Editorial: Regional Dangers Grow as Syria Spins Out of Control

The violence rocking Syria reached a turning point this week, as rebels battled government troops in Damascus and a bombing killed the regime’s top security and intelligence officials.

Opposition forces have managed to sustain days of fighting in the Syrian capital for the first time in the 17-month revolt. Despite attacks from regime tanks and helicopters, they have moved deep into the regime’s backyard, armed mostly with only small arms and rocket-propelled grenades. And the opposition has succeeded in striking at President Bashar Assad’s inner circle, killing among others his defense minister and his brother-in-law, one of the regime’s most feared strongmen, in a brazen bombing at the heart of Damascus.

As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has pointed out, Assad’s rule is “rapidly spinning out of control.” One of the most important issues now facing the U.S. and the international community is Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons and the possibility that they might fall into the hands of terrorists or be used by Assad in a final act of despair.

Syria possesses the Middle East’s largest known supply of deadly chemical agents, including sarin, VX and mustard gas. It also has a variety of sophisticated means to deliver them: missile warheads, aerial bombs and artillery shells.

The Assad regime recently began moving parts of this vast arsenal of chemical weapons out of storage, a step that alarmed many in Washington. Officials fear that the regime plans to use the weapons against the rebels or civilians. Indeed, Syria’s ex-ambassador to Iraq, the most senior politician to defect to the opposition, has said that Assad can be expected to use chemical weapons against his opponents and may already have deployed them.

Another risk is that Assad will direct his lethal arsenal against Israel, in an attempt to embroil the Jewish state in the conflict and engulf the entire region in war. And, of course, it’s also possible that the weapons will find their way into rogue hands, whether because Assad decides to transfer possession or simply loses control. The Syrian president has proven willing to hand over advanced missiles and weapons technology to Hizballah in the past.

Whatever the motivation for moving the chemical weapons, this is a dangerous development. These weapons of mass destruction pose a clear threat to civilians in Syria as well as regional peace and stability. Israel, already worried at a deteriorating security situation along its southern border with Egypt, now also faces the challenge of checking weapons proliferation to its north.

Preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and their use against a civilian population is not only a matter for Syria’s neighbors, but a key national security interest of the U.S. Washington should make it clear that the Syrian government is responsible for safeguarding its stockpiles of chemical weapons. It is necessary to continue closely monitoring proliferation-sensitive materials and facilities. And contingency plans in case Assad attempts to make use of these materials or they fall into the hands of terrorist groups need to be in place.