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Syrian Chemical Weapons a Big Worry for U.S.

The future status of Syrian chemical weapons has become a major worry for the United States as mounting violence in the Arab nation raises the prospect that government forces could lose control of the lethal materials or provide them to militant organizations, news organizations reported on Wednesday (see GSN, Feb. 15).

The United States is pressing nations bordering Syria to be on the "lookout" for unconventional and conventional arms that might be smuggled into their territories, Agence France-Presse reported.

The current situation in Syria has some parallels to Libya last year, when the United States was concerned that fighting in the North African nation could lead to the use or proliferation by the now-deposed Muammar Qadhafi regime of its small stockpile of blister agent. While Libyan chemical weapons were ultimately secured by Tripoli's replacement government, thousands of Libyan conventional weapons are now understood to have been trafficked out of the country (see GSN, Feb. 6).

Unlike Libya, Syria is believed to have a substantially larger and operational chemical weapons program and has strong ties with the groups Hezbollah and Hamas.

"Syria has got some similarities (with Libya) but a much more difficult situation," Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Countryman said to journalists on Wednesday.

Damascus has never declared its chemical warfare stockpile to the international community though it is believed to hold both blister and nerve agents.

"We have long been aware of Syria's chemical weapons program. It is one of the few countries that has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention," Countryman said.

Both he and the State Department's top official for nonproliferation, Rose Gottemoeller, declined to disclose just how large the Obama administration believes Syria's chemical arsenal is or where it is stored.

"We have ideas as to quantity. We have ideas as to where they are," Gottemoeller said.

Open source information going back to the 1980s indicates Syria has two chemical munition storage sites at Khan Abu Shamat and Furqlus as well as four chemical agent manufacturing facilities at al-Safira, Hama, Homs and Latakia (see GSN, Dec. 5, 2011).

The United States believes the chemical sites are protected by military personnel who remain loyal to the Assad regime.

A U.S. military official told AFP that there have been no indications Damascus has loosened its grip on its chemical arsenals or is readying them for use.

Should opposition forces succeed in toppling Assad, Countryman said the United States "would certainly be prepared to work with any successor government to help them secure, control those weapons with the goal of destroying them" (Lachlan Carmichael, Agence France-Presse/Google News, Feb. 15).

Syria is surrounded by Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon. Jerusalem, in particular, is on alert for potential chemical weapons proliferation, the Financial Times reported.

Ex-Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog said, "The Israeli defense establishment is following this topic very closely."

"It is not unlikely that in a developing civil war in Syria, or in the event of Assad's regime collapsing, chemical weapons will fall into the wrong hands, including Hezbollah in Lebanon. In an extreme situation an irresponsible actor might even use such weapons, especially against Israel, Herzog said.

Damascus has not signed the CWC accord, which forbids the production, possession, and use of chemical weapons, so Syria is not open for monitoring by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said. "We therefore have no mandate in the country. We are aware of media reports and other information relating to chemical weapons" (James Blitz, Financial Times, Feb. 15).

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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