Worries grow over Syria chemical weapons arsenal

Collapse of Assad regime could put toxins in the wrong hands; No one knows the size, quality of WMDs collected by Syria.

weapons of mass destruction 311 R (photo credit: Reuters)
weapons of mass destruction 311 R
(photo credit: Reuters)
As the days of Syrian President Bashar Assad increasingly look numbered, concerns are mounting that the regime’s vast stockpile of chemical weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists by accident or by plan.
No one knows the size and quality of the arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that the Assad regime has accumulated over the years. Its nuclear aspirations probably ended with a mysterious 2007 attack on a suspected nuclear facility, and experts are divided on whether Syria has biological weapons.
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But they are nearly certain that Damascus operates a comprehensive chemical weapons program that encompasses production and delivery capabilities. Major-General Amir Eshel, the head of the Israeli military's planning division, was the latest official to express concern about what will happen to Syria’s WMD. He told reporters in Jerusalem this week it was only a matter of time before some of the arsenal makes it was out of government-secured facilities.
“We are talking about huge stockpiles,” he said. “That's a major concern because I don't know who is going to own those the day after. Up till now, what has been transferred to Hezbollah? What will be transferred to Hezbollah? What will be divided between those factions inside Syria?”
The Wall Street Journal reported in late August that a joint US-Israeli surveillance operation has been monitoring Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Washington reportedly has contingency plans if there are signs that the regime is preparing to use chemical weapons or pass them on to organizations such as Hezbollah.
Assad is not the first despot in distress to arouse concern about chemicals weapons. As Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was unraveling in the face of civil war last summer, the US and other powers worked to ensure that the country’s WMD didn’t fall into the wrong hands.
That program so far has gone well, with the global monitoring body, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), due to report on Friday on it’s the cleanup in Libya to date. “We’ve had very good cooperation,” Michael Luhan, OPCW’s spokesman, told The Media Line about Libya’s transitional government.
But Syria’s chemical weapons horde is believed to be many times bigger and more sophisticated. How big and how sophisticated is anyone’s guess because Damascus never agreed to any international oversight.
“Syria has never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and has been indifferent over the years to our consistent overtures to open a discussion on the issue,” Luhan said. “We’re monitoring events in Syria closely … and hope whatever situation subsequently develops from the turmoil will create more favorable circumstances for joining the convention.”
The Monterey Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS believes that Syria has probably acquired the ability to develop and produce chemical weapons agents including mustard gas and sarin, and possibly the VX nerve agent.
Syria also possesses the means of aiming those lethal substances to targets.
While it may have dropped a program to arm short-range missiles with chemical warheads following a 2007 accident, Syria has long-range Scud-B and Scud-C ballistic missiles capable of being fitted with chemical warheads. It may also stockpile artillery shells and rockets filled with chemicals.
“There’s a huge difference between the two arsenals,” Leonard Spector, director of CNS’s Washington DC office, told The Media Line.
“The Libyan arsenal had been under inspection so it scale was well known. We did find some additional weapons but by and large it was understood,” he said. “The Syrian capability not only includes World War I-type chemical agents like mustard gas that are semi-liquid, but they have the advanced nerve agents developed more recently.”
John Hart, head of the chemical and biological security, said that of the suspected Syrian chemicals stockpile VX and sarin are potentially the most lethal, but creating large-scale threat would require obtaining large amounts of the toxins.
“The only weapons on the chemical side that might cause large numbers of deaths are organo-phosphorus nerve agents,” he said. “Hundreds of tons of chemical weapons agents are generally required for operations against military forces in the field.”
Syria’s biological capabilities, if they exist at all, are shrouded in more mystery. American experts have said Syria can produce anthrax and botulism toxins, but a Swedish Defense Agency report in 2004 found no evidence of a program, according to the CNS.
If Syria was on its way to developing nuclear weapons – a charge it has vehemently denied – an aerial attack on its facility at Dair Alzour, which was suspected of housing an unfinished atomic reactor, likely put an end to them. Israel is believed to have been behind the September 2007 raid, but it has never claimed responsibility.
Some analysts fear Assad might opt to transfer some of the arsenal to his allies Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement that fields a huge militia and has fought Israel, most recently in 2006. Others see a risk that the Assad regime might use chemicals weapons against its own people.
Even after battling opposition forces for 10 months Assad has so far not lost effective control of any part of the country. But chaos could enable rebels, foreign militant groups or arms dealers to raid the chemical weapons depots.
Michelle Dover, a researcher writing in World Politics Review last month, noted that the cities of Homs, Hamah and Latakia are both major centers of unrest and suspected of hosting important chemical-weapon production facilities. Aleppo, which has also witnessed major protests, is believed to be a center for missile production and storage. A suspected chemical weapons production site in Al-Safirah is nearby, she said.
“We believe they have munitions that are filled and ready to be used, like artillery shells and possibly aerial bombs,” said Spector of CNS. “There is a danger of some of these being taken during a conflict. Rebels will not be able to use missiles or bombs, but they could use artillery shells. And they could find a way to transport a bomb by truck.”