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Has Assad Already Lost Control of Syria’s Chemical Weapons?

While the debate continues on the administration’s apparent slip of tongue that is causing some much confusion about President Obama’s Syria policy or rather, lack thereof, the UN has now weighed in on the sarin attacks. And the response, while still tentative and requiring further confirmation, is bound to muddy the waters even further.

Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Enquiry on Syria, has pointed an accusing finger at the opposition for the use of sarin gas. In an interview she gave to Swiss-Italian TV yesterday, Ms. Del Ponte indicated that evidence suggests the much-reported-on sarin gas attacks were launched by Syrian rebel forces, not by the regime.

The UN sounds surprised, as will everyone else. Considering that Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi made a similar accusation last week, adding that the use chemical weapons by rebels was a red line for Iran, things are just about to get interesting.

But quite aside from the fact that the emerging evidence on which Ms. Del Ponte’s statement is based could now be used by Iran as a pretext for even more overt involvement in the Syrian civil war, the rebels’ apparent responsibility for a chemical weapons attack should provide a moment of clarity in the debate. If anything, it should spur the Obama administration and its Western allies into action.

A rebel chemical attack means that the Syrian regime has lost control over its arsenal. Their WMDs have now fallen into the hands of the opposition. Just imagine, then, how much more dangerous the entire regional theater becomes once we contemplate the implications of Syria’s vast chemical weapons arsenal let loose in the hands of warring factions.

The chaos that followed the Libya adventure led to vast amounts of conventional weapons being transferred across Libya’s borders into Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, including Syria, as indicated in a recent UN Panel of Experts’ report.

If Ms. Del Ponte is right, the rebels, having shown no moral compunction about killing their countrymen with sarin gas, may easily transfer whatever weaponry they have gotten hold of onto others. Weapons smuggling, after all, has been on-going across the Lebanese-Syrian border for some time in both directions.

Which brings us to the foreign policy “confusion” about red lines, unscripted remarks and the national interest.

The policy implications of rebels using chemical weapons in Syria are that the Syrian government, regardless of who is ultimately responsible for the use of sarin gas against civilians, can no longer be relied on to keep those weapons under lock and key. Israel’s airstrikes deep into Syria over the weekend prove that where there is a will there is a way to take Syria’s arsenal out, without boots on the ground. If Ms. Del Ponte is proven right, ultimately, airstrikes destroying Syria’s non-conventional weapons should be the first order of priority for the U.S. administration.