As Syria’s civil war spirals into mounting violence, the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpile is generating increased anxiety throughout the Middle East and beyond. Taking precautionary measures, the United States has reportedly placed 150 “planners and other specialists” in Jordan to work on contingencies — including the chemical weapons threat.
As odd as it may seem, however, we are lucky that Syria’s chemical stockpile marks Damascus’s most serious weapons of mass destruction risk. Had Israel not bombed the country’s weapons reactor in 2007, the embattled nation — and the rest of us – could have been staring at the globe’s first civil war with a nuclear dimension.
Consider the domestic and international panic that could ensue if rebel factions, terrorists, government insiders or looters in civil war got control of nuclear weapons or their feedstock, or strike at a nuclear reactor to release radioactive contents. Yet this is what we could indeed face if any one of three relatively unstable countries with nuclear infrastructures–Pakistan, North Korea or Iran– were to suffer the violent political disintegration we see in Syria today. Equally disturbing — the international community does not have a reliable plan to cope.
Pakistan stands out as the country of greatest concern. First, its nuclear arsenal is sizable. Islamabad stores more than 100 weapons, fed by several reactors and enrichment plants. The country also has a small but growing nuclear power sector.
But what makes Pakistan particularly dicey is that its dysfunctional government is confronting persistent terrorist violence — including attacks on military installations believed to house nuclear weapons components. The unrest prompted Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff Ashlaq Kayani to say in August that the country could face civil war.