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Syria Seen Moving to Secure Chemical Arms in Response to Global Fears

Syrian opposition fighters train with their weapons last month on the outskirts of Idlib. Syrian government forces are acting to improve protection of the nation’s chemical warfare materials, according to Israeli sources (AP Photo). Syrian opposition fighters train with their weapons last month on the outskirts of Idlib. Syrian government forces are acting to improve protection of the nation’s chemical warfare materials, according to Israeli sources (AP Photo).

The Syrian military is moving to more tightly safeguard the country's large arsenal of chemical warfare materials to counter growing global worries that the lethal agents are at risk of being diverted to violent extremists or unintentionally impacted by ongoing battles between regime loyalists and oppositions forces,the London Guardian on Saturday quoted Israeli sources as saying (see GSN, July 13).

Assad regime forces have begun to relocate a portion of the country's chemical weapons arsenal out of holding depots, the Wall Street Journal reported last week, citing U.S. government insiders. That development suggested Damascus could be preparing to use chemical agents against opposition fighters and protesters, but Israeli officials closely tracking the situation across the border believe the move is actually aimed at securing the weapons (see GSN, July 13).

Syria is understood to possess hundreds of tons of blister and nerve agents that can be fired via ballistic missiles, air-dropped munitions, and artillery shells. Damascus has never declared a chemical arsenal nor has it signed onto the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the production, stockpiling, or use of such armaments. Depots located close to Hama, Aleppo, Homs, and Dair Alzour are understood to all hold Scud missiles that can deliver chemical bombs. 

The country's chemical stockpile "is dispersed and under the control of a dedicated army unit that has a high degree of loyalty to the regime and is commanded by senior Alawites (Assad's sect)," a high-ranking official said from Jerusalem. "It has not been involved in the nitty-gritty of fighting. It has been impacted by it but has not been used to fight the people. There are signs that Syria has understood the problem."

While the United States and other leading Western countries have demurred for now on pushing for an international military intervention in the Arab country, the calculus could change were chemical weapons to be used against opposition elements (Ian Black, London Guardian, July 13).

U.S. Defense Department spokesman George Little said, "We would caution them strongly against any intention to use those weapons. That would cross a serious red line," the New York Times reported on Friday (Eric Schmitt, New York Times, July 13).

Tel Aviv worries that the chaos in Syria could allow militant organizations such as al-Qaida to gain access to chemical armaments, that Hezbollah might receive them directly from Damascus, or that the regime could lash out at longtime foe Israel, the Guardian reported.

"Is there a possibility that an Assad regime with its back to the wall would try to change the subject and try to do something against us?" one high-ranking Israeli government insider said to the newspaper.

Israeli analyst Eyal Zisser said at this point it does not appear that Assad has plans to use his chemical arms in attacks against Israel. "As long as he feels he can win the battle in Syria, Assad has no reason to open a new front with Israel. When he decides that it's finished he will want to take (his wife) Asma and the kids and escape from the palace. Israel will not be on his agenda."

U.S. officials in interviews with the Journal said they were uncertain if recently detected building work for additional subterranean facilities and the growth of existing infrastructure was aimed at preparing for the future use of chemical weapons, better protecting them against possible diversion or making them more difficult for foreign agencies to monitor them.

"For the moment, the Syrian regime is not significantly changing the location or the state of readiness of its chemical and biological weapons," Israeli armed forces expert Ron Ben-Yishai said in a Friday piece for the Yediot Aharonot. "At the most it is moving them to more secure storage sites that are far from areas under rebel control or where fighting is taking place."

Dispatches voicing Israeli and Western states' worries about chemical security have been conveyed to the Assad regime through Russia, which still maintains full diplomatic relations with Damascus, according to envoys. Washington last week once again publicly called on Assad to protect his chemical weapons; Damascus rejected reports of chemical munitions movements.

The United States is understood to have discussed with Jordan options for collaborating against the possible threat of Syrian chemical weapons infiltration into the Middle Eastern country. It is also believed that elite Jordanian units would be assigned to the physical job of securing Syrian chemical arms in the event that Assad is toppled (see GSN, March 9).

Israeli officials declined to affirm any emergency preparations for responding to a Syrian chemical weapons crisis. "We are sharing our concerns with some of our closest interlocutors," an official said (Black, London Guardian).

Some observers believe there is a real potential for Assad to order chemical strikes on opposition fighters and specific Syrian ethnic groups if he feels his regime is on the verge of collapse as it faces an ever-more capable armed resistance, the Times reported.

"We cannot discount that the Assad regime could make a decision to use these weapons in an act of desperation, and we must act accordingly," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said in provided comments.

"The truth is, we just don’t know,” said one anonymous U.S. official familiar with the latest intelligence on Syrian chemical weapons movements. "There’s a big gaping hole in what we know."

"The Assad regime is losing control of its territory. You don’t move this stuff unless you have to, and they obviously felt they had to move it," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Another unidentified but informed U.S. official said opposition fighters were seeing more successes in their war against the Assad regime. "The armed opposition is becoming more effective. It's using guerrilla tactics more frequently to attack regime forces and improving tactical coordination."

"It appears the insurgents are now operating in larger chunks of territory," the official added. "The situation is not at a tipping point as the regime still has significant military capabilities, but the military ground underneath Assad is increasingly unstable."

Orbiters and surveillance of Syrian regime dispatches are the likely sources for U.S. intelligence conclusions about Syrian chemical weapons movements, security analysts said (Schmitt, New York Times).

In an interview with CNN, ex-CIA head Michael Hayden said it is highly unlikely Assad would mount chemical attacks against his own people.

"Right now they are on the outer edges of being an international outlaw, beyond the edges. And the use of chemical weapons would seem to me to make any opposition to a more active intervention in Syria impossible, even for the Russians, even for the Chinese," the former general said. "I'm far more concerned about loss of control of the weapons and what happens when the chaos that seems to be affecting larger society might touch upon some of these weapon stockpiles."

Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in a collective statement said "If Assad is transferring chemical weapons from secure sites to the battlefield, it significantly raises the risks that they will be used or that control over these weapons could be compromised. These are unacceptable risks for the United States and the entire international community, and they would threaten our vital national security interests."

The lawmakers called for the Obama administration to provide Congress with an update on the situation "as soon as possible" (Barbara Starr, CNN, July 13).

Note to our Readers

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NTI Analysis

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    This CNS issue brief examines the lessons learned from dismantling Libya and Iraq's chemical weapons programs and what these two cases presage for disarmament in Syria. In particular, this article explores the challenges relating to ensuring material and physical security for both inspectors and the chemical weapons stockpile itself; verifying the accuracy and completeness of disclosed inventories; and developing effective monitoring and verification regimes for the long-term. The conclusion examines recommendations stemming from this analysis.

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