Bashar Assad loads up the chemical shells

There comes a moment in every young dictator’s life where he dreams of using sarin gas on his own people.  It looks like Syria’s Bashar Assad has reached that point, according to NBC News:

The Syrian military is prepared to use chemical weapons against its own people and is awaiting final orders from President Bashar Assad, U.S. officials told NBC News on Wednesday.

The military has loaded the precursor chemicals for sarin, a deadly nerve gas, into aerial bombs that could be dropped onto the Syrian people from dozens of fighter-bombers, the officials said.

As recently as Tuesday, officials had said there was as yet no evidence that the process of mixing the “precursor” chemicals had begun. But Wednesday, they said their worst fears had been confirmed: The nerve agents were locked and loaded inside the bombs.

Sarin is an extraordinarily lethal agent. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces killed 5,000 Kurds with a single sarin attack on Halabja in 1988.

The anti-war crowd and their political allies spent years telling us that chemical weapons aren’t really “weapons of mass destruction,” but maybe that only applies to Iraq.  Everyone seems very upset at the notion of Assad gassing his people, even though he’s been doing a fine job of slaughtering them in other ways.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who once hailed Assad as a reformer but appears to have soured on him considerably, said his regime has become “increasingly desperate” as it teeters on the brink of collapse.  She’s ready to bestow official recognition upon the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, who will hopefully work out better as the new government of Syria than the Muslim Brotherhood did in Egypt.  Efforts are being made to give Assad a comfortable exit and asylum, provided he doesn’t let the nerve gas fly.

According to the Associated Press, the spectre of a desperate Syrian regime deploying chemical weapons has goosed the Russians into getting serious about reining in their client state:

The top U.S. and Russian diplomats will hold a surprise meeting Thursday with the United Nations’ peace envoy for Syria, signaling fresh hopes of an international breakthrough to end the Arab country’s 21-month civil war.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and mediator Lakhdar Brahimi will gather in Dublin on the sidelines of a human rights conference, a senior U.S. official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter. She provided few details about the unscheduled get-together.

The former Cold War foes have fought bitterly over how to address Syria’s conflict, with Washington harshly criticizing Moscow of shielding its Arab ally. The Russians respond by accusing the U.S. of meddling by demanding the downfall of President Bashar Assad’s regime and ultimately seeking an armed intervention such as the one last year against the late Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

That’s pretty much the Assad regime’s line as well.  Fox News relates their claims of the chemical weapons scare as a pretext for invading Syria:

A senior Damascus official is accusing the United States and Europe of using  the issue of chemical weapons to justify a future military intervention against  Syria.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad on Thursday accused the United  States and Europe of using the issue of chemical weapons to justify a future  military intervention against Syria. He said that any such intervention would be  “catastrophic.”

Mekdad says Syria would never use chemical weapons — even if it had them —  against its own people, calling it “suicide.” He spoke in an interview with  Lebanon’s Al Manar TV.

It is worth bearing in mind that even the most brutal totalitarian rulers know they’re crossing a line by breaking out the weapons of mass destruction.  On the other hand, Saddam Hussein didn’t exactly receive instant global justice for gassing the Kurds.  It’s hard to know which side of that dichotomy a frantic dictator might pay more attention to.  Using chemical weapons would certainly call the civilized world’s bluff.  And there’s the question of exactly where Assad would choose to drop his gas bombs – they probably wouldn’t be falling on the streets of Damascus.

One place they might fall is Lebanon, where fighting from the Syrian civil was has been spilling over.  NATO is moving Patriot missiles into Turkey, to ensure it doesn’t spill any further.  The Turks have been vocally concerned about missiles coming their way.

There are sectarian concerns as well.  Syria’s ruling class comes from a minority Shiite sect called the Alawites, while the targets of recent Lebanese violence have been Sunni Muslims.  Part of the political strategy for dismantling the Assad regime without military intervention has involved giving Syrian Shiites a firewall against Sunni domination or revenge.  The Russians have been among the biggest stumbling blocks for building the international pressure necessary to push such a solution upon Assad, who was also less likely to entertain it, back when he thought he could win the civil war through military muscle.  Such an outcome seems increasingly doubtful… as long as only conventional weapons are used.