Can Syria keep control of its chemical weapons?

Syria's bold admission this week that long-suspected chemical weapons exist within its conflict-ridden borders, but that they won't be used within the country, has given little comfort to some observers, who are concerned such weaponry may fall into the wrong hands and lead to "nightmare scenarios."
Free Syrian Army members raise their weapons July 7 during a training session on the outskirts of Idlib. The 17-month uprising in Syria has been heightened with the country's recent admission it is holding chemical weapons, even though the foreign minister says they won't be used within the country. (Khalil Hamra, File/Associated Press)

It was a bold admission on the part of the Syrian regime — that long-suspected chemical weapons existed within its conflict-ridden borders.

For decades, intelligence and military experts have cobbled together indirect intelligence about Syria's unconventional weapons capabilities.

On Monday, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi acknowledged the presence of chemical and biological weapons when he said "all of these types of weapons are in storage and under security."

"No chemical weapons will be used" inside Syria against its own citizenry, said Makdissi, adding they would only be used if Syria is "exposed to external aggression."

'The worst-case scenario is that chemical weapons fall into the wrong hands.'—Fawaz Gerges, London School of Economics' Middle East Centre

Given the beleaguered regime of President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly said the 17-month uprising is sponsored by foreign infiltrators and terrorists, Makdissi's statement created some confusion in some circles. Adding to that confusion, the government later backpedalled on Makdissi's statement, stating the policy applied only "if any" such weapons were present.

Whatever the case, the use of chemical weaponry on Syrians, while a horrifying prospect, is not the most likely or worrisome scenario, observers say.

"Even in desperate circumstances, I can’t see them resorting to chemical weapons," said Wesley Wark of the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies. "The Assad regime knows there would be swift military reaction from the U.S. and Israelis."

While the mere presence of chemical weapons is "alarming," Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations and director of the London School of Economics' Middle East Centre, says the true danger is if Syria implodes and the regime loses its grasp on its chemical weapons cache.

"The worst-case scenario is that chemical weapons fall into the wrong hands," said Gerges.

Nightmare scenarios

Among myriad dangers posed by any collapse of the Assad regime would be that its arsenal — secret and otherwise —passes over to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah,or to some of the rogue Syrian military units or paramilitary organizations.

If the chemical weapons are left unguarded, experts say, they could fall into the hands of the opposition Free Syrian Army, which might employ them out of desperation; or the stash could even "simply disappear," says Wark.

"Any of those scenarios are really nightmare scenarios."

Syria is believed to have the most advanced chemical warfare capabilities in the Middle East.

In June, Israel's deputy chief of the general staff, Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh, suggested it has the "biggest chemical weapons arsenal in the world" with "missiles and hand rockets capable of reaching any part of Israeli territory."

Some believe that Syria began building its chemical weapons capability before the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Israel.

The country is not part of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which requires member states to be transparent about their stockpiles and destroy them. The international watchdog reacted to Monday's news, saying it has never received an official response from Syria about stockpiles and refused to speculate on the veracity of reports.

Syria's suspected blister & nerve agents

  • Mustard gas: A blister agent developed and deployed in the First World War, it's delivered in liquid or vapour form. While it burns the skin and lungs, it rarely kills.
  • Nerve agents: Among the most troubling, they include sarin and VX, which may be part of the country's arsenal. They can sometimes kill within minutes of contact. Sarin, originally invented by Germany in 1938 as a pesticide, is a colourless, odourless liquid that evaporates within hours. It was used in two attacks by extremists in Japan in the mid-1990s.
  • VX: The most deadly known nerve agent, developed by British chemists in the early 1950s. It is a persistent nerve agent, meaning its effect can last for weeks.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Few clues about status

"There’s a lot that is unknown about Syria’s weapons program," said Omar Lamrani, military analyst for Stratfor, a strategic intelligence provider. "Most of the information we know is from either outside surveillance or inside reports. It’s not very clear."

What's more important is whether Syria has the precursor elements needed to make a chemical weapons stockpile operational, analysts say.

"The only recent clue we've had to the operational status is the reported movement of some of these chemical weapons from location to location, which would indicate that the Assad regime wants to make sure that they don’t lose control of them," said Wark. "They wouldn’t worry about them so much if they weren't operationally usable."

Syria is believed to possess a large number of Scud ballistic missiles that can be fitted with chemical warheads.

International concerns rose last week when Nawaf Fares, the former Syrian ambassador to Iraq and the highest-level political defector from the Assad regime, told the BBC that he was convinced Assad would draw on his stockpile of chemical weapons if cornered. He did not, however, offer any proof.

Lamrani notes, however, that it's important to "keep in mind that the Syrians have always thought of their chemical weapons as a deterrent," particularly regarding Israel.

While the Syrian government has sought to assuage the international community that the chemical weapons stash is in safe hands, so, too, have the rebels.

Last week, Gen. Adnan Silou, one of the most high-ranking of the Assad regime defectors to join the opposition Free Syrian Army, and a former general in the country's chemical and biological weapons administration, told the Daily Telegraph that the Free Syrian Army is creating a unit assigned to deal with chemical weapons and has been trained in "securing stores, in reconnaissance of possible threats, in how to purge supplies."

But "whether or not they’d have the capacity to secure chemical weapon stores and treat them properly is really anybody’s guess," says Wark.

'Danger point' hard to anticipate

Also among the unknowns is where the chemical weapons stash is being kept.

According to Global Security, Syria has four suspected production facilities.

One is believed to be located just north of Damascus, others are believed to be near the industrial city of Homs, in Hama and in the Mediterranean port of Latakia, an area dominated by the powerful Alawite minority. Specialists also believe about 45 smaller facilities exist across the country.

But military analyst Lamrani notes that even if the chemicals fall into the hands of groups outside the Assad regime, they would need expertise on how to assemble the weapons.

Still, with international action at a standstill after Russia and China last week vetoed the third UN Security Council resolution to impose sanctions, intelligence experts are now in the difficult position of trying to find ways to prevent a "loss-of-control scenario" regarding the chemical weapons stockpile.

"If Syria is left to fight it out, we’ll never be in a position to know when the sort of danger point will come until it arrives, and that's the problematic thing," said Wark.

"And the only thing that countries like the United States and Israel and others can do is have contingency military plans to move in if this sort of nightmare begins to look like it's going to happen."