The Assad regime's move to distribute its chemical arsenal around Syria could make the weapons harder to protect against possible pilfering should the government lose its grip on power, regional and U.S. officials told the Washington Post for a Thursday article.
There might now be up to 20 facilities holding chemical armaments and ingredients. Officials are keeping tabs on the installations, but concerns are rising that they have been unable to pinpoint the whereabouts of all chemical weapon-related sites and that some lethal materials might be seized for use in attacks or otherwise diverted.
"We think we know everything, but we felt the same way about Libya," said one anonymous ex-U.S. intelligence official.
At the beginning of the 2011 uprising against dictator Muammar Qadhafi, the international community was under the impression Libya still possessed roughly 11.5 metric tons of degrading blister agent and a larger quantity of precursor materials. An additional cache of sulfur mustard agent was later discovered that Libya had failed to declare as a member nation to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
"We had been on the ground in Libya, yet there were big surprises, both in terms of quantities and locations," the former U.S. official said in an interview with the Post.
Two unidentified officials with access to recent intelligence findings said it seems Assad's chemical arsenal is more dispersed and of a greater size than was earlier suspected. The most lethal chemical agents are stored in approximately six areas. An additional 14 installations are employed to produce and hold chemical weapon parts, the officials said.
"It's obvious that ensuring their security is paramount. Planning for different scenarios, consulting appropriately with allies and preparing to manage any new challenges is simply being responsible," a U.S. government source said.
The United States and Syrian neighbors Turkey, Jordan, and Israel are preparing for the threat that violent extremists could exploit the chaos to obtain chemical weapons. Washington has reportedly sternly warned Syrian opposition fighters not to attempt to seize the chemical depots.
As Syria never signed the CWC pact, no concrete details are known about its chemical arsenal. Still, the country is understood to possess an active chemical weapons program encompassing hundreds of tons of materials such as mustard gas and sarin and VX nerve agents as well delivery systems including ballistic missiles, rockets and air-dropped bombs. Damascus is also suspected of having a biological weapons program.
Russia and North Korea have supplied aid to Damascus in recent decades in building weapon sites that are difficult to detect from the sky and protected against outsider threats, the ex-U.S. official said. "They are masters at concealment."
Multiple serving and ex-U.S. officials admitted it would be a Herculean task to seize, disarm, guard, or destroy Syria's chemical weapons in alongside continuing fighting between Assad loyalists and rebels and a probable regime effort to retaliate against any foreign military intervention.
One advantage, though, is that the majority of the chemical arsenal is made up of ingredient agents which must be mixed and poured into munitions before they can be used. Untrained individuals who attempt to prepare the precursor materials are likely to cause their own deaths.
In a best-case outcome, foreign specialists could travel to opposition-held areas of Syria to take control of the chemical facilities, as was the case in Libya after the collapse of the Qadhafi regime. If, however, chemical installations are overwhelmed during fighting between rebels and loyalists or the Syrian military is perceived to be preparing to launch chemical strikes, developed crisis response strategies would have highly trained foreign units enter the country to seize the weapons, informed regional and U.S. officials said.
Opposition forces are becoming more worried about the potential for a besieged Assad to order chemical strikes in a last ditch effort to maintain power, Syria analyst Andrew Tabler said. "They think the regime is moving the weapons around, mostly to the coast and other areas where the regime will go if it is forced to contract."
Foreign intelligence agencies have yet to uncover indications the Syrian military is mixing chemical agents and readying munitions for use in a strike. The United States, the United Kingdom and France have all warned Damascus they would harshly respond to any such attack.
Russia opposes foreign military intervention in Syria without U.N. Security Council authorization. Moscow has used its close connections with Damascus to underline to the Assad regime that chemical weapons must not be used.
"We are absolutely sure -- and have Damascus' official reassurances on this account -- that this country's government is taking all the necessary measures to ensure safety of the chemical arsenal," Interfax quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying on Thursday. "Certainly, we rule out the possibility that Syria could use its chemical weapons for combat purposes."