A portion of Syria's large stockpile of chemical warfare agents have been removed from holding sites, raising fears in the United States that the Assad government might be prepared to unleash the materials on opposition fighters or others, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday (see GSN, June 22).
The regime is believed to hold hundreds of tons of blister and nerve agents stored at multiple locations, along with missiles and other means of delivering the materials. Syria is not a member state to the Chemical Weapons Convention and has never publicly declared holding such armaments.
President Bashar Assad has sought to crush an uprising against his government that began last year. Thousands have died and there have been worries that the chemical arsenal could be deployed against the resistance or possibly put at risk of diversion to terrorists if the security situation further deteriorates.
"The regime has a plan for ethnic cleansing, and we must come to terms with this," according to an anonymous U.S. government insider. "There is no diplomatic solution."
The newspaper cited select sources as saying that Assad, rather than planning to employ the chemical agents, might be moving his assets as a ploy to force opposition-backing Sunni Muslims out of their households.
Either way, "this could set a precedent of WMD being used under our watch," the official said. "This is incredibly dangerous to our national security."
The recent development is being addressed in closed-door Obama administration intelligence discussions. Sources did not offer details on the movement of the material, but noted particular concern about Damascus' stock of sarin nerve agent.
Washington and partner states are leaning harder on Assad ally Russia to support a plan for regime change in Syria. The latest intelligence could heighten the global pressure on Damascus or highlight the danger of joining an armed conflict involving a state holding unconventional armaments, source said.
"This shows how complex this is," according to another official.
Damascus denied the claim of arsenal relocation.
"This is absolutely ridiculous and untrue," said Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi. "If the U.S. is so well-informed, why can't they help (U.N. envoy) Kofi Annan in stopping the flow of illegal weapons to Syria in order to end the violence and move towards the political solution?"
The Syrian government does not appear to have lost control of the stockpile, Obama administration officials said.
"We have repeatedly made it clear that the Syrian government has a responsibility to safeguard its stockpiles of chemical weapons, and that the international community will hold accountable any Syrian officials who fail to meet that obligation," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Resistance fighters have seized military chemical protection gear, according to top resistance representatives. Chemical warfare materials can pose a threat both to their intended targets and their users, as Syria learned when a number of people died in a 2007 mustard agent mishap at a chemical arms site, the Journal reported.
"We can't discount him using this, we just can't," said Joseph Holliday, a one-time U.S. Army intelligence specialist. "If we believe the Assad regime and their closest allies view this as an existential struggle, we have to assume they could use chemical weapons against their population at some point in the conflict."
There is information that the Assad government is preparing chemical or biological armaments, said Qassim Saadaldin, a representative of the armed opposition in Homs. "Assad is prepared to use these weapons should he consider his authority to be in jeopardy" (Wall Street Journal, July 12).
A portion of Syria's large stockpile of chemical warfare agents have been removed from holding sites, raising fears in the United States that the Assad government might be prepared to unleash the materials on opposition fighters or others, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.