Evidence is mounting from the United States and Israel that the Syrian regime is using chemical weapons against rebels. But experts doubt that this will spark a military intervention by western nations.
Since the bloody civil war in Syria began, there have been repeated reports that President Bashar al-Assad has employed chemical weapons against his own people. Syria has acknowledged that it has chemical and biological weapons. But Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi recently said these would not be used against Syria's own citizens.
The international community, in particular Israel, does not want to rely on these assurances. Earlier this week, Israel's most senior military-intelligence analyst Itai Brun told a security conference in Tel Aviv that symptoms of victims in Syria indicated the use of nerve gas.
"Shrunken pupils, foaming at the mouth and other signs indicate, in our view, that lethal chemical weapons were used," said Brun, who is head of Israel's military intelligence research division. In view of these symptoms, it could be assumed that Syrian government forces had employed "probably sarin."
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not confirm this military intelligence information to Washington. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was initially very reserved in responding to the Israeli assessment. But US officials proceeded to confirm in a letter to lawmakers that the intelligence community believed "with varying degrees of confidence" that chemical weapons had been used on a small scale.
Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters after a congressional hearing that the US was aware of two instances of chemical attacks. However, it was not certain whether Assad had in fact employed lethal weapons against rebels. It was also not clear under which conditions this may have occurred.
US against military intervention
Eyal Zisser, a Syria expert at Tel Aviv's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, said he assumed there were "limited cases" of chemical weapons employed by the Assad regime, but not "massive use". The reactions by the US and Israeli governments were so tentative because they were fully aware of the political implications.
"They probably don't have or can't present hard evidence and that is why they are reluctant to confirm," Zisser said. US President Barack Obama has in the past repeatedly stated that the use of chemical weapons was a "red line" Assad must not cross.
"But the basic tenor of the US is that they do not want a military intervention in Syria," Zisser said. "At the same time, if there is a massive use of chemical weapons and there would be hundreds of people found dead, they will be forced to intervene. But this is not the case."
Günter Meyer, head of the Center for Research on the Arab World in Mainz, said he considered it unlikely that the Syrian regime would in the current situation allow itself to act rashly and employ sarin - thereby crossing the "red line" set by Obama and provoking a massive intervention by western nations.
"Chemical warfare can also be staged by opposition forces in order to pressure the US and NATO, so that weapons are finally officially delivered to the rebels," Meyer said. To date, only Qatar and Saudi Arabia have officially delivered weapons to the rebels.
Syria's Israel policies
Assad would only turn to massive chemical weapons use "if he is cornered and sees it as having no other choice," said Dina Esfandiary from the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
"Chemical weapons are not useful weapons of war," she said. "They are weapons of fear or disruption."
Syria began to develop chemical weapons in the mid-1970s. There are four known production facilities near Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama. Syria proceeded to develop such weapons further with the support of Arab countries, the Soviet Union and later Iran.
"In the 1980s they came to the conclusion that this is the only way to deter Israel and to balance Israel's military superiority and so they became a superpower when it comes to chemical capabilities," Zisser said.
But it is be no means clear where all of the weapons are being stored or how large the stock is. Assad has ignored calls by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to allow UN experts into the country. Syria has not signed the international Chemical Weapons Convention and is therefore not obligated to provide any information on or discontinue production of chemical weapons.
"Because it is such a concern today, western intelligence agencies have tried to find out as much as they possibly can about his stockpiles and their locations," Esfandiary said. "But they presumably are not yet familiar with the entire program." The regime had put a lot of thought into storing the stockpiles securely, for example by separating the components and storing them in different locations, she added.
Earlier this year, CNN quoted a Pentagon study which stated that up to 70,000 soldiers would be required to secure Syria's chemical weapons arsenal due to the geographical distribution of the production facilities and storage sites.
Fear of terrorist groups
Israel fears that some of Syria's chemical weapons could get into the wrong hands during the civil war in Syria or in an ensuing political chaos. Fanatical groups or Hezbollah could gain control over these arms. This would also mean that the "red line" would have been crossed for the US. But Esfandiary doesn't believe that Hezbollah would make use of such chemical weapons, should they get their hands on them.
"Hezbollah is trying to be a legitimate actor in Lebanon," she said. "Although they have invested a lot in keeping Assad in power, they have spent the better part of the last 20 years saying that the reason why they are a legitimate political actor is because of their resistance against Israel and its use of disproportionate means against its enemies." It would cast a poor light on Hezbollah if they were to employ methods which they themselves criticized, she added.
The neighboring countries Jordan and Turkey also share the concern about the lethal weapons arsenal. Zisser said he believes the nations already cooperate closely in order to observe and prevent possible arms transports.
"This war has no clear borders," he said. "Once you start a radicalization of the conflict, it can also move to the neighboring countries. So nobody is happy about it."