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Fears Mount Over Assad’s Stockpiles of Chemical Weapons

July 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In addition to the diplomatic tension with China and Russia, reports that some of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapon stockpiles were recently moved have increased fears. Jeffrey Brown talks to Leonard Spector of the Monterey Institute of International Studies and Julian Barnes of The Wall Street Journal.


JEFFREY BROWN: And joining us now is Leonard Spector, a weapons and nonproliferation expert with the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and Julian Barnes of The Wall Street Journal.

Julian, I want to start with you today, first on today’s U.N. vote.

What reaction are you getting from U.S. officials? Do they have any further steps planned or possible?

JULIAN BARNES, The Wall Street Journal: Well, there wasn’t a lot of surprise that Russia and China made this move today.

The Russians have been blocking this for a while. Officials I have been talking to have said it is almost fruitless to continue to push Russia for the solution to this, that Russia is not going to change its position until the Assad regime begins to fall.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet they went ahead and they pushed another vote today.

JULIAN BARNES: That’s right. But a lot of military officials think it’s going to be the events on the ground that are going to drive this forward, not the diplomatic events.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so, Leonard Spector, I want to turn to the chemical weapons question.

Fill in a bit of the picture. What’s known about the size and scope of the program there in Syria?

LEONARD SPECTOR, Monterey Institute of International Studies: The size and scope is — both are immense, the quantity of materials, hundreds of tons, and the variety of material, everything from the World War I gases to the very modern persistence nerve gases, the slimes, as they say, that will stay in place for a while, for days and remain dangerous.

JEFFREY BROWN: And build up over time, and for what purposes, what intention?

LEONARD SPECTOR: Well, in principle, this is a response perhaps to Israeli capabilities. It may also just be a very significant symbol of Assad and his father’s strength in the region and a way of demonstrating Syrian leadership.

But, certainly, there’s both a military and a symbolic side to this.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have tracked the chemical weapons facilities around Syria. We have a map that your organization put together to show our audience. Tell us what we’re seeing.

LEONARD SPECTOR: Well, I think you’re seeing some chemical weapons storage sites off to the right in the more rural parts of the country, and then chemical weapon production sites towards the left in the more built-up areas, where most of the fighting has been.

But the countryside, supposedly, is much more in the hands of the Free Syrian Army. And if there are chemical weapons sites there that are now falling behind let’s call them enemy lines or insurgent lines, you may have a situation where there may be a transfer of the authority over these sites before long.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Julian, you and your colleagues at The Journal reported the other day that the weapons were being moved. What more is known? What can you update us on?

JULIAN BARNES: Well, the officials we have talked to are still divided on what this means. There are some who think that this was moving weapons from sites that were threatened by the rebels to more secure areas.

There are others who worry that this is…

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean away from potential insurgents?

JULIAN BARNES: Right, away from the rebels and the insurgent lines to safeguard them for the regime.

But there are others who think that the movement was a precursor to potentially using them as a part of an ethnic cleansing campaign or as a part of — on the battlefield against the rebels.

JEFFREY BROWN: And certainly officials have spoken up two days in a row, Leon Panetta at the Pentagon yesterday, and again today, so some level of concern.

JULIAN BARNES: Right, and a clear warning that this will invite an international response.

And that’s why some officials think that this is — it will not be President Assad who makes the order to use this, but only after he falls from power, remnants of his regime might, as a last-ditch effort, start to use these weapons.

JEFFREY BROWN: Leonard Spector, what is the level of concern that you’re hearing?

LEONARD SPECTOR: Well, one of the administration people I have contacted indicated that there was indeed growing concern about the risk of use.

I frankly, when I spoke to the — in Congress earlier today, felt that that was more farfetched because Assad would be so concerned about the possibility of intervention. But that seems to have been discounted. Even though we have given warnings, there’s a sense in the administration from what I gather that the risk of use is real.

JEFFREY BROWN: What scenarios are being spun out in which they might be used?

LEONARD SPECTOR: Well, this would be sort of a last-ditch effort to suppress the opposition and/or to cow the civilian population.

Certainly, once they get used in a civilian setting, there is going to be enormous hesitation to sort of challenge the regime. I mean, these are very, very deadly weapons. And they will be frightening because they’re so different from the conventional explosives that we are sort of getting used to.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are they easy to use? Can they quickly be put together and used?

LEONARD SPECTOR: Well, if they are artillery shells, you simply substitute a chemical artillery shell from a traditional one. So that part is easy. Sometimes, they have to be prepared, but these are intended for battlefield use in many cases, and that means rapid preparation.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the ability to scare and kill lots of people.

LEONARD SPECTOR: Absolutely, especially if they’re in the open, at a market, or in the streets. It could be very deadly and just sow incredible panic.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does that sound like what they’re worried about, and what kind of — therefore, what? What are U.S. officials able to prepare for or do?

JULIAN BARNES: Well, that is one scenario people are very worried about, because it’s not just — once you use it, the panic spreads and you get displaced people, a lot of — the refugee crisis gets that much worse as people flee areas.

There’s this view that it could be used in the Alawite areas, where — President Assad’s ethnicity, and to clear out Sunnis from those areas. There are plans, should the Assad regime fall and should — to have U.S. allies in the region secure some of these sites, mainly Jordan, Turkey.

Now, should those allies be unwilling, there are contingency plans for the U.S. to secure some of those, but that’s a scenario that the administration is very reluctant and hopes it doesn’t come to that.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is a whole, another potential danger, right? If Assad falls, what happens to these things if they fall into who knows what hands?


Well, I think what our jobs — in a sense, the United States and our allies — is to create an environment in which they stay under governmental control, maybe even under the control of the current guardians, but with a superstructure of the Free Syrian Army or the new government of Syria taking charge of them.

But they’re managed by people that understand the weapons and can be — know the inventory and can maintain the security around them. So it’s a very difficult game between a transition on the one hand, but trying to preserve as much of the protective measures as you can. We did that with some success in Libya, although not complete by any means.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m wondering, going back to where we started here with the day at the U.N. and Russia playing the role it’s playing, Russia is close to Syria. Can the U.S. ask the Russians for help on this chemical weapons issue? Is that possible?

LEONARD SPECTOR: One would hope so. Certainly, if there was a risk of loss and you wanted to bring an international team of some kind in, I think you would want to have the Russians as part of it to reinforce the credibility and not to isolate them, but try to get them as part of…


JEFFREY BROWN: Brief last word on that?

JULIAN BARNES: Yes. And as part of an endgame, that’s how Russia could switch to the other side by taking a role to help secure these weapons of mass destruction.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Julian Barnes and Leonard Spector, thank you both very much.

And we delve deeper into some of these same questions online, where you will also find the map we showed of possible locations for chemical weapons facilities.