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U.S. General Warns of Danger of Unsecured Syrian Chemical Arms

The senior U.S. military officer in the Middle East on Tuesday told Congress that the region could face a significant danger should Syria's assumed chemical weapons be left unguarded (see GSN, March 6).

Responding to a senator's question on the security implications of loss of control of the Bashar Assad regime's suspected large stockpile of chemical warfare materials, Marine Gen. James Mattis said, "If left unsecured, (Syria's chemical weapons) would be potentially a very serious threat."

"I think it's going to take an international effort when Assad falls, and he will fall, in order to secure these weapons," the head of U.S. Central Command said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, according to a release from Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

Damascus is widely thought  to possess one of the world's largest active chemical-weapon programs that encompasses blister and nerve agents that can be dispersed by ballistic missiles, air-dropped bombs and artillery shells. Syria has never formally acknowledged the existence of such a program and has not joined the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The United States in recent weeks has reportedly reached out to Syria's Arab neighbors to offer them technical support in strengthening their borders against the potential proliferation of Syrian unconventional weapons.

"I don't think [Bashar Assad] will use them on his own people," Mattis said. "We have not seen any effort to use (them) yet, but we're watching very closely" (U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen release, March 6).

Close to 8,500 Syrian civilians, opposition fighters, and regime soldiers have been killed in close to a year of protests against the Assad regime, according to a human rights watchdog.

Mattis said that any weakening of physical protections around Syria's chemical weapon-related sites due to mounting violence in the country could enable regional militant organizations such as Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon to acquire unconventional arms, CNN reported.

"At the same time they're not easily handled. Obviously it takes very trained troops to do that," the general said, adding that inexperienced individuals attempting to handle or use the weapons could "end up frying themselves."

Mattis said Assad is not likely to use his chemical arsenal on opposition forces because such an action could lead foreign nations to militarily intervene in the conflict, which the international community has so far abstained from doing (Jennifer Rizzo, CNN, March 6).

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