Doubts rise about Syria's chemical weapons disclosure

Members of the Syrian opposition have accused President Assad of transferring chemical weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

UN experts arrive to the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus, Syria, Sept. 25. A team of UN chemical weapons inspectors returned to Damascus on Wednesday to complete their investigation into what the UN calls 'pending credible allegations' of chemical weapons use in Syria's civil war.

A flurry of accusations that Syria has transferred some of its chemical weapons to Lebanon and Iraq is casting suspicion over Damascus' compliance with a deal brokered by the United States and Russia to hand over its chemical arsenal.

The accusations have been made exclusively by staunch opponents of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, casting some doubt on the credibility of the claims. Regardless, the allegations could further muddle the complex task of cataloging Syria’s entire chemical weapons arsenal before destroying it.

Last week, Fahd al-Masri, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), repeated a claim he initially made in July that two truckloads of Syrian chemical weapons had been transferred to Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah, an ally of the Assad regime, and were being stored at the group's bases. He named the locations as the Sannine mountain, north east of Beirut; Ayoun Oghosh and in the hills of Yammouneh both on the western flank of the Bekaa Valley; and in mountains between Hermel and Mishmish in north Lebanon. 

Mr. Masri claimed to have video footage backing his accusation – although it has not been released publicly – and added that “international intelligence apparatuses are aware” of the arms transfer.

But no evidence has emerged that Hezbollah has acquired or even sought chemical weapons. The party bases its deterrence against Israel on the threat of pounding Israeli cities and towns with its arsenal of conventional rockets and blockading Israeli coastal ports with its anti-ship missiles.

Syrian opposition member Kamal al-Labwani told the Saudi daily Al-Watan that the chemical weapons had been smuggled into Lebanon hidden in trucks carrying vegetables. The same claims have been repeated by General Salim Idriss, the commander of the FSA, and General Zaher al-Sakat, a top chemical weapons specialist for the Assad regime before his defection earlier this year.

Such accusations are not new. In 2003, Hezbollah was accused of being a recipient of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that were allegedly smuggled into Syria ahead of the US-led invasion of Iraq in March that year.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, on Monday scoffed at the claims, describing them as a “laughable accusation” and repeating past assertions that his party would never seek such weapons because of “religious taboos.”

It is no secret that Hezbollah runs a string of military bases and training camps in the Bekaa Valley, including in the vicinity of the locations mentioned by Masri of the FSA. Hezbollah is also believed to have amassed an extensive stockpile of advanced weapons in recent years, including guided missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv, anti-ship missiles, and air defense systems.

But even Israel, which has repeatedly warned that Hezbollah's acquisition of chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” has given no indication that it suspects such munitions have crossed into Lebanon.

 “As far as we know, he [Nasrallah] does not want them,” Maj. General Yair Golan, the commander of the Israeli army’s northern front, told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth last week.

Last weekend, the Assad regime handed over an initial inventory of its chemical stockpile to the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The OPCW is examining the material prior to seeking ways of conducting on-ground inspections of chemical weapons sites and the subsequent destruction of the munitions.

The US-Russian agreement reached two weeks ago in Geneva followed a chemical weapons strike against rebel-held areas of Damascus on Aug. 21 that killed more than a thousand people. A UN report on the attack confirmed that Sarin nerve agent was used. While it did not apportion blame, it included circumstantial evidence to back Western accusations that the Assad regime was responsible.

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