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.

US Dept. of Defense
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.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Chemical agent manufacturing plants in Syria.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

Smuggling the 37-foot missiles into Lebanon along with their even larger dedicated mobile launcher and storing them safely and in secret would be a formidable undertaking. Furthermore, unlike Hezbollah's arsenal of solid-fueled artillery rockets, which can be quickly set up and fired, Scuds are liquid-fueled which entails a complicated and lengthy launch preparation procedure leaving the batteries vulnerable to being spotted and attacked.

Increased activity at known missile storage sites in Syria

Western diplomatic sources contacted for this story say that increased activity has been detected at Syrian military bases where Scud missiles are stored, including the movement of rockets, the construction of new underground bunkers and the expansion of existing facilities. The diplomatic sources assess that the activity is a sign that the Assad regime is attempting to safeguard its ballistic missiles to prevent them falling into the hands of the armed opposition.

The hills on either side of the highway linking Damascus to Homs contain numerous underground military bases. Some of them, such as those near Adra, Dumayr, and between Al Qastal and An Nasrriyah, are widely believed by military analysts to be missile storage and launch sites. The protected entrances to the underground tunnels are clearly visible on satellite images carried by the Google Earth portal. Another underground facility appears to be under construction six miles south west of Al Qastal, with at least six new tunnel entrances. (See map, top left.)

Still, even if Hezbollah has acquired Scud missiles, the organization has not fired a shot at Israel in six years and analysts believe it does not seek a renewed confrontation at the present time. That restraint does not necessarily apply to Al Qaeda, however.

How likely that Al Qaeda will obtain chemical weapons?

The main concern in the West is that Al Qaeda-affiliated groups fighting in Syria will attempt to obtain chemical agents from Syrian stockpiles.

Al Qaeda has been seeking chemical and biological weapons since at least the late 1990s. Documents seized by US troops in Afghanistan in 2001 indicated that Al Qaeda was working on acquiring weapons of mass destruction, possibly attempting to weaponize biological agents. In 2009, a British tabloid reported that an Al Qaeda group in Algeria was forced to abandon a training camp after experiments to weaponize bubonic plague led to the deaths of 40 militants.

Anwar al-Awlaki, a prominent Al Qaeda ideologue who was killed last September in a drone missile strike in Yemen, was posthumously quoted in a recent edition of Al Qaeda's English-language Inspire magazine as condoning the use of chemical and biological weapons.

"The use of poisons or chemical and biological weapons against population centers is allowed and strongly recommended due to its great effect on the enemy," Mr. Awlaki was quoted as saying.

The extent of Al Qaeda penetration into Syria is unclear, although there are indications that elements of the armed opposition – Arab volunteers and Sunni Syrians alike – are becoming radicalized and adopting distinct religious and Islamist rhetoric, with many hailing the campaign to unseat the Assad regime as a "jihad."

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.

"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.

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