News / Middle East

International Concern Mounts Over Syria's Chemical Weapons

Syria, chemical weapons sites
Syria, chemical weapons sites
As U.S. officials raise the alarm about perceived Syrian government preparations to use chemical weapons in the country’s civil war, some analysts see those weapons playing other roles in the conflict.

They say the United States and its allies also are weighing several options and risks in planning their response to the threat of chemical warfare in Syria.

The threat appeared to grow Monday as U.S. officials said intelligence sources detected moves by Syrian authorities to combine the components of the nerve agent sarin.

They said it was not clear if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has decided to deploy deadly sarin gas against rebels trying to end his 12-year rule. But U.S. President Barack Obama warned that Assad would be held accountable if he takes such a step, without saying how Washington would respond.

Suspected stockpiles

Suspected Syrian Chemical Weapons

  • Man-made highly toxic odorless, tasteless, colorless nerve agent
  • Possibly used during Iraq-Iran war
  • Exposure can be by inhalation, ingestion and skin absorption; people can recover with treatment form mild or moderate exposure

  • Odorless, tasteless man-made nerve agent; most potent of all nerve agents
  • Slow to evaporate, can last for days on objects
  • Exposure can be through skin contact or inhalation; people can recover with treatment for mild or moderate exposure

Mustard Gas
  • Chemical warfare agent that causes skin blisters and mucous membranes
  • Sometimes odorless, sometimes smells like garlic, onions or mustard
  • Exposure can be by inhalation, ingestion or skin contact
  • Vapor released in the air can be carried long distances; exposure not usually fatal

Source: CDC
Western security analysts believe Syria also has stockpiles of VX gas, a deadlier nerve agent, and mustard gas, a blistering agent that usually is not lethal.

They say Syria’s arsenal is tightly guarded by Assad loyalists at several sites around the country, including the capital, Damascus, and the cities of Hama, Homs, Latakia and al-Safir.

Syria has not denied possessing chemical weapons and has not signed an international convention banning their use. But, Damascus has said it would never deploy such munitions against its own people.
Assad’s pledge

Dave Hartwell, a Middle East researcher at IHS Jane’s in London, said he doubts the Syrian president would violate that pledge.

"Mr. Assad is not Saddam Hussein," noted Hartwell. "He is a very different type of ruler,  not as dictatorial in the cruel sense."

The deposed Iraqi leader’s forces killed thousands of minority Iraqi Kurds in a 1988 chemical attack on the northeastern city of Halabja.

Negotiating tactic?

Hartwell said Assad appears to be keeping Syria’s chemical weapons in reserve as a bargaining chip with Western and Arab powers who want him ousted.

"Perhaps [he wants] to negotiate some form of surrender or some form of handover [of the weapons] to international authorities in exchange for immunity from prosecution in the future," he said.

Al-Qaida’s role

Hartwell said the West is more concerned about the risk of Syria’s chemical weapons falling into the hands of al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants who have joined the fight against Assad.

Dany Shoham, a researcher at Israel’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said he believes Assad would act to prevent al-Qaida from capturing and using the chemical agents.

"If his regime is about to fall, most probably he would prefer to ‘rescue’ those weapons and let [his] Iranian [allies] have them," said Shoham.

He said another possibility is that Assad would transfer chemical munitions to his Lebanese ally Hezbollah, a militant group that dominates Lebanon’s government.

US options

Hartwell said any attempt by the United States and its allies to secure Syria’s chemical weapons and prevent their use or transfer would require sending in ground troops to guard the stockpiles.

He said one option would be for the U.S. military to enter Syria, perhaps with special operations forces such as those sent to neighboring Jordan earlier this year to train Jordanian troops.

The Obama administration previously has expressed a reluctance to intervene in such a way, fearing that could exacerbate Syria’s fighting and plunge the United States into another costly Iraq-style war.

"[Washington] also could provide logistical back-up or transport for troops from other countries to go in, perhaps from Jordan or Turkey," said Hartwell.

Intervention risks

But Western military planners also face two major hazards in Syria.

Israeli researcher Shoham said one possibility is that Assad would be provoked into using his remaining chemical arsenal against the invading forces.

"Another risk is that there would be a massive environmental contamination from attacking those weapons and trying to destroy them," he said.

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

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Comment Sorting
by: Dan
December 06, 2012 6:54 PM
Incredible the outside world has taken so long to ACT.
Consequently the situation is now more complex and dangerous apart from the transfer of such munitions back to Iran with elements of the Army to continue the conflict.
This has the making of another Iraq drawing the West into another conflict.

by: JKF from: Ottawa, Canada
December 05, 2012 10:04 AM
Lots of granstanding by everyone, but the reality is: once the weapons are initiated (chems mixed) and weapons loaded, the danger to all increases dramatically. Once the weapons are loaded, they can easily be dispersed, hard to tell which are conventional from those that are bio or chem containing weapons. So, if there is real evidence that the process of initiating (LOADING WEAPONS/shells) has commenced, then action may be a bit late and granstanding, as usual, makes no sense!.The other possibility, is that the regime is getting ready to transfer the chem/bio stock agents to its mentor, Iran; a similar process occured with Saddam's transfer of assets to Syria and Iran... . but I guess evryone forgot ..Such a transer could result in constituents falling into the hands of extreme islamists, given the fact that the security sit in most of Syria is no longer firmly under Assad's control. If transfer is the case, inaction does not make sense either. Conclusion- in either case grandstanding does not equate with what needs to be done. Same applies to the Iran nuclear issue!

by: Siraj ud Din from: India
December 05, 2012 7:24 AM
What about the serious Concern of the Country who never oblige to any Non Nuclear Treaty, Twice used Nuclear Bomb on Civilians killing Millions, Still not Signed the NPT and possess the largest Cache of Nuclear and Chemical Weapons.....Do you feel safe while this beast Wondering here and There Freely in the Thirst of Human Blood

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