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Region | The Specter of Syria's Alleged Chemical Weapons


19 Aug 2012 23:56Comments

syria.JPG Raising the stakes in an increasingly internationalized and deadly conflict.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a fellow at Truthout, an independent online magazine.
[ analysis ] There are few independent assessments of Syria's suspected chemical weapons program. Both the U.S. and Israeli governments assert that Syria has "huge stockpiles" of chemical weapons that can be delivered by its air and land forces. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says that he is "not able to verify that it is true that Syria has a considerable amount of chemical weapons." The Center for Strategic and International Studies maintains, in the most thorough report on Syrian weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) to date, that Syria has chemical weapons, but that the full scale of the program -- believed to be highly dependent on Iranian, North Korean, and black market assistance -- has been difficult to measure. Its stockpile is said to be in place as a deterrent against Israel, which possesses nuclear weapons and occupies the strategic Golan Heights, claimed by Damascus. Unsubstantiated allegations that Syria is preparing to transfer its chemical weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon have also surfaced.

The controversy over the existence and possible uses of these weapons has been compounded by what the Wall Street Journal describes as American fears of intervening in the region once again on a flimsy basis: "Because of the faulty intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction that were used to justify the Iraq war, U.S. officials are extremely cautious about using reports of Mr. Assad's chemical stockpiles to support military intervention."

A consensus among the U.S., European Union, and Israeli intelligence agencies has formed which holds that Syria began chemical weapon research in earnest during the late 1970s and that its chemical warfare infrastructure was largely built during the 1980s -- at the same time as Iraq developed a similar infrastructure -- possibly with assistance from West German companies. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency long suspected that the same European firms that helped Saddam Hussein develop his chemical weapon program used to devastating effect in the war with Iran, and later, against Iraq's own Kurdish population were also involved with the Assads.

According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, whose reports come to the same conclusion as that of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Syria maintains several manufacturing plants and storage bases for chemical weapon delivery systems and weaponized agents such as Sarin and VX. There is disagreements over where exactly these sites are, and how many exist -- information regarding several of these locations may not have been revisited since the early 1990s. Estimates of the number of sites range from around four to "dozens."

Syria is known to possess stocks of Scud-series ballistic missiles, produced domestically in Aleppo, which is now under siege. The missiles are capable of delivering chemical weapons, but the number of launcher systems dedicated to this end and their effectiveness are not well understood. Syria has been unable to procure more advanced ballistic missile equipment from Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union, and is reportedly reliant on North Korean technical assistance to upgrade its homemade Scuds. Though Syria has successfully conducted tests of chemical weapon-capable missiles, a persistent rumor dating back to July 2007 is that a test of a Scud equipped with a chemical warhead resulted in a failed launch that killed dozens of personnel. Iranian technicians were reportedly present, as part of what Western intelligence agencies assert is a joint Syrian-Iranian program to increase Syria's chemical weapon capabilities. Tehran, for its part, denies that the "dual use" materials -- chemicals that can be used both for nonmilitary manufacturing/scientific work and as "precursor agents" for chemical weapons -- it has exported to Syria are for military applications. According to WikiLeaks disclosures, the American and British governments suspect that private companies in India are secretly supplying additional "dual use" materials to Syria.

Concerns have been voiced around the world about security at Syria's chemical warfare sites and the possibility that any weapons stored there could fall into the hands of terrorist groups. Several jihadist outfits are now operating in Syria with a strong sectarian bent against the ruling Alawites. Three important chemical weapons sites are alleged to be in the cities of Damascus, Homs (Hims), and Hama, all of which have been the site of heavy fighting between Syrian security forces and assorted insurgent factions, most notably those associated with the Turkish-based "Free Syrian Army" coalition. (Another major site is thought to be in Latakia, Syria's largest port and an occasional way station for the Russian Navy, making it one of the most secure pro-regime areas in the country right now.) It would still be extremely difficult, as the Israeli daily Maariv noted, for a successful chemical weapon transfer or theft to occur, "as a number of components, each kept separately, as far as known, have to be gathered and assembled for operational capability to be achieved."

A recent imbroglio over Reuters' Syria coverage clearly illustrates the stakes in the information war being waged over Syria's chemical warfare capabilities. The news agency had posted a story asserting that rebels had obtained their own chemical weapons from Libya, where several stockpiles not destroyed by the defunct Qaddafi regime in the early 2000s were found after its overthrow. The story, forecasting a confrontation between two chemical weapon-possessing sides, was retracted after it was discovered that Reuters' website had been hacked by pro-Assad "hacktivists." A report suggesting that rebels were in possession of chemical weapons would fit into the Assad camp's narrative about the nature of the ongoing civil war.

Allegations of Syrian WMDs are shaping up to be a major pro- and anti-intervention debating point as the civil war worsens. Syria -- identified as part of an expanded "Axis of Evil" by former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton (now an adviser to Mitt Romney) and as part of an "axis of terror" by former Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz -- and its alleged WMDs have become, in effect, a sideshow to the Iranian nuclear debate that has been going on since the early 2000s. In September 2007, a Syrian nuclear facility -- which the Israelis said included a reactor capable of enriching uranium to military-grade levels -- was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force, in defiance of the Bush administration's preference for a diplomatic solution. Tehran is clearly as much of a consideration for the United States, Israel, and the Persian Gulf states as the chemical weapons are. "Washington is mortified by Assad's methods, and it has been seduced by the prospect of an easy proxy victory over Teheran," wrote Geoffrey Aronson in Foreign Policy last month. And the Cato Institute's Doug Bandow warns that talk of toppling Assad will only incite more Syrian saber-rattling on chemical weapons, creating a diplomatic situation in which foreign military intervention will become increasingly likely.

The U.S. government asserts that it knows where Syria's chemical weapons are and that the State Department is satisfied they are secure. Israeli generals have issued similar statements asserting that they are on top of things and are ready to act -- statements likely calculated less as prelude for direct intervention than as reassurances that the conflict can be contained. In what was either a slip-up or deliberate hint dropping, a spokesman for the Syrian government said that "all of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression." The weapons -- "if they exist," the spokesman later clarified, reaffirming Syria's policy of deliberate ambiguity regarding chemical weapons -- would be used only against "external aggression" and not the Syrian people. On the other hand, two high-ranking defectors have asserted in recent weeks that Assad would use chemical weapons on the citizens of his own country if he became sufficiently desperate, as the Iraqi government did during the 1990s.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry holds that "Syria has consistently argued that all countries in the Middle East region should be subject to the same [WMD disclosure and inspection] standards, referring to Israel's weapons programmes and capabilities." The Syrian state media rounded on foreign press reports by noting that many of these outlets wrongly reported the existence of Iraqi WMDs during the lead-up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Pro-regime commentators also argued that if the United States was truly committed to a political solution to the conflict, it would do better to interdict weapons entering the country, whether smuggled in from Iraq, or those now being openly supplied to the rebels by Turkey.

It would be difficult for Israel to launch a preemptive strike in Syria at a moment when Israeli political and military leaders are waging a whisper campaign against each other over Iran's alleged nuclear capabilities. It is also unlikely that Syria would deploy chemical weapons against any of its neighbors, especially Israel due to its retaliatory capabilities. The specter of Syrian chemical weapons does not guarantee direct foreign intervention, but it does amplify the significance of the conflict. As commentator Iyad El-Baghdadi opines, "With the mix of regime Migs, Jihadis, FSA gains & chemical weapons, I think a #Libya-style intervention in #Syria can be back on the table."

The specter of chemical weapons certainly offers those in favor of overthrowing Assad yet another reason to put more of their weight behind pro-Western rebel groups, or to clandestinely insinuate their operatives into the conflict on a larger scale. To return to El-Baghdadi's assessment, "Let's not kid ourselves - #Syria under Assad will not have a Tahrir square. That ship [h]as long sailed."

Photo: Adobe of Chaos. H/T: Le Monde

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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