What to Do with Syria's Chemical Weapons

By Michael Eisenstadt

Growing violence in Syria has raised concerns that the Assad regime might use its massive stockpile of chemical weapons (CW) against the opposition, or that antiregime insurgents, al-Qaeda, Hizballah, or other states might divert some of these arms for their own use. Just yesterday, Nawaf al-Fares -- Syria's former ambassador to Iraq who recently defected to the opposition -- warned that the regime would use CW if cornered. Such concerns have prompted calls for action to deal with this threat. Yet past experience in Iraq and Libya demonstrates the complex nature of this operational and policy problem.

Syria's Chemical Program

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Syria has probably the largest and most advanced chemical warfare program in the Arab world, reportedly including thousands of tube and rocket artillery rounds filled with mustard-type blister agents, thousands of bombs filled with the nerve agents sarin and possibly VX , and binary-type and cluster CW warheads filled with nerve agents for all its major missile systems. Its CW infrastructure is believed to include several production facilities and numerous storage sites, mostly dispersed throughout the western half of the country. (Syria is also believed to have a biological warfare research and development program, though it is not believed to have produced biological weapons.)

Possible Scenarios

The Syrian regime is not known to have used CW in the past; there is no evidence for longstanding rumors that it did so in Hama in 1982. Yet other governments in the region used CW against domestic opponents -- Yemen during its civil war in the 1960s, and Iraq against Kurdish and Shiite rebels in 1988 and 1991, respectively -- so such a scenario is not implausible in Syria. More likely, Damascus would increase its use of heavy artillery and aircraft before resorting to CW, though the growing role of shabbiha paramilitaries in the fighting complicates efforts to assess Syrian calculations regarding CW use.

Other scenarios presuppose the breakdown of security at CW storage facilities. For example, Syrian insurgents could use captured CW munitions against regime forces (just as some Iraqi insurgents used derelict CW munitions in improvised explosive devices against U.S. forces). Parts of the chemical stockpile could also be diverted by al-Qaeda, Hizballah, or even Iran, which reportedly destroyed its own CW stocks in the early 1990s prior to acceding to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Diversion by nonstate actors could be difficult and dangerous if they lacked proper protective gear, training, and logistical support. Bulk agent is stored in large containers that may be hard to move, and filled munitions might leak if they were of poor quality or inadequately maintained. Moreover, binary-type munitions require two chemical components that are likely stored separately, so diverted weapons of this sort would be useless unless both components were acquired. Due to these complexities, local insurgent groups might not consider CW worth the effort to obtain.

In the event of security breakdowns at storage facilities, the diversion of small numbers of munitions by local insurgents willing to accept the risks involved might not attract notice. Yet Israel and the United States are reportedly keeping many of Syria's CW-related facilities under surveillance, so larger diversions could prove difficult to accomplish without detection. Such a diversion would require trained personnel and a significant logistical effort -- therefore, it would likely be noticed, especially if it aimed to remove CW from the country (e.g., to Lebanon).

Military Options

Israel, the United States, and other concerned countries could prevent the diversion or use of chemical weapons by launching airstrikes on CW bunkers (to deny access to the facilities or destroy munitions), or by sending in ground troops to physically secure storage facilities. Either option would require the neutralization or suppression of Syrian air defenses, further complicating an already difficult undertaking.

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Michael Eisenstadt is director of the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute.

This article was originally published as PolicyWatch 1964 and is republished here with permission.

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