Global Security Newswire
Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues
Syrian Chem Weapons Seen at Risk as Nation Splinters
WASHINGTON -- The risk that the Syrian government's chemical weapons could fall into other hands is heightened by the presence of multiple warring factions there now and the possibility that the nation might permanently splinter, intelligence and arms control experts said this week.
The main players in the rebellion that began in 2011 are the regime and the Free Syrian Army that seeks to oust President Bashar Assad. There are also “undoubtedly” Sunni jihadists in the fight against the government, which itself has longstanding ties to the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah, said George Friedman, chief executive officer of the private intelligence firm Stratfor.
“There are a lot of groups operating. Their intentions are unclear,” Friedman told Global Security Newswire. “It’s not just Hezbollah that they’re concerned about because there are Islamist groups undoubtedly operating. There’s still al-Qaida in Iraq; that’s another place [chemical weapons] could go.”
The 18-month rebellion could fragment Syria, leaving differing entities with control of sections of the country that might house some segment of the nation’s massive stocks of lethal warfare materials, he said.
Syria’s recently defected prime minister claimed last week the government has control over just one-third of the nation. Independent news assessments have indicated that Damascus remains in regime hands, along with southern and coastal areas. The regime appears to have lost control in the north and east, while central Syria is contested.
“The question of the status of chemical weapons is no longer simply a question of what the Assad government wants. Those weapons may fall into the hands of other forces,” said Friedman, who identified “a hodgepodge of groups, of religious factions, of political factions” now operating in Syria.
An analysis this month by Stratfor security specialist Scott Stewart cited “local and transnational jihadists” such as Hamas, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-Central Command.
President Obama cannot simply ring up these groups. He does, however, have conceivably the highest-possible bully pulpit to make his intentions known.
The president on Aug. 20 told reporters that “we have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region” that use or other “movement on the chemical weapons front” would breach a “red line” that could force U.S. intervention in the conflict.
Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, in a Wednesday telephone conversation, reaffirmed that “the use -- or threat -- of chemical weapons was completely unacceptable and would force them to revisit their approach so far," according to a U.K. government statement.
A number of U.S. officials have said that so far there appears to be no imminent security threat to Syria’s presumed hundreds of tons of nerve and blister agents, or the missiles and other means of delivering the unconventional warfare materials. However, concerns have persisted that Assad might use the weapons against his own people or foreign aggressors, or that some component of the stockpile might unintentionally or willingly be passed to militant or criminal organizations.
There are any variety of possible situations in which some part of the Syrian arsenal gets loose amid the escalating violence, according to Leonard Spector, deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. These include military guards abandoning their posts at stockpile sites, defectors delivering weapons to the Free Syrian Army, or troops turning armaments over to groups such as al-Qaida as a means of bargaining their way out of Syria, he stated in prepared testimony for a July hearing on Capitol Hill.
"I'd say the risk [of diversion] is genuine, maybe a 30 percent chance," Spector said on Friday by e-mail. He noted for comparison the looting of man-portable air-defense systems during the 2011 rebellion that toppled Muammar Qadhafi in Libya.
Hezbollah in South Lebanon would be a probable recipient of chemical arms, Spector added.
The Los Angeles Times reported on Wednesday that the Defense Department was preparing crisis strategies on Syria that could call for airstrikes on Syrian chemical arms sites and use of elite military teams to take control of storage facilities. Separate news accounts have also detailed other outside preparations for a Syrian chemical arms crisis.
Washington to date has been reluctant to become deeply involved in the rebellion, where assisting the opposition is understood to be significantly more complicated, and to threaten greater regional ramifications, than the NATO intervention in Libya.
Arab League states have not sought U.S. involvement. Washington has also hoped to avoid aggravating Damascus ally Russia as it seeks President Vladimir Putin’s backing for matters such as the nuclear standoff with Iran, said Daniel Serwer, a Middle East expert at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
Still, “I’d take the red line seriously,” he told GSN.
Satellite monitoring, electronic eavesdropping and other means of tracking developments inside Syria would make it possible to identify movement in the chemical stockpile, Serwer said. “I presume that [the U.S. intelligence community] will know when they’re taken out of storage and given to operational units,” he said.
Friedman, though, said it would not necessarily be “crystal clear” that such movement is occurring, or that the United States has the resources to prevent it from happening.
Varying estimates have been offered in recent months on the number of chemical arms production and holding sites dispersed across Syria, with some counts putting the number above 20. The government was also said last month to be shifting some parts of the stockpile, possibly away from conflict zones.
U.S. Central Command reportedly estimated earlier this year that 75,000 military personnel would be needed to lock down the chemical arsenal. “Tens of thousands of troops wouldn’t be enough,” Friedman said.
Attempting to secure Syria’s chemical weapons assumes a capacity to get into the country and rapidly locate and hold the facilities without an extensive search operation, he added. The situation could quickly develop into “occupation warfare” even if that is not the intent, according to the Stratfor chief.
Minus precise intelligence about the location of the chemical arms, airstrikes are likely to cause civilian casualties. From there, “you’re starting down the slippery slope politically where you turn from the savior of the Syrian people to the killers, and from simply trying to protect people to harming citizens,” Friedman said.
Stewart, in his analysis, noted that obtaining chemical weapons is not the same as being able to use them. It would not be simple for militants to deliver the agents in sufficient concentration to cause harm, or to avoid being enveloped in the gases themselves, he said.
They would also have to overcome heightened security measures to sneak the weapons into Europe, the United States or Israel. However, that does not preclude strikes against “soft targets” in the Middle East such as hotels, airports or tourist locales, Stewart wrote.
Added Spector: "Artillery shells would be easiest for them to use, or artillery rockets, if these munitions are ready-to-go, or if they are ready to fill and bulk mustard could be transported along with them. They would only need a few dozen to create havoc in Israel, even if the number of actual casualties were limited. Al-Qaida in Iraq could do the same as part of its terror campaign against the Iraqi government. Protective clothing would be needed and ideally a Syrian specialist or two."
Obama wants everyone to be aware of the ramifications of misuse or misappropriation of Syria’s chemical stockpile, Friedman said.
“The president does not want to intervene. He’s desperately trying to avoid using military force,” he said.
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