Amid signs that the Syrian regime might be preparing to some of its vast chemical weapons stocks against insurgents who are growing stronger by the day, President Barack Obama warned Syria on Monday that the use of chemical weapons would be "totally unacceptable."
Mr. Obama said that the use of such weapons by President Bashar al-Assad against his own people would have unspecified "consequences" for him and his beleaguered regime, stressing that they would be held "accountable" for such a "tragic mistake."
"Today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching," President Obama said.
The president delivered his blunt warning — the starkest his administration has issued so far — in a speech at a conference at the National Defense University. He spoke at the close of a meeting of over 200 national security officials to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program aimed at reducing the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
The program, which was launched in 1991 soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union to secure the huge Soviet arsenal of nuclear weapons, materials, and expertise, has expanded over time to include efforts to prevent the spread of biological and chemical weapons and related materials and technology to rogue states and terrorists.
President Obama is said to have a strong commitment to the CTR program. He vowed today that funds for CTR would not be cut despite his determination to rein in spending and reduce the nation's deficit because its projects were vital to American security.
He also came to pay a personal tribute to the program's bipartisan founders and pioneers, former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat from Georgia, and Sen. Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, who was defeated in a primary last year. Mr. Obama called the two men "visionaries" who exemplified the "bipartisan tradition we need more of . . . in foreign policy." Earlier that day, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta awarded both men the "distinguished public service award," the Pentagon's highest honor.
Much of the corridor talk at Monday's gathering focused on the potential nuclear weapons threat posed by Iran — another of the Obama administration's non-proliferation "red lines" — and the possible use of chemical weapons by Syria.
The White House has previously warned Syria that the use of such weapons against the Syrian people who have been rebelling against the Assad regime would be another "red line" for the United States.
Last August at a news conference, President Obama said that although he was not in favor of direct American intervention in the Syrian conflict, he might be forced to change his position if "a whole bunch of chemical weapons" were "moving around or being utilized." He called such a scenario for the first time a "red line for us," adding: "That would change my calculus."
Elaborating today on the president's even sharper warning, White House press spokesman Jay Carney said that as the regime's grip on power has fallen and the opposition to it has grown, "we have an increased concern about the possibility of the regime taking the desperate act of using its chemical weapons."
The president and his spokesman said that they were "consulting with allies and other international partners, as well as the opposition about this," repeatedly stressing what the spokesman called the administration's "increased concern." Those allies include, among others, Jordan, Turkey, and of course, Israel.
One of the international partners, Ahmet Uzumcu, the director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, attended the CTR commemoration and also expressed increased concern that a desperate Syrian regime might resort to using chemical weapons.
Unlike 188 other nations, Syria, Uzumcu noted, has not joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, which requires members to declare their stockpiles, agree to destroy them and submit to international inspection by the Hague-based organization. He said that Syria was believed to have "significant stocks" of such weapons, including those armed with such deadly nerve agents as sarin, but that no one outside of the regime knew precisely how many chemical arms Damascus possessed.
He said he had issued demarches to the Syrian government urging them to join the convention, so far to no avail. Because Syria was not a member of his organization, he said in an interview, his options were limited should Damascus decide to use chemical arms against its own people.
The Obama administration's options are also limited, say chemical weapons experts. Citing his unwillingness to discuss "matters of intelligence," the White House press secretary, declined to elaborate on the president's warning that such use would have "consequences," other than to assert that the administration was preparing "for all scenarios."
Some Pentagon officials have estimated that the military would need to deploy up to 75,000 troops to seize and secure Syria's chemical weapons, which are said to be stored at some two dozen facilities around the country. Most, but not all of them, are said by chemical experts to be not close to Syria's most heavily populated areas.
But the New York Times recently reported that Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamists who dominate Lebanese politics, has recently moved some of its camps closer to the Syrian border and sites where Syria is believed to be storing chemical weapons.
Carney declined to rule out the use of force when pressed about what the U.S. would do if Syria were to cross America's red line, "I think contingency planning of all kinds is the responsible thing to do," he said. Earlier in the day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also used the term "red line" with respect to the use of Syria's chemical weapons against its citizens at a meeting in Prague.
But several weapons experts at the gathering today said they doubted that the administration would take military action given the paucity of options that did not endanger civilians — such as bombing suspected chemical weapons sites — as well as President Obama's determination to continue withdrawing U.S. combat forces from the Middle East.
Clearly, however, Mr. Obama and senior officials have been worried by intensified activity at several Syrian chemical weapons repositories and other sites. But neither the president nor spokesman Carney would specify what was happening at such sites. CBS reported Monday night that orders have been issued to bring together chemical ingredients which are normally stored separately for safety and become lethal only when combined.
For its part, Syria's Foreign Ministry quickly repeated assurances that the Assad regime would "not use chemical weapons, if it had them, against its own people under any circumstances."
For many years, Syria has stated that though it supports a region-wide ban on chemical and other unconventional weapons, it cannot unilaterally renounce chemical weapons as long as Israel threatens its security. In 2007, Israel destroyed a nuclear reactor that Syria was secretly building with North Korean assistance, intelligence officials say.
According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization that Sen. Nunn helped found to help track the status of CTR and other efforts to rid the world of WMD, Syria is suspected of having among the Middle East's most advanced chemical warfare (CW) capabilities. Syria appears to have acquired an indigenous capability to develop and produce chemical agents, including mustard gas, sarin, and possibly the nerve agent VX.
Syrian opposition groups and human rights groups estimate that nearly 40,000 people have been killed in the nearly two years of violence. In recent weeks, rebels have fought their way to the outskirts of the capital, proximity that officials at the NDU say they fear might cause Assad to panic.
Russia has traditionally been a major supplier of arms and weapons expertise to Damascus. It has also been the key beneficiary of CTR project grants and assistance. The Obama administration has been trying to persuade the Russians to limit its aid to the Syrian regime.
But Moscow has recently said that it wants to renegotiate the terms of its cooperation with the U.S. under the 20-year-old program. President Obama indicated today that he was willing to do so. "Let's work with Russia as an equal partner," he told the gathering. "I'm optimistic that we can."
The program has achieved impressive results for its relatively modest $500 million a year. According to NTI, CTR has helped reduce nuclear arsenals in Russia from 30,000 in 1991 to about 12,000 warheads.
The U.S., by contrast, has dismantled over 13,000 warheads, and destroyed 90 percent of its nonstrategic nuclear weapons, 7,600 to 760 warheads. The program has expanded from projects in 13 to 80 states and helped enable the former Soviet states of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to become nuclear weapons free. Albania, too, is now free of chemical weapons.
Much of Monday's meeting, however, was spent assessing what remains to be done to reduce the WMD threat. Kenneth Bernard, a public health physician who was President Clinton's adviser for security and health, said that the government was "still not organized to deal with the threat."
Robert Joseph, a veteran non-proliferation expert who advised President Bush on the National Security Council, agreed. "We're a long way from having the synergy we need for the best defense against nuclear threats."
Robert Gallucci, a veteran official who now heads the MacArthur Foundation, said policy makers still underestimated the nuclear terrorist threat. "It hasn't happened yet' is not a persuasive talking point," he said.
Nations were still making too plutonium that could be stolen by or leaked to terrorists. "When you're in a hole, stop digging," Gallucci said. "I'm looking at the size of the wave and the size of the surf board, and I'm not feeling good about it."