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Experts Highlight Technical Challenge in Dealing With Syrian Chem Arsenal

Experts say the technical characteristics of Syria's presumed chemical weapons arsenal, which is believed to include a large quantity of warfare agents and delivery devices, create a greater security challenge than Libya did last year, the BBC reported this week (see GSN, June 15).

The United States and a number of Middle Eastern nations are concerned that ongoing fighting in Syria between the Assad regime and the resistance could lead to a decision by Damascus to use chemical weapons against its foes or create an opening for extremist groups such as al-Qaida or Hezbollah to acquire such unconventional arms.

Syria has never declared a chemical weapons program but is understood to possess a substantive arsenal that includes both mustard and nerve agents. Though the blister agent is thought to be kept separate from munitions, other chemicals are believed to be in "binary" shells that would combine two agents after being launched to produce a chemical weapon, according to Leonard Spector, executive director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Chemical agents that are kept in munitions could be simpler to move around and employed than agent stored in large-size containers.

"U.S. officials believe Syria's chemical arms are stored in secure bunkers at a limited number of sites and have not been dispersed into the field," Spector said.

U.S. intelligence officials were on alert during the 2011 uprising against Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi for signs that his forces would seek to use a small cache of partially degraded mustard gas on opposition fighters or protesters. No such attack occurred. The government that replaced the toppled Qadhafi regime moved quickly to secure the country's few chemical weapon-related sites and to invite international monitors to inspect the sites and offer advice on their protection. The remaining stockpile is now due for destruction by 2016 (see GSN, May 31).

The relative ease the international community experienced in dealing with the Libyan situation should not be expected in Syria, according to Federation of American Scientists fellow Charles Blair.

"Libya was able to deliver its sole CW agent via aerial bombs only -- a militarily ineffective manner in this case," Blair told the BBC. "Syria, by comparison, is thought to possess a variety of platforms for chemical weapons delivery -- an open-source CIA report lists aerial bombs, artillery shells and ballistic missiles."

Spector agreed that the Syrian situation was complex. "Conceivably, the Assad government could use some of these agents against rebel forces or even civilians in an effort to intimidate them into submission. Or insurgents could overrun one of the chemical-weapon sites and threaten to use some of these weapons, in extremis, if threatened with overwhelming force by the Syrian army."

He noted both al-Qaida and Hezbollah are believed to have agents active in Syria in the fight against the Assad regime.

The U.S. Defense Department reportedly recently finished work on a contingency plan for securing Syria's chemical weapons arsenal and possible biological weapon-related sites. The U.S. military in recent weeks has also staged maneuvers with other Middle Eastern countries that are believed to have included drills on protecting chemical sites.

Despite these preparations, Blair believes that the goal of grabbing and disabling Syria's chemical weapons would be difficult to achieve. "The Iraq experience demonstrates the difficulty of securing highly sensitive military storage facilities."

"The most desirable plan would be to urge the weapons' current custodians to remain in place during any transition of power, and to place the sites under the supervision of an international contingent that could monitor the weapons' security, as decisions were made about how to manage or destroy them in the future," Spector said.
 
He continued, "For the U.S. to attempt to secure the sites in the face of armed resistance by Syrian forces would be extremely demanding, given the number of the sites involved and their considerable size" (Jonathan Marcus, BBC, June 18).

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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