Analysts Warn of Chemical Weapons "Powder Keg" in Syria

Analysts are increasingly warning of the chemical weapons nightmare that could unfold in Syria should the government of dictator Bashar Assad abruptly collapse or a full-scale civil war break out in the violence-stricken Arab state, the Canadian National Post reported on Tuesday (see GSN, March 9; Peter Goodspeed, National Post, March 13).

Syria is judged to have "one of the largest and most developed [chemical weapons programs] in the world," according to a lengthy analysis posted to the Foreign Policy website by Bilal Saab, Chen Kane and Leonard Spector, all of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. As Damascus has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, there is an absence of specific public data on the scope, size and dispersion of its assumed program.

"The country is a chemical powder keg ready to explode," the issue experts said.

The country is also thought to possess a biological weapons effort, though of a considerably less advanced nature than its chemical arms initiative, the analysis states.

Syria is said to possess substantive amounts of sarin nerve agent and mustard blister agent that can be dispersed via artillery rounds, air-dropped bombs, rockets and missiles. There are believed to be approximately 50 chemical arsenals and manufacturing facilities located throughout the country in addition to several related sites, according to the CNS analysis. 

Officials from a range of U.S. departments have made comments in recent weeks on the necessity of closely monitoring Syria's chemical weapons and other WMD-related sites. Surveillance is being conducted using space-based systems and other surveillance technology, the experts said. The Obama administration is also understood to have reached out to Syria's Arab neighbors, particularly Jordan, to coordinate joint plans for guarding against the possible regional proliferation of chemical arms.

Thousands of Syrians are believed to have been killed in the regime's yearlong effort to put down opposition. In the event of continued and increased violence in the Middle Eastern state, the CNS experts said they foresee six possibilities that could result in the use or proliferation of Syrian chemical weapons.

First, the Assad regime if confronted with a looming regime failure could decide to mount chemical strikes on armed insurgents, civilian protesters, Israel or other U.S. regional allies. Tempering such a decision by the Syrian ruler would likely be the knowledge that "the moment he uses these outlawed, mass destruction weapons NATO jets will come bombing his palace," the analysis reads.

On the other hand,  it not apparent "how Assad will weigh the costs and benefits of such a momentous decision, especially at a time when he may be facing an existential threat at home. He might calculate that he has a better chance of surviving a NATO onslaught than, for instance, a growing rebellion in Damascus."

Second, there is the possibility of rogue Syrian army commanders making the unauthorized decision to use chemical weapons on opposition forces.

Third, if Assad believes his government will fall he could choose to ship his chemical arms to regional partners such as Iran or Hezbollah.

Fourth, ongoing fighting could cause military protections around chemical weapons sites to weaken to the point where terrorist entities such as al-Qaeda are able to pilfer warfare materials.

Armed opposition groups might also attempt to seize control of chemical depots "in an effort to deny government forces the ability to use chemical weapons at a particular location," the authors wrote. In the event that insurgents are able to take control of some facilities, they would face the challenge of defending them against counterattacks by regime soldiers or militants. These scenarios raise the possibility of the use of heavy weaponry that could cause severe damage to the arsenals and their contents and lead to the release into the environment of toxic chemical agents.

The CNS analysis emphasizes "it is impossible to assess with any degree of precision the likelihood of these scenarios."

"The goal of securing and controlling WMD in Syria, despite its critical importance, cannot be decoupled from the challenge of overall U.S. policy toward Syria. In other words, the safety and control of Assad's chemical assets neither define nor drive U.S. policy toward Syria," the writers concluded (Foreign Policy, March 13).

It is extremely improbable that in the event of a regime collapse, Syria's estimated 50 chemical production and holding sites could be secured against all proliferation, according to an early March report in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The Pentagon projects it would require in excess of 75,000 U.S. troops to protect all Syrian chemical arms installations.

"This is of course, if [the troops] could arrive before any WMD were transferred or looted -- a highly unlikely prospect," according to the analysis (Charles Blair, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 1).

March 14, 2012
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Analysts are increasingly warning of the chemical weapons nightmare that could unfold in Syria should the government of dictator Bashar Assad abruptly collapse or a full-scale civil war break out in the violence-stricken Arab state, the Canadian National Post reported on Tuesday.

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