US Foreign Policy
Commentary

Syria’s Chemical Weapons And Terrorists

in Program

The potential marriage of some of the world’s most dangerous people to some of the world’s most dangerous weapons has been described by multiple successive presidents as the greatest national security threat facing the United States. That prospect seems to have left little doubt in the Obama administration that a military strike on Syria is a critical element of the U.S. strategy to prevent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from falling into the hands of terrorists.

But as the United States debates whether to attack Syria, a closer look at how these weapons proliferate, and from where Syria obtained its capability, may be instructive.

In 2004, startling revelations emerged regarding the extent of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan’s black market network of nuclear materials. Khan spent years building and maintaining a network of innovators, manufacturers, shippers and other suppliers to market contraband nuclear items to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Even more distressing was evidence that the Khan network also had links with al-Qaida, whose then-leader Osama bin Laden had described the acquisition of a nuclear weapon as a “religious duty.”

The Khan network relied upon a sophisticated network of private companies, some complicit in nuclear subterfuge, to avoid international attention, along with many others who became unwitting pawns in Khan’s effort to transfer weapons know-how into dangerous hands. The breadth of complicit technology innovator firms, manufacturers, shipping companies, financiers and middlemen was staggering.

Recognizing the inadequacies of existing global nonproliferation efforts, the international community promulgated an array of new efforts designed to ensure stringent supply-side controls on sensitive WMD materials and technologies. These measures included U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540, passed in April 2004.

Yet today, almost a full decade following renewed global attention to this issue, today’s parallels between the Khan network’s activities and Syria’s acquisition of chemical weapons suggest that U.S. efforts to prevent the wider diffusion of weapons, including to terrorists, remains wanting.

Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned of the ominous prospects of terrorist acquisition of WMD.

Hagel said: “If (Syrian President Bashar) Assad is prepared to use chemical weapons against his own people, we have to be concerned that terrorist groups like Hezbollah, which has forces in Syria supporting the Assad regime, could acquire them.”

While Syria has possessed the technological capability to manufacture chemical weapons for decades, it does not currently make all of the dual-use chemicals needed to produce the sarin nerve agent used recently to devastating effect outside of Damascus. Rather, the regime relies upon an array of outside sources to obtain the needed precursor chemicals for its current chemical weapons production.

Although many point to Russia and North Korea as possible suppliers, we now know that the source of these chemicals is a variety of different actors, including private manufacturers and chemical brokerages in the United States, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Austria, Germany, and other well intentioned countries around the globe. Their involvement in the sale of precursor chemicals into Syria amidst that country’s civil war and with full knowledge of Assad’s chemical weapons program exposes a gaping hole in the global control regime that Resolution 1540 and other nonproliferation efforts have failed to plug. 

A military strike on Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities may or may not prevent the regime from sharing its weapons of mass destruction with Hezbollah. What it will not do is foreclose the burgeoning global marketplace in WMD technologies that equally services rogue regimes and terrorists groups alike.

For terrorists in today’s globalized marketplace, the ability to develop chemical weapons no longer relies upon the good offices of a collaborating government. Rather, these capacities are now found in a willing spectrum of suppliers in the commercial marketplace, and among those companies unwittingly duped into contributing to the proliferation supply chain. Were it to choose to do so, and it is far from clear that it has, it is likely that Hezbollah could seek out other more secure sources of chemical precursors to develop a weapon.

If the Obama administration is as committed to ensuring that the world’s most dangerous weapons do not end up in some of the world’s most dangerous hands as Secretary Hagel suggests, it would do well to focus more attention on the realities of global commerce rather than the vicissitudes of a single murderous regime.

Photo credit:  Steve Rhodes via flickr

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