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Syria

Overview

Last Updated: April, 2017

Syria has been ravaged by conflict since the outbreak of anti-government protests in March 2011. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime suppressed the protests brutally, and by 2012, the unrest had escalated into a full-blown civil war. [1] The Syrian Civil War has been described by the United Nations as “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.” [2] It has destabilized the region as territorial control of Syria has fragmented, fighting has spilled over into neighboring countries, and numerous foreign powers have intervened on different sides of the conflict. The crisis has been exacerbated by large-scale chemical weapons use, and most notably the gruesome chemical weapons attack by regime forces in Ghouta, near Damascus, on August 21, 2013. The attack precipitated Syria’s entry into the Chemical Weapons Convention as well as an international effort to remove all chemical weapons from the country. Despite these efforts, reports of chemical weapons use continue to emerge from the fighting, including an alleged nerve gas attack by the Assad regime on rebel-held Idlib province in April 2017.

Four major factions are vying for control of Syrian territory:

  • The regime of President Bashar al-Assad, with significant military support from Russia, Iran, and Iran-backed terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.
     
  • The Islamic State (IS), a radical Sunni Islamist terrorist group with its capital in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa. IS invaded Iraq in 2014 and routed the Iraqi army, adding significant Iraqi territory to its Syrian holdings. IS declared the establishment of a caliphate in June 2014, and has directed and inspired terrorist attacks throughout the world.
     
  • Syrian opposition forces, including remnants of the Free Syrian Army, a loose association of anti-regime groups with various ideologies and aims. Several opposition forces have received material support from the United States and other Western countries and regional patrons. In August 2016, Turkish military forces crossed the border into Syria and have provided direct military support to opposition groups.
     
  • The Syrian Democratic Forces, an anti-Assad, anti-IS alliance of militias dominated by the Kurds, an ethnic minority prevalent in northern Syria. The Kurds have received support from the United States and other Western nations, which is controversial for Turkey-NATO relations given the fact that some of the Kurdish factions are considered to be terrorist organizations in Turkey, where Kurdish separatist terrorism is a decades-long problem.

Various efforts to broker an end to the fighting have so far been unsuccessful. Further rounds of UN-sponsored peace talks are planned for 2017. [3]

Nuclear

Assad-controlled Syria is a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and has a Comprehensive Nuclear Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Beginning in the 1980s, Syria sought to expand its nuclear capabilities, and in 1991 China agreed to construct Syria's first research reactor at Der Al-Hadjar, the SRR-1. In September 2007, the Israeli Air Force bombed and destroyed a building in northwestern Syria that U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials claim was a plutonium production reactor under construction (the Al-Kibar or Dair Alzour site). The Syrian government denied these allegations. However, in May 2011, following a more than three-year investigation, the Agency concluded "that it is very likely that the building destroyed at the Dair Alzour site was a nuclear reactor which should have been declared to the Agency." [4] On June 9, 2011, the IAEA Board of Governors passed a resolution that found Syria in noncompliance with its obligations under its Safeguards Agreement, and reported the case to the UN Security Council. [5] The onset of the Syrian Civil War sidelined further action on the nuclear issue, although the issue remains on the IAEA agenda. [6]

In 2013, elements of the Free Syrian Army occupied the site of the destroyed Dair Alzour reactor, and in 2014 the site came under control of IS. Although it is unlikely that any nuclear fuel was on-site, the current location of the uranium meant to fuel the reactor is unknown. The Institute for Science and International Security has speculated that Syria’s natural uranium stockpile may exceed 50,000 kilograms, and it is unclear where that stockpile is located. [7]

For more details, visit the Syria Nuclear page.

Biological

There is very limited open source information regarding Syria's biological warfare (BW) capabilities. Syria ratified the Geneva Protocol in 1968, and has signed but not ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC).

For more details, visit the Syria Biological page.

Chemical

Assad-controlled Syria had one of the most advanced chemical warfare (CW) capabilities in the Middle East prior to acceding to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and appears to have retained some capabilities in violation of its treaty commitments. The country's initial CW capability was provided by Egypt prior to the October 1973 war against Israel. [8] Beginning in the 1980’s, Syria developed an indigenous capability to produce chemical weapons agents, including mustard gas, sarin, and VX nerve agent, at several production facilities located throughout the country. [9] Syria possessed a number of delivery systems for chemical weapons, including the Scud-B and Scud-C ballistic missiles, aerial bombs, artillery shells, and rockets. [10] The Assad regime has employed “barrel bombs,” crude explosive devices usually dropped by helicopter, in chemical attacks during the civil war. [11]

As the Syrian civil war intensified in 2012 and 2013, several chemical weapons attacks were reported. [12] On August 21, 2013, a large-scale chemical weapons attack using sarin nerve gas occurred in the Ghouta area of Damascus. A preliminary U.S. intelligence assessment of the attack determined that 1,429 people were killed in this attack, although casualty reports vary widely. [13] Even if lower-end casualty estimates are true, the Ghouta attack was the deadliest use of chemical weapons since 1988. Following the attack, U.S., UK, French, and German intelligence services concluded that the Assad regime was responsible, and a subsequent UN inspection team report supported those findings. [14] Pressure from the international community subsequently forced Syria to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on September 10, 2013. [15] Syria also agreed to the disarmament of its chemical weapons stockpiles with a deadline of June 30, 2014, and the OPCW dispatched teams to Syria to destroy chemical weapons and related production equipment. [16]

By June 23, 2014, all of Syria's declared chemical weapons production facilities had been rendered inoperable and all reported chemical weapons and their precursors had been removed from the country. [17] From July 7 through mid-August 2014, the United States neutralized 600 tons of precursor chemicals for sarin and sulfur mustard aboard a U.S. cargo ship. [18] An additional 200 tons of chemical precursors were sent to the UK for destruction. [19] Syria began the long-delayed destruction of twelve facilities in January 2015. [20] On January 4, 2016, the OPCW announced that all declared Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles had been destroyed. [21] However, in 2016, the OPCW reportedly issued a confidential report claiming that Syrian CW disclosures had been inaccurate and incomplete, and that Assad retained some CW capacity. [22]

In 2015, evidence of numerous chlorine barrel-bomb attacks surfaced. [23] The international community has placed the blame for most of these attacks on the Assad regime. [24] The OPCW has also implicated the Islamic State in chemical attacks, expressing with “utmost confidence” that IS used chemical weapons during an August 2015 attack. [25] 

On April 4, 2017, an apparent sarin nerve gas attack occurred in the rebel-held Idlib province, which the U.S. claimed was launched by Syrian government forces and killed between 50 and 100 people. [26] The U.S. responded with a retaliatory missile strike against the Assad regime’s Al-Shayrat Air Base two days later.

For more details, visit the Syria Chemical page.

Missile

Before the civil war, Syria possessed one of the largest arsenals of ballistic missiles in the region. Syria's arsenal was limited to short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), which were all variants of the Scud missile and included the Scud-B, Scud-C, and Scud-D. With significant assistance from the Soviet Union/Russia and North Korea, Syria established its own domestic production capacity for each of these missile types. [27] Syria also produced a domestic version of the Iranian Fateh-110A SRBM, the M-600. [28] In addition to its ballistic missile arsenal, Syria maintained a limited arsenal of anti-ship cruise missiles. [29]

The Syrian regime began firing Scud missiles at rebel-held targets in 2012, intensifying the conflict. [30] By late 2015, Israeli military sources reported that over 90% of the regime’s ballistic missile stockpile had been used in the fighting. [31] The regime’s Russian allies have deployed advanced missile systems in the conflict. Russia has also deployed S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to its airbase in Latakia, Syria. [32] In 2016, images emerged of Russian Iskander transporter erector launchers (TELs) in Syria, but Russia has not confirmed the deployments. [33]

IS reportedly seized ballistic missiles on several occasions, but it is unclear whether it has the technical capacity to use any missiles it may have seized. [34]

For more details, visit the Syria Missile page.

Sources:
[1] “Syria in Civil War, Red Cross Says,” BBC News, July 12, 2012, www.bbc.com.
[2] Adrian Edwards, “Needs Soar as Number of Syrian Refugees Tops 3 Million,” UNHCR, August 26, 2014, www.unhcr.org.
[3] United Nations Office at Geneva, “Syrian Peace Process,” www.unog.ch.
[4] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Report by the Director General: Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," May 24, 2011, www.isis-online.org; Anthony H. Cordesman, "The Israeli Nuclear Reactor Strike and Syrian Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Background Analysis," Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 24, 2007, www.csis.org.
[5] "Syrian Nuclear Dispute Sent to United Nations," Global Security Newswire, June 9, 2011.
[6] “IAEA Director General Reviews Global Trends at Start of Board Meeting,” March 6, 2017, www.iaea.org.
[7] David Albright, Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, and Sarah Burkhard, "Syria's Unresolved Nuclear Issues Reemerge in Wake of ISIL Advance and Ongoing Civil War," Institute for Science and International Security, June 30, 2015, www.isis-online.org.
[8] Shoham, Dany, “Chemical and Biological Weapons in Egypt,” Nonproliferation Review 5.3 (Spring-Summer 1998), www.nonproliferation.org.
[9] Magnus Normark, Anders Lindblad, Anders Norqvist, Björn Sandström, and Louise Waldenström, "Syria and WMD: Incentives and Capabilities," (Umeå: FOI - Swedish Defence Research Agency, 2004) p. 35.
[10] Council on Foreign Relations, “French Government’s Declassified Intelligence Assessment on Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria,” September 2, 2013, www.cfr.org.
[11] Michelle Nichols, “U.N./OPCW Inquiry Blames Syria Government for Gas Attacks, Likely Sanctions Fight Looms,” Reuters, August 24, 2016, www.reuters.com.
[12] United Nations General Assembly, United Nations Security Council, “United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic,” December 13, 2013, A/68/663-S/2013/735, www.un.org.
[13] White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2003,” August 30, 2013, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov.
[14] "Syria chemical attack: Key UN findings," BBC News, September 17, 2013, www.bbc.co.uk.
[15] Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Member State-Syria,” www.opcw.org.
[16] "Press release by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations on the advance team in Syria," Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, October 11, 2013, www.opcw.org.
[17] "Syria Chemical Weapons Facilities 'Destroyed'," Al-Jazeera, November 1, 2013; Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, "Announcement to Media on Last Consignment of Chemicals Leaving Syria," OPCW News, June 23, 2014, www.opcw.org.
[18] David Alexander, "U.S. ship finishes neutralizing Syria's worst chemical arms: Pentagon," Reuters, August 18, 2014, www.reuters.com; Jim Garamone, "Cape Ray Begins Neutralizing Syrian Chemical Materials," DoD News (Washington), July 7, 2014, www.defense.gov.
[19] “200 Tons of Syrian Chemicals in UK for Destruction,” Associated Press, July 16, 2014, www.english.alarabiya.net.
[20] Anthony Deutsch, “Exclusive: Syria Begins Destruction of Chemical Weapons Facilities,” Reuters, January 19, 2015, www.reuters.com.
[21] Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Destruction of Chemical Weapons Completed,” January 4, 2016, www.opcw.org.
[22] Colum Lynch and David Kenner, “U.S. and Europe Say Assad May Have Kept Some Chemical Weapons,” Foreign Policy, August 23, 2016, www.foreignpolicy.com.
[23] Lucy Westcott, “Syrian Doctors Detail Horror of Chemical Weapons Attacks to Congress,” Newsweek, June 17, 2015, www.newsweek.com; Kareem Shaheen, “Assad Regime Accused of 35 Chlorine Attacks since Mid-March,” The Guardian, May 24, 2015, www.theguardian.com; “HRW: Syria Used Chemical Weapons in March,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, April 15, 2015, www.syriahr.com/en.
[24] “Syria Blamed for Chemical Weapons Attack in 2015,” BBC News, October 20, 2016, www.bbc.com.
[25] Anthony Deutsch, “Chemical Weapons Used by Fighters in Syria—Sources,” Reuters, November 6, 2015, www.reuters.com.
[26] U.S. National Security Council, “Declassified U.S. Report on Chemical Weapons Attack,” Reprinted in The New York Times, April 11, 2017, www.nytimes.com.
[27] "R-17 (Scud B/C/D variants)," Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems, April 30, 2012, www.janes.com.
[28] Missile Threat, "M-9 variant," The Claremont Institute, www.missilethreat.com; Jeffrey Lewis, "Iran Marketing Missiles?" Arms Control Wonk, August 8, 2011, www.armscontrolwonk.com; "Fateh A-110 variant (M-600)," Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems, April 27, 2012, www.janes.com.
[29] Anthony H. Cordesman, "Syrian Weapons of Mass Destruction: An Overview," Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2, 2008, www.csis.org.
[30] Andre de Nesnera, “Syrian Scud Missiles Seen as Escalation of War,” Voice of America, December 19, 2012, www.voanews.com.
[31] “Israel Says 90 Pct of Syria’s Ballistic Missiles Used Up on Rebels,” Reuters, November 18, 2015, www.reuters.com.
[32] Karen DeYoung, “Russian Air Defense Raises Stakes of U.S. Confrontation in Syria,” The Washington Post, October 17, 2016, www.washingtonpost.com.
[33] Jeremy Binnie, “Iskander Missile Launcher Spotted in Syria,” Jane’s Defense Weekly, March 31, 2016, www.janes.com.
[34] CBS News, “U.S. Eyes Missiles Grabbed by ISIS in Syrian Town,” December 15, 2016, www.cbsnews.com.

Get the Facts on Syria
  • Found in noncompliance with its international safeguards obligations by the IAEA in June 2011
  • Acceded to Chemical Weapons Convention under pressure in 2013, following strong evidence the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against its own people during the ongoing civil war.
  • Received assistance from Russia, China, the DPRK and Iran for its ballistic missile program

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2017.