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Russia Given "Firm Assurances" of Syrian Chemical Arms Security

A Syrian citizen journalist photograph purported to show destruction from fighting in a district of Damascus. The Syrian government has given "firm assurances" that its chemical arsenal is adequately secured, Russia indicated on Wednesday (AP Photo/Ugarit News). A Syrian citizen journalist photograph purported to show destruction from fighting in a district of Damascus. The Syrian government has given "firm assurances" that its chemical arsenal is adequately secured, Russia indicated on Wednesday (AP Photo/Ugarit News).

Russia on Wednesday said that Syria had provided "firm assurances" that its chemical weapons stockpile is sufficiently protected, Reuters reported (see GSN, July 24).

"We have received firm assurances from Damascus that the security of this arsenal is fully safeguarded," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said to ITAR-Tass.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry on Monday admitted that the Assad government holds chemical and biological weapons, which it insisted would only be used in the event of attacks by foreign invaders. Though Damascus later tried to backpedal its acknowledgement of a WMD arsenal, the admission and the threat of an attack elicited quick condemnations by the United States and European governments (Gabriela Baczynska, Reuters I/Yahoo!News, July 25).

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov raised the matter in a meeting with the Assad government's envoy to Moscow, Reuters reported on Wednesday. Bogdanov "laid out in an extremely clear form Russia's position on the inadmissibility of any threats of the use of chemical weapons," according to the Russian Foreign Ministry (Steve Gutterman, Reuters II, July 25).

A statement from the regime-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency said "the goal of [Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi's] statement and the press conference wasn't to declare but rather to respond to a methodical media campaign targeting Syria to prepare world public opinion for the possibility of military intervention under the false premise of weapons of mass destruction (similar to what happened with Iraq) or the possibility of using such weapons against terrorist groups or civilians," CNN reported.

The international community is greatly concerned about the security of Syria's chemical arms as violence continues to spread throughout the country, including in Aleppo, which is presently being contested by rebel fighters and military soldiers. A chemical depot housing Scud ballistic missiles that can deliver chemical agents in attacks is reportedly located not far from Aleppo (see GSN, July 16).

There are worries that dictator Bashar Assad might use chemical weapons on the Syrian people or that regime security around WMD facilities might be weakened due to mounting violence, creating an opportunity for nonstate actors such as Hezbollah to acquire the lethal warfare materials.

The opposition Free Syrian Army on Tuesday asserted, without providing substantiating details, that regime forces were sending some chemical weapons to the country's borders. Some chemical arms were sent to the Mediterranean coast and some were sent to airports spread out on the southern border, FSA Col. Gen. Mustafa Sheikh said in an interview with CNN.

Sheikh assigned two motives for the transfer of chemical weapons: "First, they are afraid of the Free Syrian Army's reach. And secondly, moving the weapons to the border is a threat to the international community" (CNN, July 24).

However, Vitaly Naumkin, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Oriental Studies, questioned whether Syrian soldiers are transferring chemical arms to the nation's borders.

"I don't believe the reports that the Syrian army is deploying chemical weapons near the border of the country can be true," he told Interfax. "First of all, this is easy to control. Secondly, as far as I'm aware, the United States is fully informed about the location of the chemical-weapon stockpiles due to defectors from Syria."

"I'm not sure that the Syrian plan of using chemical weapons even exists given the very limited theater of war. So it's false information from the opposition. An information war is in progress, and all statements of this kind are no more than strikes in this information war," Naumkin concluded (Interfax, July 24).

Israel is on high alert for any signs that regime safeguards around the chemical weapons are slipping. The country on Wednesday promised it would quickly take action should it be found that Hezbollah fighters are acquiring Syrian unconventional arms, the Associated Press reported.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in an interview with Israel Radio said, "For us, that's a casus belli, a red line" (Associated Press/Yahoo!News, July 25). Israel's top military officer, though, in Tuesday remarks to lawmakers was much more cautious about attacking Syria's chemical facilities, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

"The army may find it difficult to launch a pinpoint attack and we may be dragged into a broader conflict," Israeli General Staff head Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said in a Ynetnews report.

Gantz said the Syrian regime had improved security around its chemical sites and that no warfare agents have made their way to "negative elements." Still, he cautioned "this situation may change, and then we will be faced with a dilemma" (Xinhua News Agency/China Daily, July 24).

Israeli officials said in a Maariv newspaper report that public demand for gas masks has gone up sharply due to worries about diversion of some part of Syria's suspected hundreds of tons of blister and nerve agents, United Press International reported (see GSN, March 22).

Demands for special breathing apparatuses have increased by 70 percent in the last few days, with 3,700 units being handed out each day, the Hebrew-language newspaper reported (United Press International, July 25).

The Turkish armed forces have deployed elite forces near the border with Syria, Reuters reported. The troops have training in responding to a chemical arms strike, according to Turkish news organizations' reports.

The chemical arms response unit, which typically operates from the western part of the country, in May was sent to Konya in the middle part of Turkey with some soldiers deployed further on near the Syrian border, according to the Dogan News Agency.

The agency did not provide a source for its article and officials did not return requests for comment as of press time (Daren Butler, Reuters III, July 24).

Jordan's top diplomat said on Wednesday his nation had also taken precautionary measures, Reuters reported. "Jordan does not interfere in the internal affairs (of nations) but we have taken all precautions to protect our nation's safety and national security," said Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. He added, though, that employment of Syrian chemical warfare materials is "still only hypothetical until now and is not a reality" (Yasmine Saleh, Reuters IV, July 25).

Meanwhile,in excess of 60 U.S. foreign affairs specialists and ex-government officials sent a letter to the White House on Tuesday urging the U.S. military to establish "safe zones" in areas of Syria managed by opposition forces. The intent of such zones would be to safeguard residents and internally displaced people fleeing from violence and to reduce the likelihood of Damascus using its weapons of mass destruction, Foreign Policy reported.

"Such ‘safe zones' would serve as a destination for civilians fleeing violence. They would also provide the country's opposition groups ... a place to train, be equipped and organize," the letter states.

Signatories, most of whom are conservative, include ex-Bush administration officials Paul Bremer, Karl Rove and Elliott Abrams (Josh Rogin, Foreign Policy, July 24).

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