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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Analysts say that some chemical agents, such as mustard gas, or biological agents, such as the causative agent for anthrax, are relatively robust and therefore potentially easier to weaponize by nonspecialist militants.Skip to next paragraph
"Violent nonstate actors could come across weaponized artillery shells and through trial and error, and probably some unnecessary deaths through handling the agents, they could figure out enough to be able to use certain agents in ways that could cause great harm," says Mr. Blair of FAS. He added that a "wild card" in such a scenario is a Syrian military chemical/biological warfare expert selling his expertise to militants to facilitate exploiting the agents for attacks against civilian targets.
Few good options for West
There are few good options facing the West in preventing chemical weapons falling into the hands of Al Qaeda-linked groups. In February, CNN cited a Pentagon report as estimating that it could take 75,000 troops to secure Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, an undertaking that meets with little enthusiasm in the West. Assuming that all the storage facilities can be identified in the first place, an alternative option of preemptive air strikes also carries dangers given Syria's extensive array of anti-aircraft missile systems.
“Air strikes against chemical weapons facilities means you first have to take out the Syrian air defense network. It would require a full coalition for something of this scale and will be very difficult," says a senior European military officer.
The proliferation threat is not limited to chemical and biological agents and ballistic missiles. The US mounted an intensive program in Libya last year to prevent the spread of MANPADS – portable shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile systems which could be used by militants to shoot down passenger jets. Syria has a large number of Russian MANPADs that are equally vulnerable to proliferation.
"If the Syrian government collapses, there is a risk that Syrian weapons would flow into volatile regions like Lebanon, Turkey, and Kurdistan," says Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher of the arms transfers program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden. "The situation in these countries is very different from North Africa [and the Libya case]... Still it would be good if the international community prepares itself in advance and not afterward as in the case of Libya."
Ultimately, however, given Western reluctance to mount a full-scale invasion of Syria to secure WMDs and prevent weapons proliferation, it is almost certain that some armaments including chemical or biological agents will be lost, analysts say.
"Even in the most spectacular definitions of success, I would find it very hard to believe that when an inventory is finally able to take place that some of the agents had not gone missing," says Mr. Blair.