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Status of Syrian Chemical Arms a Major Worry: U.S. Counterterrorism Official

A Syrian citizen journalist photograph said to show rebels blowing up a tank on Sunday in the city of Daraa. The intensifying violence in Syria has prompted the U.S. intelligence community to question the continued security of the nation’s chemical warfare stockpile (AP Photo/Ugarit News). A Syrian citizen journalist photograph said to show rebels blowing up a tank on Sunday in the city of Daraa. The intensifying violence in Syria has prompted the U.S. intelligence community to question the continued security of the nation’s chemical warfare stockpile (AP Photo/Ugarit News).

The U.S. intelligence community is greatly concerned about the security of Syria's chemical arsenal amid worries that mounting violence in the Arab country could lead to a weakening of safeguards surrounding the warfare agents, CNN quoted a top U.S. counterterrorism official as saying on Thursday (see GSN, July 26).

The United States, Israel, and a number of other nations are closely following developing events in Syria, where dictator Bashar Assad's military prepared on Friday for a ground assault on opposition-controlled areas of the city of Aleppo. Observers fear that fighting in the country could create an opportunity for nonstate actors to seize chemical weapons or that Damascus might decide to break its promise made on Monday not to mount chemical attacks on its citizenry.

Syria has not joined the Chemical Weapons Convention or provided specifics on the size, scope and siting of the nation's chemical arsenal, which is understood to comprise large quantities of blister and nerve agents that could be dispersed by missiles and other delivery systems. Until Monday, the nation had not publicly acknowledged holding biological and chemical weapons, though Damascus quickly pulled back from that statement.

"The key for us is, are we able to identify where those weapons are?" U.S. National Counterterrorism Center head Matthew Olsen said to participants at a security forum in Aspen, Colo. "Are they safe and secure, are they falling into the wrong hands?"

Olsen declined to say whether the United States has a complete understanding of all the details surrounding Syria's chemical weapons. "This is a very sensitive time for this situation so it's an important question that we are following," he said instead.

"We continue to be concerned about the disposition of the Assad regime's chemical weapons," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Wednesday. "We believe that they are still under control of the government, and we use every opportunity to remind the Syrian government that it must maintain control of those weapons and, of course, never use them" (Jamie Crawford, CNN, July 26).

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon delivered a similar message on Friday, Reuters reported.

"I remain deeply concerned about the reports of the possible use of chemical weapons," he said to journalists in London. "I demand ... that the Syrian authorities categorically state that they will not use chemical or other weapons of mass destruction under any circumstances" (Addison/Abbas, Reuters I/Yahoo!News, July 27).

In promising on Monday not to use chemical arms in domestic attacks, the Assad regime notably left on the table the possibility that unconventional attacks could be mounted against foreign aggressors. There are concerns that Assad might, in a last ditch effort, fire chemical warhead-tipped munitions at nearby countries such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Reuters reported.

There is also the big worry Damascus might supply ally Hezbollah with WMD materials for use in attacks on Israel.

"The chemical weapons add another level of complexity to an already volatile situation," Stimson Center Middle East expert Mona Yacoubian told the news agency. "It is possible that feeling cornered ... the Syrian government could act rashly -- whether with chemical weapons or another tactic. However, it is also clear that this would be suicidal" (Peter Apps, Reuters II, July 26).

Russia and the United States have both signaled to Damascus that use of chemical weapons would cross a red line, the ramifications of which have not been publicly spelled out by either power.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said multinational talks are presently taking place about a "post-Assad Syria," with one focus on the future status of the nation's biological and chemical warfare assets, the Canadian Press reported on Thursday.

Ottawa and partner governments, according to Baird, are focused on making sure that Syrian WMD materials are not seized by bad actors in the chaos that could be expected to accompany an end of the Assad regime

"We're concerned about two things: them being used against the Syrian people, and two, we're concerned about their security both before and after the regime would fall," he said (Jennifer Ditchburn, Canadian Press/Ottawa Citizen, July 25).

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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