Reports that the Syrian regime may be about to deploy chemical weapons have raised concerns in the region that the civil war in the country may be entering an even bloodier stage.
Western intelligence agencies have received information that Syrian forces have begun carrying out the necessary steps to use chemical weapons in the field. These reports have led to public warnings by Western leaders, including Foreign Minister William Hague, of “serious consequences” if these weapons are used.
The fear of chemical weapons spurred Nato to approve, at a meeting of the Alliance’s foreign ministers on Tuesday, the deployment of Patriot surface-to-air missiles along Turkey’s south-eastern borders.
Turkey’s previously close relations with Syria have rapidly deteriorated and many of the weapons and volunteers reaching rebel fighters in Syria have arrived via the Turkish border. Despite this, Turkey has refrained from attacking Syria.
Turkey is not the only neighbour of Syria worried about the potential use of chemical weapons. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported this week that there had been two approaches by Israeli “intelligence officials” to the Jordanian government in recent months seeking an agreement to an Israeli operation against Syrian chemical weapons bases near the Jordanian border. According to Mr Goldberg, these requests were declined.
Senior Israeli commanders have warned in the past that Israel would be forced to act if chemical weapons were handed over to Hizbollah or other organisations in the region. Following these warnings, the Syrian regime sent assurances, via a third party, that the chemical weapons were secure. So far this week, there has been silence on the issue from Israeli sources but the situation is being monitored closely.
Jordan could be the base for a military offensive against Syria’s chemical stockpiles. A US force is permanently based in Jordan, training the Jordanian army and the Palestinians Authority’s security forces.
In recent months, the force has been bolstered, ostensibly to help the Jordanians deal with the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees but it is widely believed that this force is also ready to intervene swiftly in case the Assad regime prepares to use chemical weapons against its own people.