halqi, said.
“Omran al-Zoubi, the information minister, said: ‘It’s a war for civilization, identity and culture. Syria, if you want, is the last real secular state in the Arab world.’”
In spite of the Syrian propaganda offensive, the United States continues to insist that President Assad step aside, and it continues to support the rebels with “nonlethal aid.”
The article continues, “The United States has signaled growing discomfort with the rising influence of radical Islamists on the battlefield, and it remains unwilling to arm the rebels or to consider stepping in more forcefully without conclusive evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons, as some Israeli officials assert.
“There is frustration with the West’s inability to help nurture a secular military or political opposition to replace Mr. Assad” (New York Times, “Syria Plays on Fears to Blunt American Support of Rebels”).
Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles
Whether radical Islamists finally come to power in Syria or not, there is great danger that some of Syria’s approximately 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, stored in 50 towns and cities, could fall into terrorist hands. Syria’s stockpiles of these weapons of mass destruction is truly frightening. The BBC reported:
- “Syria is believed to possess mustard gas and sarin, a highly toxic nerve agent.
- “The CIA also believes that Syria has attempted to develop more toxic and more persistent nerve agents, such as VX gas” (BBC, “Is the Syrian Government Using Chemical Weapons?”).
The Times of Israel quoted Israeli ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, warning: “In Lebanon, Hezbollah is building an army equipped with 50,000 missiles—more than many NATO members. Now they might have access to one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world” (“Syria’s Chemical Weapons in Hezbollah’s Reach”).
Even apart from these weapons of mass destruction, the situation in Syria is explosive. Sectarian fighting in Syria is pulling in neighboring countries and threatens to ignite the entire Middle East.
Sectarian fighting spreading
The ruling minority Alawites in Syria are aligned with the Shiites of Lebanon against the Syrian opposition, which is mainly Sunni Muslims. And Lebanon’s own complex patchwork of peoples is like tinder just waiting for a match.
AFP reported on how Hezbollah from Lebanon has been drawn into the battle:
“In an open letter Wednesday, Syria’s leading opposition figure Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib called on Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to withdraw his fighters to avoid the conflict degenerating into a sectarian war. …
“Iran-backed Hezbollah, a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, has denied Syrian opposition accusations that it has sent its elite troops into Syria to support regime troops battling insurgents.
“It says Syrian rebels have targeted Shiite areas of Syria inhabited by Lebanese and that Shiites in Syria have a right to self-defence.”
Where will the violence in Syria end? UN statistics say over 70,000 people have already died in the conflict.
When will peace come to Syria and the Middle East?
The Bible talks a lot about the Middle East, and it prophesies much more trouble for the region before the end of this age. But thankfully, it also predicts a time of peace to come at Jesus Christ’s return. This peace will spread from Jerusalem throughout the Middle East and the whole world.
At that time, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares; … nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). And, “Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:7).
Read more about the background of current events in the Middle East in the article “Middle East Conflict.” And learn more of the time of peace to come in the section on the “Kingdom of God.”