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U.S. in Contact With Arab States on Syrian WMD Concerns

Rebels take position behind a wall during a battle with government forces last month in Syria's Homs province. Washington has urged Arab governments to exercise vigilance in monitoring for potential smuggling of unconventional weapons into their countries if Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime collapses (AP Photo). Rebels take position behind a wall during a battle with government forces last month in Syria's Homs province. Washington has urged Arab governments to exercise vigilance in monitoring for potential smuggling of unconventional weapons into their countries if Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime collapses (AP Photo).

The U.S. State Department is advising Arab governments to be on alert for potential chemical weapons proliferation into their countries following the potential end of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria -- an outcome that analysts believe is increasingly likely, Foreign Policy reported on Friday (see GSN, Feb. 23).

The State Department last week issued diplomatic communications to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia to extend offers of aid from the United States in countering the spread of Syrian weapons of mass destruction into their territories, three U.S. officials told magazine.

The concerted effort is seen by both U.S. officials and independent analysts as a sign that the Obama administration is ratcheting up its efforts to prepare for the multiple security problems that are expected to follow an end of the Assad government.

Syria is understood to possess an active chemical weapons program that has produced nerve and blister agents housed at multiple arms depots,  manufacturing facilities and associated support infrastructure. Damascus is also under investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency for possible illicit past efforts to build a plutonium-producing reactor for military purposes (see GSN, Nov. 16, 2011). Less is known about the regime's suspected research into biological weapons.

As Damascus has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international community lacks comprehensive knowledge about the size and location of the nation's chemical arsenal. Still, U.S. officials believe they have a solid understanding of the details of Syria's WMD complex.

"We have ideas as to the quantity and we have ideas as to where they are," said Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman, who wrote the message to Arab governments.

"We wish some of the neighbors of Syria to be on the lookout," he said previously in 2012. "When you get a change of regime in Syria, it matters what are the conditions -- chaotic or orderly."

Violence has substantially increased within Syria in just the last month, which has led the international community to step up calls for Assad to relinquish power. A growing number of voices are also calling for the arming of Syrian rebels, which have managed to seize control of limited territory.

"The U.S. and our allies are monitoring Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. These weapons' presence in Syria undermines peace and security in the Middle East, and we have long called on the Syrian government to destroy its chemicals weapons arsenal and join the Chemical Weapons Convention," the State Department said in a statement.  "We believe Syria's chemical weapons stockpile remains under Syrian government control, and we will continue to work closely with like-minded countries to prevent proliferation of Syria's chemical weapons program."

In its outreach to Arab capitals, the State Department underlined the danger posed by Syria's chemical weapons, which could be employed using ballistic missiles, and that any possible shift of power in Damascus would likely lead to concerns about who has authority over the country's WMD-related materials.

The State Department also emphasized that U.S. assistance is available to nations bordering Syria against the danger posed by the loss of control of the Assad regime's WMD assets, sources said.

"It's essentially a recognition of the danger to the regional and international community of the stockpiles that the regime possesses and the importance of working with countries, given the potential fall of the regime, to prevent the proliferation of these very sensitive weapons outside of Syria's border," an anonymous Obama official said. "It's an exponentially more dangerous program than Libya (see GSN, Feb. 6). We are talking legitimate WMDs here -- this isn't Iraq (see GSN, Nov. 2, 2011). The administration is really concerned about loose WMDs. It's one of the few things you could put on the agenda and do something about without planning the fall of the regime."

Jordan has been coordinating with Washington on the matter. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last Thursday hosted a delegation of Jordanian military officers.

There are also worries that a besieged Damascus could decide to launch unconventional weapons against its people.

"The WMD program is in play now," the Obama official said. "[U.S. outreach] puts Syria's neighbors on notice and it reflects the recognition that a dangerous Assad regime is willing to do anything to save its own skin. If they are willing to kill the country to save the regime, they might be willing to do a great deal more damage throughout the region" (Josh Rogin, Foreign Policy, Feb. 24).

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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