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September 24, 2013

Syria's Chemical Weapons Stockpile Vast, Complicated

by Andre de Nesnera

Under pressure from the United States and Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has provided details of his chemical weapons arsenals to the international organization charged with monitoring them. A spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says it received “everything that we have been expecting.” But he did not disclose any figures.

Syria is believed to have one of the world’s largest chemical weapons arsenals including mustard gas, the more modern sarin and even VX - the most toxic of all.

Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, said Syria has produced chemical weapons for decades.

“It was Assad’s father who started building this arsenal. It was done with the assistance of several other countries, including Russia and we believe North Korea,” said Cirincione. “And the arsenal was aided by Western companies selling the regime components that it would need, particularly the precursor chemicals which have civilian applications but which are used to make some of this deadly nerve gas.”

Syria’s chemical weapons stocks

Cirincione said U.S. intelligence services have a pretty good idea where Syria's chemical weapons are located.

“There are about five or six main chemical depots and U.S. intelligence has tracked the movement of some of these munitions out from those main depots over the last few months and particularly in the last few weeks to about three dozen different sites.”

Until recently, the Syrian government denied possessing chemical weapons and still denies using them in its war against insurgents.

But earlier this month, a United Nations investigation concluded that chemical weapons, including sarin, were used in Syria against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale. Syrian authorities deny responsibility for the attack and blame rebels.

Evidence points to government

​​However Greg Thielmann, an expert on weapons of mass destruction, now with the Arms Control Association, echoed Washington’s conclusions that the Syrian government is to blame.

“The mandate of the U.N. was not to get into the issue of culpability. What it does though, by providing the additional information about whether or not a large scale attack by chemical weapons occurred, just by providing the details, they provide corroborative evidence or a very strong circumstantial case against the Syrian government,” he said.

President Barack Obama threatened limited military action to deter and degrade Bashar al-Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons.  

But now that is on hold, since the United States and Russia reached an agreement whereby Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons arsenal.

US, Russia accord

The accord calls for international experts to complete initial on-site inspections by November and for the destruction of all of Syria's chemical weapons material and equipment in the first half of next year.

Analyst Cirincione, who has followed disarmament issues for years, said the agreement was a stunning development.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. Usually, a process like this takes months or years - and here you went from a situation where Assad was denying having chemical weapons, to then admitting that he had them and then agreeing to sign the international treaty that bans the chemical weapons and mandates their elimination,” said Cirincione. “It’s happening at an unprecedented speed and apparently with the cooperation of the involved parties.”

Cirincione said neither the United States nor Russia wants Assad to keep his chemical weapons arsenal - nor do they want to see Syria descend into further chaos. The recent U.S.-Russian accord on Syria, says Cirincione, is a perfect example of how adversaries can cooperate when their security interests are being met.