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

Sarin
  • 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

VX
  • 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

You May Like

Turbulent Transition Imperils Tunisia’s Arab Spring Gains

Critics say new anti-terrorism laws worsen Tunisia's situation while others put faith in country’s vibrant civil organizations, women’s movement More

Burundi’s Political Crisis May Become Humanitarian One

United Nations aid agencies issue warning as deadly violence sends tens of thousands fleeing More

Yemenis Adjust to Life Under Houthi Rule

Locals want warring parties to strike deal to stop bloodletting before deciding how country is governed More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
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

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threati
X
Greg Flakus
May 29, 2015 11:24 PM
Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threat

Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video New York's One World Trade Center Observatory Opens to Public

From New Jersey to Long Island, from Northern suburbs to the Atlantic Ocean, with all of New York City in-between.  That view became available to the public Friday as the One World Trade Center Observatory opened in New York -- atop the replacement for the buildings destroyed in the September 11, 2001, attacks.  VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Seoul Sponsors Korean Unification Fair

With inter-Korean relations deteriorating over the North’s nuclear program, past military provocations and human rights abuses, many Koreans still hold out hope for eventual peaceful re-unification. VOA’s Brian Padden visited a “unification fair” held this week in Seoul, where border communities promoted the benefits of increased cooperation.
Video

Video Purple Door Coffeeshop: Changing Lives One Cup at a Time

For a quarter of his life, Kevin Persons lived on the street. Today, he is working behind the counter of an espresso bar, serving coffee and working to transition off the streets and into a home. Paul Vargas reports for VOA.
Video

Video Modular Robot Getting Closer to Reality

A robot being developed at Carnegie Mellon University has evolved into a multi-legged modular mechanical snake, able to move over rugged surfaces and explore the surroundings. Scientists say such machines could someday help in search and rescue operations. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Shanghai Hosts Big Consumer Electronics Show

Electronic gadgets are a huge success in China, judging by the first Asian Consumer Electronics Show, held this week in Shanghai. Over the course of two days, more than 20,000 visitors watched, tested and played with useful and some less-useful electronic devices exhibited by about 200 manufacturers. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Forced to Return Home, Afghan Refugees Face Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.

VOA Blogs