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Protecting Syrian Chemical Arms Could Require International Force: Envoys

Syrian opposition fighters search for a sniper during an April clash with government military personnel  in a Damascus suburb. The potential collapse of President Bashar Assad’s regime could necessitate military intervention to prevent terrorists from acquiring chemical weapons stockpiled by the government, according to diplomatic officials (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon). Syrian opposition fighters search for a sniper during an April clash with government military personnel in a Damascus suburb. The potential collapse of President Bashar Assad’s regime could necessitate military intervention to prevent terrorists from acquiring chemical weapons stockpiled by the government, according to diplomatic officials (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon).

The Syrian government's possible collapse could enable extremists to seize chemical armaments from the country in the absence of outside military involvement, Western international relations officials said in a Wednesday report by the London Telegraph (see GSN, May 30).

"The thing that privately has got people very worried is chemical weapon stocks," one envoy stated. "Were it to be the case that the regime did start to lose control of the security environment, and it looked as though it wasn't able to secure those sites, then that would be a game-changer."

The government of President Bashar Assad  is not likely to yet face an "existential threat" from the domestic opposition movement launched in Syria early last year, according to the source. Still, action by other nations could prove necessary to guard the country's chemical armaments should the regime's survival fall into question.

"We could not tolerate the possibility of some of that stuff falling into the wrong hands," the official stated. "This uprising is not an existential threat to the Assad cartel, but if it was the case that they were starting to lose the plot and it looked as if their ability to secure those materials was questionable, then I think you'd see more very serious worries coming out of the [U.N.] Security Council."

Syria is believed to have developed its chemical arsenal over several decades. The stockpile reportedly incorporates several hundred tons of nerve and blister agents, along with missiles that could deliver the materials. Damascus has not joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and is unaffiliated with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which monitors such armaments.

"It's worrying because we don't know" the total size and other specifics of Syria's chemical warfare inventory, said Dina Esfandiary, an arms control analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "We don't know exactly what Syria's capability is. We don't know how big their stockpiles are -- or where they are. It would be difficult for everybody to secure them, particularly if factions within the country are fighting each other."

"The risk of the agents falling into the hands of nonstate actors is quite worrying," the specialist added (Peter Foster, London Telegraph, May 30).

A three-day multilateral armed forces drill in Jordan this week included preparations to secure Syrian chemical armaments against acquisition by al-Qaeda, according to the Washington Times (see GSN, May 17). The maneuvers by U.S. and Arab nation forces, which wrapped up on Wednesday, addressed “seizing arms arsenals and specifically the chemical-missiles arsenals in at least three Syrian governorates,” a news report by al-Quds al-Arabi states (Bill Gertz, Washington Times, May 30).

Syria's chemical armaments are intended as a defense against Israel's presumed nuclear deterrent as well as NATO member Turkey, the Telegraph reported. The government is unlikely to tap its chemical stocks against internal dissidents, according to specialists. It is uncertain how thoroughly Syrian military personnel understand employment of the agents in combat, the newspaper said.

One Syrian chemical armaments holding site is thought to be located at al-Safir, which is not far from the Aleppo urban district. Jane's Intelligence Review has said space-based surveillance of the installation "offers substantive evidence that Syria maintains and continues to upgrade a chemical weapons program."

The al-Safir facility incorporates 16 holding structures hardened against airstrikes, and Syria has deployed SA-2 air defenses around the installation, Jane's has said.

The nation "continues to enhance its ability to deliver both conventional and chemical warheads," the publication continued. Damascus is thought to have modified 700 Scud launch vehicles to accommodate chemical armaments; few other governments in the region possess a comparable capability (Foster, London Telegraph).

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