The claims that Syrian rebels may have been responsible for the release of Sarin gas raise a number of concerns for the international community, says Dave Sloggett.
The assumption many commentators had made on seeing the video recordings placed on the internet was that the regime in Damascus was responsible for the use of the gas.
The obvious explanation for the incidents was that the regime was using small amounts of Sarin to test the resolve of the American administration which had made the use of such weapons a major issue over its possible intervention in the conflict.
Concerns over the security of Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons have been at the forefront of international considerations over what to do about the grave situation in Syria. Sarin is only one of a number of agents that the Syrian regime is believed to possess. As events in Tokyo in March 1995 showed any release of Sarin even in relatively small amounts can have serious effects on large numbers of people. That terrorist attack still remains iconic when it comes to the use of chemical weapons.
Israeli war planes are also constantly on the lookout for any indications that the Syrian’s may be prepared to use these weapons. The other concern for Israel is that the weapons may be transferred to Hezbollah. For the regime in Damascus this might be their final act of defiance if they look like losing the civil war. With such weapons in the hands of Hezbollah the international security landscape would take on a very different complexion.
Only a few months ago American intelligence sources also suggested that preparations were underway at some of the sites where the weapons are held. This was the catalyst for President Obama’s creation of the “red lines”. If the statement attributed to a member of the United Nations team is subsequently proven to be true it could have grave consequences for the current threat landscape in Western Europe.
Whilst the United Nations has sought to distance itself from the initial remarks made by one of its staff the fact that someone has publically stated such an opinion is worrying. The suggestion that Syrian rebels may try to force President Obama’s hand by creating an incident that looks like the regime has sanctioned the use of Sarin is one that cannot be dismissed lightly. President Obama’s apparent reluctance to draw swift conclusions over the reports is understandable.
The tragic events in Syria are also acting as a magnet for potential Muslim extremists from all over Europe. Al Qaeda’s increasing presence in Syria is a huge concern. Recent car bombings bear their fingerprints. Worryingly, reports suggest that people from Germany, France and the United Kingdom have travelled to Syria to take up arms against the Assad regime. If even small amounts of Sarin were to fall into Al Qaeda’s hands the temptation to attempt to use it in Europe would be very strong. Al Qaeda remains committed to the idea of using such weapons in terrorism.
Whilst Sarin is difficult to manufacture, evidence emerging from Afghanistan of the activities at Darunta Camp prior to the attacks on 11 September 2001 points to experiments of a range of chemical weapons having been conducted. Footage of a dog succumbing to a colourless gas was found on a computer at the site. Al Qaeda is also reported to have established other chemical weapon research laboratories in places such as the Balkans.
Having knowledge about how to manufacture such weapons however has not yet led to their use by Al Qaeda. For some analysts this is puzzling. Indeed on one occasion a planned attack on the New York subway was reportedly called off at the last moment by Dr Zawahiri who at the time was the deputy leader of the organisation.
It was suggested at the time that the attack was halted due to uncertainty over the potential death toll; which was likely to be low. At the time Al Qaeda was focused on trying to conduct attacks that repeated the scale of 11 September. Today its aspirations are much lower.
Articles in the Inspire Magazine since its first production in the summer of 2010 have encouraged smaller-scale attacks, such as what happened in Boston. Operational Haemorrhage and recent discussions of a strategy based on “death by a thousand cuts” have all sought to encourage low-level attacks using conventional weapons.
Any move into the use of chemical weapons would have a dramatic impact. The release of even small amounts of chemicals could be sufficient to achieve a major impact, even though in Tokyo the death toll was relatively small. If Al Qaeda could obtain and deploy Sarin however a repeat of the images of Tokyo would act as a major jolt to the international community.
For those in the emergency services across Europe this is a very worrying development. In recent years, as Al Qaeda’s imminent end has been subject of several leading political figures' public statements, any use of chemical weapons by the organisation would show that, despite all the efforts of the international community, they remain a credible threat.