Syria chemical weapons threat: should we take it seriously?
Nawaf Fares claims a cornered Assad would not hesitate to use weapons, but Israeli intelligence seems relaxed
FOLLOWING reports last week that Syria has been moving elements of its chemical weapons arsenal around the country, a senior regime defector has raised the temperature further by saying that President Bashar al-Assad is ready to use the deadly armaments against his own people.
Nawaf Fares, the former ambassador to Iraq who defected from the Assad regime last week, told the BBC's Frank Gardner that Assad is a "wounded wolf" and is prepared to "eradicate the entire Syrian people" to remain in power.
Asked whether that meant he would use chemical weapons, Fares replied: "I have absolute conviction that if the circle of the people of Syria becomes tighter on the regime, it will not hesitate to use chemical weapons."
As Fares spoke to the BBC from the safety of a hotel in Qatar, the rebel Free Syrian Army launched 'Operation Damascus Volcano', an all-out assault on the Syrian capital. Assad has deployed tanks and helicopters in the city for the first time to combat the threat.
Fares, the most senior member of the Assad regime to defect so far, also suggested in his interview that chemical weapons might already have been used "partially" in the rebel stronghold of Homs and that the Syrian government is collaborating with al-Qaeda to carry out deadly bombings against its own people.
The significance of Fares's account of regime brutality is debatable. As Gardner explains: "This is a serious allegation from a defector with some inside knowledge, but Mr Fares is not a scientist nor a soldier. And his words have disturbing echoes of the sort of claims being trumpeted about Saddam's mythical WMD in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
"Nawaf Fares does of course have a vested interest in discrediting the regime which he has just deserted."
Whatever the truth of Fares's claims, the possibility of a chemical weapons attack by Assad on his own people further complicates an issue that has been exercising the Pentagon for some time.
Assad might be presiding over a brutal crackdown on dissent, but while he is in power Syria's large chemical weapons stockpile, which is fully weaponised and said to include sarin and VX, is at least secure. It is the aftermath of the fall of Assad that worries many experts, when there is a possibility that the weapons could fall into the hands of extremists.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Western intelligence had picked up the Syrian army moving chemical weapons around. US officials were divided over whether this meant Assad was moving the armaments to places of safety or, as Fares would have it, planning to deploy them against rebels.
The same article claims the US has been working on plans for Jordanian special forces to secure chemical weapons stockpiles in the event that things end messily for the Assad regime.
Israel, something of a specialist in Syrian intelligence matters, seems relaxed about the matter. A senior official in Jerusalem told The Guardian the chemical weapons arsenal "is dispersed and under the control of a dedicated army unit that has a high degree of loyalty to the regime and is commanded by senior Alawites [Assad's sect]".
The source added: "It has not been involved in the nitty-gritty of fighting. It has been impacted by it but has not been used to fight the people. There are signs that Syria has understood the problem."