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Syria

Overview

Last Updated: April, 2018

Syria has been ravaged by conflict since the outbreak of anti-government protests in March 2011. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime brutally suppressed the protests but 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, most notably the gruesome chemical weapons attack by regime forces in Ghouta, near Damascus, on 21 August 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, chemical weapons attacks continue, including the use of what OPCW investigators determined to be sarin in Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, and the suspected use of chlorine and an unidentified nerve agent in Douma on 7 April 2018. The Syrian government has denied responsibility for these attacks. The United States carried out airstrikes on Syrian targets in response to Khan Sheikhoun and Douma. On 6 April 2017, the U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at Al-Shayrat airbase after determining it was the location from which the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun was launched. After the Douma attack, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France conducted airstrikes against three sites deemed crucial to the Syrian chemical weapons program.

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. The most recent round of UN-sponsored peace talks occurred in May 2017, while a parallel effort led by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, known as the Astana process, last met in March 2018. [3]

Nuclear

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 claimed 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 three-year investigation, the IAEA 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 9 June 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. [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). In 2014, the Syrian government declared the existence of a ricin production facility and stockpiles of purified ricin to the OPCW. The production facility, known as “al-Maliha,” is alleged to be located within the Greater Damascus area. [8]

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. [9] 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. [10] 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. [11] The Assad regime has employed “barrel bombs,” crude explosive devices usually dropped by helicopter, in chemical attacks during the civil war. [12]

As the Syrian civil war intensified in 2012 and 2013, several chemical weapons attacks were reported. [13] On 21 August 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. [14] 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. [15] Pressure from the international community subsequently forced Syria to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on 10 September 2013. [16] Syria also agreed to the disarmament of its chemical weapons stockpiles with a deadline of 30 June 2014, and the OPCW dispatched teams to Syria to destroy chemical weapons and related production equipment. [17]

By 23 June 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. [18] From 7 July through mid-August 2014, the United States neutralized 600 tons of precursor chemicals for sarin and sulfur mustard aboard a U.S. cargo ship. [19] An additional 200 tons of chemical precursors were sent to the UK for destruction. [20] Syria began the long-delayed destruction of twelve facilities in January 2015. [21] On 4 January 2016, the OPCW announced that all declared Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles had been destroyed. [22] 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. [23]

Chemical attacks using chlorine and nerve agents continued into 2018 despite the OPCW’s efforts to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program. [24] Most recently, chlorine and an unidentified nerve agent were used on the rebel-held town of Douma, just outside Damascus. [25] In response to the attack, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France carried out airstrikes against three sites associated with the regime’s chemical weapons program. [26] Of additional concern are reports by the UN Panel of Experts on North Korea that North Korea is assisting the Syrian government in its efforts to reconstitute its chemical weapons program. [27]

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. [28] Syria also produced a domestic version of the Iranian Fateh-110A SRBM, the M-600. [29] In addition to its ballistic missile arsenal, Syria maintained a limited arsenal of anti-ship cruise missiles. [30]

The Syrian regime began firing Scud missiles at rebel-held targets in 2012, intensifying the conflict. [31] By late 2015, Israeli military sources reported that over 90% of the regime’s ballistic missile stockpile had been used in the fighting. [32] 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. [33] In 2016, images emerged of Russian Iskander transporter erector launchers (TELs) in Syria, but Russia has not confirmed the deployments. [34]

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. [35]

For more details, visit the Syria Missile page.

Sources:
[1] “Syria in Civil War, Red Cross Says,” BBC News, 12 July 2012, www.bbc.com.
[2] Adrian Edwards, “Needs Soar as Number of Syrian Refugees Tops 3 Million,” UNHCR, 26 August 2014, www.unhcr.org.
[3] United Nations Office at Geneva, “Syrian Peace Process,” www.unog.ch; Aliia Raimbekova and Sorwar Alam, “Turkey, Russia, Iran FMs to assess Astana Syria process,” Andalou Agency, March 6, 2018, www.aa.com.tr
[4] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Report by the Director General: Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," 24 May 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, 24 October 2007, www.csis.org.
[5] "Syrian Nuclear Dispute Sent to United Nations," Global Security Newswire, 9 June 2011.
[6] “IAEA Director General Reviews Global Trends at Start of Board Meeting,” 6 March 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, 30 June 2015, www.isis-online.org.
[8] “Decision: Combined plan for the destruction and verification of the ‘al-Maliha’ ricin production facility in the Syrian Arab Republic,” Executive Council, The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, November 19, 2014, www.opcw.org.
[9] Shoham, Dany, “Chemical and Biological Weapons in Egypt,” Nonproliferation Review 5.3 (Spring-Summer 1998), www.nonproliferation.org.
[10] 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.
[11] Council on Foreign Relations, “French Government’s Declassified Intelligence Assessment on Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria,” 2 September 2013, www.cfr.org.
[12] Michelle Nichols, “U.N./OPCW Inquiry Blames Syria Government for Gas Attacks, Likely Sanctions Fight Looms,” Reuters, 24 August 2016, www.reuters.com.
[13] 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,” 13 December 2013, A/68/663-S/2013/735, www.un.org.
[14] White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on 21 August 2003,” 30 August 2013, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov.
[15] "Syria chemical attack: Key UN findings," BBC News, 17 September 2013, www.bbc.co.uk.
[16] Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Member State-Syria,” www.opcw.org.
[17] "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, 11 October 2013, www.opcw.org.
[18] "Syria Chemical Weapons Facilities 'Destroyed'," Al-Jazeera, 1 November 2013; Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, "Announcement to Media on Last Consignment of Chemicals Leaving Syria," OPCW News, 23 June 2014, www.opcw.org.
[19] 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), 7 July 2014, www.defense.gov.
[20] “200 Tons of Syrian Chemicals in UK for Destruction,” Associated Press, 16 July 2014, www.english.alarabiya.net.
[21] Anthony Deutsch, “Exclusive: Syria Begins Destruction of Chemical Weapons Facilities,” Reuters, 19 January 2015, www.reuters.com.
[22] Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Destruction of Chemical Weapons Completed,” 4 January 2016, www.opcw.org.
[23] Colum Lynch and David Kenner, “U.S. and Europe Say Assad May Have Kept Some Chemical Weapons,” Foreign Policy, 23 August 2016, www.foreignpolicy.com.
[24] Liz Sly, Suzan Haidamous, and Asma Ajroudi, “Nerve gas used in Syria attack, leaving victims ‘foaming at the mouth,’ evidence suggests,” The Washington Post, April 11, 2018, www.washingtonpost.com.; “Letter dated 26 October 2017 from the Secretary-General addressed to the President of the Security Council,” Report from the OPCW-UN Joint Investigated Mechanism transmitted by the Secretary-General, United Nations, October 26, 2017, www.un.org.
[25] Liz Sly, Suzan Haidamous, and Asma Ajroudi, “Nerve gas used in Syria attack, leaving victims ‘foaming at the mouth,’ evidence suggests,” The Washington Post, April 11, 2018, www.washingtonpost.com.
[26] Jim Garamone, “U.S. Allies Strike Syrian Targets in Response to Regime’s Chemical Attacks,” DoD News, April 13, 2018, www.defense.gov.
[27] “Final report of the Panel of Experts submitted pursuant to resolution 2345 (2017),” Panel of Experts established pursuant to resolution 1874 (2009), United Nations, March 5, 2018, www.un.org.
[28] "R-17 (Scud B/C/D variants)," Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems, 30 April 2012, www.janes.com.
[29] Missile Threat, "M-9 variant," The Claremont Institute, www.missilethreat.com; Jeffrey Lewis, "Iran Marketing Missiles?" Arms Control Wonk, 8 August 2011, www.armscontrolwonk.com; "Fateh A-110 variant (M-600)," Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems, 27 April 2012, www.janes.com.
[30] Anthony H. Cordesman, "Syrian Weapons of Mass Destruction: An Overview," Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2 June 2008, www.csis.org.
[31] Andre de Nesnera, “Syrian Scud Missiles Seen as Escalation of War,” Voice of America, 19 December 2012, www.voanews.com.
[32] “Israel Says 90 Pct of Syria’s Ballistic Missiles Used Up on Rebels,” Reuters, 18 November 2015, www.reuters.com.
[33] Karen DeYoung, “Russian Air Defense Raises Stakes of U.S. Confrontation in Syria,” The Washington Post, 17 October 2016, www.washingtonpost.com.
[34] Jeremy Binnie, “Iskander Missile Launcher Spotted in Syria,” Jane’s Defense Weekly, 31 March 2016, www.janes.com.
[35] CBS News, “U.S. Eyes Missiles Grabbed by ISIS in Syrian Town,” 15 December 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 2018.