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Experts: Syria Not Likely to Use Chemical Weapons

  • Cecily Hilleary

Syria's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Jihad Makdissi speaks during a news conference in Damascus July 23, 2012.

Syria's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Jihad Makdissi speaks during a news conference in Damascus July 23, 2012.

Syria appears to be backtracking on hints it may have biological and chemical weapons (BCW) capability, following comments by a Foreign Ministry spokesman. The spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, told reporters Monday that Syria would not hesitate to use unconventional weapons against “external aggression,” but promised that Damascus would never use these weapons against its own citizens. His statement came a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed concern that Syria’s chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Israel’s enemies.

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.
In a direct exchange with VOA on Facebook shortly after his comments, Jihad Makdissi sought to clarify his remarks, “As I explained, any unconventional weapons - if they exist, since I am responding only to false allegations on having them - would never ever be used against anyone inside the country or any civilians during the current painful crisis in Syria, no matter how the crisis evolves,” Makdissi wrote to VOA.

Later on Monday, Syria’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement, saying, "When the Foreign Ministry spokesman says that Syria will not use chemical weapons against its people… this doesn't mean that Syria has such weapons in the first place." The Ministry accused international media of making too much of Makdissi’s statement, which it says came in response to what Syria says is an international media campaign falsely accusing Syria of having weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs, as a pretext for invasion.

This is not the first time Syria has implied that it has a BCW program. After Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi agreed to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction program in 2003, the U.S. and Britain stepped up pressure on the Syrian President to do the same. In response, Bashar al-Assad told London’s Telegraph that Syria had a right to defend itself by acquiring chemical and biological weapons and that Syria would not destroy any such weapons program unless Israel agreed to halt its nuclear program.

It is natural for us to look for means to defend ourselves. It is not difficult to get most of these weapons anywhere in the world and they can be obtained at any time.
Do they or don’t they?

Most experts suspect Syria has some kind of chemical weapons program dating back to the 1973 Arab - Israeli war, when Egypt reportedly supplied its ally with mustard gas and the missiles with which to deliver it. Following the Arab defeat by Israel, Damascus decided it needed to develop a weapons capability that could at least counter that of Israel.

Beyond that, most everyone - including the U.N. secretary- general - much of the talk about Syria’s unconventional weapons capabilities has been speculation. Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Belgrade Monday, “There is very little information I have read that [they] have a possibility of Syria may be tempted to… use chemical weapons, but I am not able to verify that it is true that Syria has a considerable amount of chemical weapons. “

Leonard S. Spector, deputy director of the Monterey Institute’s Center for Non-proliferation Studies in Washington, says he is convinced Syria has a very “substantial” variety of chemical agents.

“They have the gases that were used in World War I, mustard and cyanide,” Spector said. “They have the nerve gases that were developed later on. And they have the most modern, which is persistent nerve gas - X - and this is a sort of an oily substance that you would disperse, but it would linger.”

Spector says he is much less certain about whether Syria has developed biological agents - toxins or micro-organisms that can cause illness or disease.

“The U.S. government has been much more cautious, at least in recent years, about stating that individual countries possess biological weapons,” Spector said. “The typical phrasing - and I think it’s true for Syria - is they are known to have done research into biological weapons and have the capacity to manufacture them, if they decide to take that step. No one is quite sure how far they’ve gotten.”

A 2004 Swedish Defense Agency report on Syria’s WMD program found no signs that Syria was “harboring an offensive biological weapons program.” The authors did, however, note that Syria has a surprisingly well-developed pharmaceutical industry. “And it could be argued that this capacity could be used for production in an offensive biological weapons (BW) program,” the report concluded.

Delivery Systems

Though Syria’s ballistic missile program dates back the 1970s, Syria does not yet have the ability to manufacture its own missiles and relies on equipment and technology assistance from Iran and Russia. estimates that as of 2003, Syria had acquired several hundred Scud and SS-21 short-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying chemical warheads. These are capable of reaching most of Syria’s neighbors - including Israel.

Retired Syrian Brigadier General Akil Hashem

Retired Syrian Brigadier General Akil Hashem

Syrian Brigadier General Akil Hashem retired after 27 years of military service and now lives in exile outside of Syria. He believes the international community - including Israel - has very little to worry about. He says he can speak with certainty about Syria’s chemical weapons program up to the beginning of 2011.

“It was primitive. But after that, I don’t know, and nobody else knows, not even the CIA, what might have happened,” Hashem said. “If Iran, in the past year and a half, provided Syrians with chemical weapons components, with experts, with equipment, with technology, this might change my assessment of the quality of this program.

That said, Hashem said he does not believe Syria would actually use these weapons against Israel. It does not have any reason to do so, says Hashem, because Israel would not be a partner to any Western intervention in Syria. Further, he says that because Israel is superior in power to any other country in the region, it could easily counter an unconventional weapons attack by Syria almost as soon as it began.

Some Middle East analysts have expressed concern about what might happen if Syria’s suspected chemical or biological weapons were to fall into opposition hands. General Hashem says that the opposition has promised to protect and maintain any locations over which it gains control. He says he has no doubts that Syria may face even darker days following the fall of the regime. But no matter what the Syrian people suffer, he says, nothing could be darker than life under the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

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