May 5, 2012

Syria's chemical weapons and the uprising

Syrian chemical munitions manufacturing facility at al-Safir

Despite Kofi Annan's wishful thinking that his cease-fire plan is "on track," the security situation in Syria continues to deteriorate. Many of the world's major powers, including the United States, have called for Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to step down.

As this process plays out, there is concern about what might happen to Syria's large stockpile of chemical weapons stored in several locations around the country. The worst case scenario, of course, is that these weapons end up in the hands of a non-state actor such as Hizballah or al-Qa'idah.

Technically, Syria is within its rights to have chemical weapons. The country is a signatory of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibits first use of chemical or biological weapons, but does not prohibit the manufacture or possession of them.

More significantly, Syria is not a signatory of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention which goes further and does outlaw the production, stockpiling and any - not just "first" - use of chemical munitions. As such, Syria is under no international obligation to declare its chemical weapons, destroy them or even allow international inspectors to monitor them. By not signing the convention, Syria is in company with only Angola, North Korea, Egypt, Somalia and South Sudan.

Syria has not admitted that it possesses chemical weapons, but it is hardly a secret. It is believed to have the largest stockpile of undeclared chemical weapons in the world, including the most lethal chemical warfare agent ever developed, the persistent nerve agent VX.

The Director of National Intelligence, in an unclassified report to Congress in 2006, provided this assessment of Syria's chemical and biological weapons, and the ballistic missiles that can be used to deliver them. It does not address Syrian air force fighter-bombers that can also carry chemical weapons.


Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 January to 31 December 2006. (Read the entire report).

Chemical and Biological. Syria continued to seek dual-use technology from foreign sources during the reporting period. Syria has had a chemical weapons program for many years and already has a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin, which can be delivered by aircraft or ballistic missile. In addition, Syria is developing the more toxic and persistent nerve agent VX. We assess that Syria remains dependent on foreign sources for key elements of its CW program, including precursor chemicals.

Syria's biotechnical infrastructure is capable of supporting limited biological agent development. We do not assess the Syrians have achieved a capability to put biological agents into effective weapons, however.

Ballistic Missile. Syria's ballistic missile program is a key component to its strategy to deter external threats and is a priority in defense planning and spending. Syria possesses one of the largest ballistic missile forces in the Middle East—composed of Scud-class liquid propellant short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), including Soviet—and North Korean—origin Scud missiles. Additionally, Syria fields the SS-21 Mod 2 SRBM. We judge that Syria's operational missile force can employ chemical as well as conventional warheads. Syria is developing a version of its Scud-D missile with greater accuracy and that is more difficult to intercept.

Syria maintains its chemical weapons arsenal and delivery systems to provide a deterrent against an attack by the vastly-superior (and nuclear-equipped) Israeli armed forces. Its ballistic missiles and squadron of SU-24 (NATO: FENCER) fighter-bombers can deliver chemical weapons virtually anywhere in Israel.

That fact mitigates Israel's oft-cited argument that it needs to retain control of the Golan Heights seized from Syria in the Six Day War of 1967. Syrian artillery positions on the heights at one time posed a threat to northern Israel, but with the advances in weapons technology, the Syrians no longer need the high ground to put weapons on Israeli targets. Syrian missiles based in protected launch positions in northern Syria can strike targets anywhere in Israel.

Syria's chemical weapons are - and should be - of concern. As the world determines its next steps in confronting the bloodbath in Syria, it needs to take into consideration the status and disposition of Syria's chemical munitions. Although handling of the weapons requires specialized training, having them fall into the hands of Hizballah via the Syrian regime, or into the hands of al-Qa'idah via the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated opposition, is a frightening thought.