Five months into the Syrian uprising, fissures continue to grow within Bashar
Assad’s once rock-solid police state.
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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
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
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.
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
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
uprising succeed in unseating Assad, Spector wrote, the international community
needs to set clear criteria for ensuring the remaining stockpiles’ safe
“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
“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