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Syria's chemical weapons: How secure are they?

Syria has been amassing chemical weapons since the 1980s and is believed to have a larger stockpile than any other country that has faced ethnic civil war.

By Correspondent / June 26, 2012

A SCUD missile launcher is seen during US Army training exercises in 1997. Security analysts worry that Syria's stockpile could fall into the wrong hands as conflict in the country continues.

US Dept. of Defense

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Beirut, Lebanon

As Syria slides into ever worsening violence and parts of the country begin to slip out of control of the state, Syria's chemical and biological weapons arsenal, air defense systems, and ballistic missiles could be up for grabs – a potential bonanza for radical militant groups and a massive challenge for the West in attempting to check proliferation.

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Hard data on Syria's chemical and biological warfare capabilities is scarce, but the country is believed to have one of the largest chemical agents stockpiles in the world, including VX and Sarin nerve agents. It also has an impressive number of surface-to-surface missiles, such as Scud-Ds which can be fitted with chemical warheads, and modern Russian anti-aircraft missile batteries, including portable shoulder-fired systems.

"This is unknown territory," says Charles Blair, senior fellow for State and Non-State Threats at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists. "We have never been through the potential collapse via a very bloody ethnic civil war of a country that is likely armed with a very large stockpile of chemical weapons.”

Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention and denies having a chemical or biological weapons programs. But Western intelligence agencies believe Syria began developing a nonconventional arsenal in the 1980s with the assistance of the Soviet Union in a bid to achieve strategic parity with arch-enemy Israel.

They believe Syria has amassed sizable quantities of blistering agents, such as mustard gas – widely used in World War I and in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war – as well as Sarin and VX. The chemical agents are designed to be fitted to an array of delivery systems, from Scud-D short-range ballistic missiles to a projectile as small as an artillery shell.

Syria also is suspected of having a biological warfare program, possibly involving anthrax, although few details are known and the scale is thought to be small.

According to a recent report by the US-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, there are five identifiable chemical agent manufacturing plants in Syria. They are located in the following areas: Al Safir, southeast of Aleppo; Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast; near Dumayr, 16 miles northeast of Damascus; Khan Abu Shamat, 22 miles east of Damascus; and Al Furqlus in Homs province.

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