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WASHINGTON--Growing fear that war in Syria could unleash the world's first use of chemical weapons in nearly three decades is based on two grim scenarios--neither considered likely but both carrying risks of civilian massacre and a major escalation of violence.
The first is that President Bashar Assad, in a last-ditch effort to save his regime, would order chemical attacks--either as a limited demonstration to the rebels of his willingness to use the internationally banned weapons, or in a large-scale offensive designed to turn the tide of a conflict that already has killed tens of thousands.
The second is that some portion of Assad's arsenal could be moved to Iran or Lebanon or fall into the hands of foreign fighters with ties to terrorist groups who are helping Syrian rebels.
What kinds of chemicals are in question? What weapons?
News this week that an unknown number of weapons in Syria were recently loaded with the nerve agent sarin brought the West's fears into sharp relief.
Syria has never confirmed that it even has chemical weapons. But it is believed to possess substantial stockpiles of mustard gas and a range of nerve agents, including sarin, a highly toxic substance that can suffocate its victims by paralyzing muscles around their lungs.
James Quinlivan, a Rand Corp. analyst who studies the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, said Syria is thought to have hundreds of tons of chemical weapons material, including not only sarin and mustard gas but possibly also the nerve agent VX, which, like sarin, kills by attacking the central nervous system.
Iraq's Saddam Hussein used sarin and mustard gas on Kurds in northern Iraq in a 1987-88 campaign that killed thousands. That was the last time state-controlled chemical weapons were used; a Japanese doomsday cult unleashed sarin in the Tokyo subway system in 1995, killing 13.
The precise dimensions of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal are not known, in part because it has never been subjected to outside inspection. Experts say it is a formidable collection, but the weapons date back almost 40 years--when Assad's father, President Hafez Assad, began accumulating them--and have not been modernized.
"Frankly, you'd stand as much chance of committing a self-inflicted wound as of actually killing opponents," said Aram Nerguizian, a Mideast security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "These systems are not going to achieve the end state that the regime wants, which is regime survival."
For example, the arsenal apparently does not include weapons that combine or mix chemical ingredients after a shell or missile is fired; instead the mixing must be done manually prior to launching the weapon, Nerguizian said.