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How the US can prevent the use and spread of Syria's chemical weapons

The conflict in Syria could become even more deadly if Bashar al-Assad uses or loses control of his sizeable arsenal of chemical weapons. The international community’s options to prevent these scenarios are limited, but they do provide a starting point.

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A rebel fighter throws a grenade toward Syrian troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad during clashes in Aleppo, Syria, Dec. 7. Op-ed contributors Daryl G. Kimball and Paul F. Walker write: 'Syria’s chemical weapons cannot preserve Assad’s crumbling regime, but they can create an even more dangerous and deadly situation for Syria’s suffering people and its neighbors. The US and countries in the region...must overcome their differences to help preclude the use and spread of Syria’s deadly arsenals.'

Narciso Contreras/AP

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The brutal two-year war for control of Syria, which has already taken more than 40,000 lives, could become even more deadly if President Bashar al-Assad uses or loses control of his sizeable arsenal of chemical weapons in the coming days or weeks.

To help deter any such outcome, President Obama recently warned: “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”

The threat posed by chemical weapons in Syria doesn’t just lie in the possibility that the Assad regime will use them against civilians or opposition forces. Storage and production facilities could come under attack, chemical components could be mishandled, and weapons could fall into the hands of terrorist groups.

For months, US officials have been developing contingency plans for the many different scenarios that could involve chemical weapons and have been consulting with neighboring states on a coordinated response. The international community’s options to prevent the use and mismanagement of Syria’s chemical arsenal are limited, but they do provide a starting point.

Syria is bound by the 1925 Geneva Convention not to use chemical agents in warfare, but it is one of eight countries that have not yet joined the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention banning all development, production, and deployment of deadly chemicals. It is believed to possess hundreds of tons of mustard gas, blister agents, and nerve agents, including sarin and VX. Its stockpile is deliverable by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets. Experts say that just a drop of nerve agent, on the skin, ingested, or inhaled, will kill a person in a few minutes.

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