|Oh Look! Here's some now...|
It has become a common, if unfortunate convention to identify chemical weapons as Weapons of Mass Destruction, alongside nuclear and biological weapons, but this is clearly wrong. It is part of an overall modern tendency of "threat inflation" that governments use to elevate any situation they choose to a state of existential conflict, a condition under which they can take actions that otherwise their populations would find unacceptable. But chemical weapons are battlefield weapons, not capable of the destruction of a large modern city or an entire population.
Which isn't to say that chemical weapons aren't horrible in their own way. They kill in truly awful ways, if there is some kind of scale where being blown into pieces by an airstrike or left to bleed out with large caliber bullet wounds occupy one level and suffocating under the effects of toxic gasses that operate much like pesticides on a human scale might somehow be judged more awful. But even more to the point, they kill indiscriminately without control or guidance outside of the prevailing winds. This makes them a nearly ideal weapon of terror, if not actually of mass destruction.
The existence of these chemical stockpiles in Syria creates a number of genuine concerns. The first is that al-Assad might order their use against the rebels - even though they are operating in dense urban environments with large civilian populations. Then there is the equal and opposite concern that the rebels will overrun a military base with a chemical weapons inventory and use them against regime forces, which are also in that same kind of densely populated environment. But a much greater concern - at least to people outside of Syria itself - is that any number of players, from the Syrian army to the rebel forces to organized criminal factions might gain possession of these weapons and transfer them to other groups or organizations. Some of the Syrian rebels are jihadis, with ties to the original al-Quaeda, and the Ba'ath government is supported outright by Hezbollah in Lebanon. Other non-governmental groups throughout the region would happily buy a few containers of Sarin gas for their own purposes. And famously, the Obama administration has declared the use of chemical weapons to be a "red line" that would necessitate an American military response.
The frightening part of all this discussion around Syrian chemical weapons is summed up neatly in the principle of Chekhov's Gun. As Anton Chekhov famously wrote in 1889, "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." With all this rhetoric around these weapons, the almost magical qualities attributed to them and the power they have been granted to change the very terms of the civil war, it seems unlikely that they won't ultimately become a key part of the conflict. al-Assad has nothing to lose - he'll never leave Syria alive at this point, and even if he does, they can only hang him for war crimes once. The rebels are virtually praying for a large scale unambiguous deployment of chemical weapons, an act that might bring real external military power to bear on the remains of the Ba'ath - Alawite regime and quickly bring an end to their power. Palestinian groups, long killed and imprisoned by Israel with impunity see the possession of sufficiently terrible weapons as a way to level the playing field and give them some leverage in negotiations. With all of these pressures from so many different directions compelling their use, it seems inevitable at this point that they will become the focal point, and perhaps the end-game, of the Syrian civil war.