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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.

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Diplomats and analysts interviewed for this article estimate that there are several dozen additional storage sites scattered across the country, some of them in hardened underground bunkers dug into the sides of hills, complicating efforts by Western intelligence agencies to identify the facilities and draw up plans to secure or destroy them.

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"There are a significant number [of sites] large enough to make it a significant problem," says a Western diplomat with access to intelligence data. "[But] Some who are a little closer to the problem with a more urgent interest have a very good idea where they are," the diplomat added, in a veiled reference to Israel.

Israel's concern: Scud missiles tipped with warheads on its border

Israel has been watching the escalating violence in Syria with growing alarm. Even though the Assad regime is a close ally of Iran and the militant Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah, Syria's border with Israel in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights has been dormant for almost 40 years under the Assads. Israel, already worried at a deteriorating security situation along its southern border with Egypt, now also faces the possibility of its enemies in the north acquiring chemical weapons or ballistic missiles.

"Syria today is the largest chemical-weapons stockpile in our region," Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, deputy chief of staff of the Israeli army, told Israel's Hayom newspaper two weeks ago. "These missiles can reach every point in Israel, so we must not relax our vigilance."

Israel worries that Hezbollah in Lebanon may acquire Scud missiles perhaps tipped with chemical warheads to enhance its deterrence posture against Israel.

In April 2010, Israel claimed that Syria had transferred control of some Scuds to Hezbollah at military depots near Damascus, although there were conflicting reports as to whether any of the missiles had been smuggled across the border into Lebanon.

Recent reports in the Israeli media have addressed the threat again. Israel says it regards Hezbollah's acquisition of Scuds as a "red line" requiring a response.

Hezbollah's leadership regularly boasts that nowhere in Israel is beyond the reach of its rocket arsenal, which certainly would be true if the Shiite movement had acquired Scud-D missiles, which have a range of about 435 miles.

But while Hezbollah's rocket arsenal is widely believed to have expanded in quantity and quality since the month-long 2006 war with Israel, some analysts question whether Hezbollah would seek Scud missiles because of the logistical complexities involved.

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