Worries grow over fate of Syrian chemical weapons

Assad regime may have world's largest stockpile of chemical warheads, which experts say could fall into terrorists' hands.

By OREN KESSLER
August 29, 2011 20:07
4 minute read.
Demonstrators march through streets in Damascus.

Syrian protesters Damascus_311. (photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)

 
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Five months into the Syrian uprising, fissures continue to grow within Bashar Assad’s once rock-solid police state.

Sunnis are battling proregime Alawites, army defections are on the rise and the Damascus government looks vulnerable as ever.

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As the prospect of internecine warfare looms, observers are increasingly worried Syria’s massive chemical weapons could fall into the wrong hands to devastating effect.

The Washington Post reported Monday some weapons experts believe Syria to have the world’s largest chemical stockpile, much of it acquired from the Soviet Union starting in the 1970s.

Since the end of the Cold War, the US, Russia and many other countries have gradually eliminated their chemicalweapons arsenals. Syria, however, was one of seven states that refused to ratify the 1993 UN Chemical Weapons Convention and proceeded to expand and develop its own stockpile.

Israel has signed, but not ratified, the UN treaty, and a 1993 US Congressional report described the country as generally believed to have undeclared offensive chemical warfare capabilities.

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The newspaper cited CIA estimates that Damascus has a large store of mustard-gas and sarin-based warheads (sarin is a lethal nerve agent, even in minute quantities) and is developing VX, an even deadlier chemical that resists breaking down in the environment.

A 2009 CIA report found Syria has had a chemical weapons program “for many years and already has a stockpile of CW agents, which can be delivered by aircraft, ballistic missiles and artillery rockets.”

“We are very concerned about the status of Syria’s WMD, including chemical weapons,” Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, told The Wall Street Journal this week. “Together with the US administration, we are watching this situation very carefully.”

Israeli officials have expressed concern over the instability that could follow the ouster of the Assad regime, which for four decades kept a quiet border on the Golan Heights, even as it armed Lebanese and Palestinian terrorist groups. According to Oren, however, Israel is not necessarily opposed to seeing Assad leave the international stage.

“We see a lot of opportunity emerging from the end of the Assad regime,” he said.

Assad is not believed to have transferred chemical weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah, radical groups to which it serves as a bridge for their main sponsor, Iran. But analysts said the fate of those weapons could be unclear should the Assad regime be weakened, or Syria plunged into full-scale civil war.

“If anti-Assad insurgents take up arms, the chemical sites, as symbols of the regime’s authority, could become strategic targets,” Leonard Spector, a Washington- based nonproliferation expert, wrote last week in a ForeignPolicy.

com article entitled “Assad’s Chemical Romance.”

“This could lead to disastrous outcomes, including confiscation of the chemical weapons by a radical new national government, or sale of the weapons as war booty to organized non-state actors or criminal groups,” he wrote, noting the main weapons storehouses – in Damascus, Hama, Latakia and Aleppo – are all in areas that have seen some degree of popular unrest.

Spector wrote that Syria’s successor regime could be as aggressive and destabilizing as any radical group: “Let’s imagine that Assad is eventually removed: What leaders would gain control of these weapons after he departed? Saudibacked Sunni groups? Iranianbacked Shi’ite organizations? “Whoever they might be, it is unclear that the newcomers would follow the Assads’ cautious- use doctrine and refusal to share chemical weapons with non-state groups, or that the new leaders would be able to maintain strict security measures at the chemical sites.”

Moreover, an existential threat to the Assad regime could cause it to abandon its previous policy of restraint regarding its chemical weapons.

“It is not a huge leap from attacking civilians with tank fire, machine guns and naval artillery to deploying poison gas, and the shock effect and sense of dread engendered by even limited use could quash a citywide uprising within an hour,” he wrote.

Should the uprising succeed in unseating Assad, Spector wrote, the international community needs to set clear criteria for ensuring the remaining stockpiles’ safe handling.

“If a new government replaces Assad – or even if different groups compete for international recognition – a US-led coalition, including Turkey and the leading Arab states, should demand as a condition of support that the weapons immediately be placed under control of international monitors,” he wrote.

“Hopefully, Syria’s new leaders will have genuine legitimacy and will not need to prop up their credibility at home by clinging to these barbaric weapons.”

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