Fears grow for fate of Syria´s chemical weapons (BBC) British Broadcasting Company) By Jonathan Marcus BBC Defence & Diplomatic Correspondent 19 June 2012 Last updated at 01:21 GMT)
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Syria´s significant stockpile of chemical weapons adds a frightening
additional element to the crisis that threatens to engulf the regime
of President Bashar al-Assad.
There are growing concerns - shared both in neighbouring countries
and among key western governments - about the security of these
weapons should the regime fall.
There are even persistent reports in the US that preparations are
being made to secure such stocks in the event of a regime meltdown.
One aspect of the problem is the scale and scope of Syria´s chemical
Leonard Spector, executive director of the James Martin Center for
Nonproliferation Studies based in Washington, notes that: "Syria has
one of the world´s largest chemical weapon arsenals, including
traditional chemical agents, such as mustard, and more modern nerve
agents, such as Sarin, and possibly persistent nerve agents, such as
"Syria is thought to have a number of major chemical weapon
complexes, some in areas of current conflict, such as the Homs and
Hama regions. The bases are said to be guarded by elite forces, but
whether they would stay at their posts if the Assad regime collapses
cannot be predicted."
An additional concern is the manner in which the different kinds of
chemical weapons are stored.
Mr Spector notes that while the mustard agent is believed to be
stored in bulk form, rather than in individual munitions, other
agents are thought to be in "binary" munitions, in which two
innocuous solutions combine when the munition is fired to create the
chemical warfare agent.
These might be more easily transported and used than the bulk agent.
Mr Spector adds: "US officials believe Syria´s chemical arms are
stored in secure bunkers at a limited number of sites and have not
been dispersed into the field."
Beyond the intelligence services there is little hard and fast detail
on Syria´s chemical weapons programme.
Unlike Libya, which had signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and
was in the process of dismantling its stocks when Muammar Gaddafi´s
regime collapsed, Syria has not joined the convention and thus has
never made any formal declarations of its stocks.
Indeed as Charles Blair, a Senior Fellow at the Federation of
American Scientists underlines, Libya is not a terribly useful
precedent when considering the potential problems surrounding Syria´s
Libya´s arsenal was much smaller; stocks of mustard agent were
essentially old; locations of stockpiles were known and the Libyan
authorities were co-operating in their destruction.
Crucially too, says Mr Blair, there are huge differences in the two
countries´ potential abilities to deliver chemical weapons.
"Libya was able to deliver its sole CW agent via aerial bombs only -
a militarily ineffective manner in this case," he says.
"Syria, by comparison, is thought to possess a variety of platforms
for chemical weapons delivery - an open-source CIA report lists
aerial bombs, artillery shells and ballistic missiles."
There is considerable discussion as to the nature of the threat
Syria´s weapons pose.
Leonard Spector says that there are multiple dangers.
"Conceivably, the Assad government could use some of these agents
against rebel forces or even civilians in an effort to intimidate
them into submission," he says.
"Or insurgents could overrun one of the chemical weapon sites and
threaten to use some of these weapons, in extremis, if threatened
with overwhelming force by the Syrian army."
The scenario that is causing the greatest concern, he says, is the
possible loss of control over Syria´s chemical arsenal leading to the
transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah, in Southern Lebanon, or to
Components of both organisations are now operating in Syria as one of
the groups challenging the Assad regime, he says.
Such a link-up between al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and weapons of mass
destruction has haunted US military planners for more than a decade.
In the face of such concerns there has been considerable pressure,
not least from Washington, for the US to come up with plans to secure
the Syrian weapons in the event of the collapse of the regime.
There has been a succession of press reports displaying various
degrees of bravado suggesting US Special Forces are being readied to
swoop in and take over Syria´s chemical weapons infrastructure.
The reality is more complex. Such a mission would require significant
numbers of "boots on the ground" in highly volatile circumstances.
As Charles Blair makes clear: "The Iraq experience demonstrates the
difficulty of securing highly sensitive military storage facilities."
He argues that in Syria the challenges are likely to be
greater "because no foreign army stands poised to enter the country
to locate and secure chemical weapons manufacturing and storage
Of course, as Leonard Spector points out, details of US contingency
planning are not known.
"The most desirable plan would be to urge the weapons´ current
custodians to remain in place during any transition of power, and to
place the sites under the supervision of an international contingent
that could monitor the weapons´ security, as decisions were made
about how to manage or destroy them in the future," he says.
However, he adds: "For the US to attempt to secure the sites in the
face of armed resistance by Syrian forces would be extremely
demanding, given the number of the sites involved and their
Of course if the Assad regime were to go, a whole new set of issues
Would any new Syrian government agree to join the convention and
agree to eliminate its chemical weapons stocks?
Or, as Leonard Spector notes, would they instead "insist on retaining
them as a counter to Israel´s nuclear capabilities and as a
bargaining chip in future negotiations with Israel over the Golan
Heights?" (© BBC MMXII 06/19/12)
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