News / Middle East

Experts Assess Syria's Chemical Weapons Capabilities

Animal carcasses lie on the ground, killed by what residents said was a chemical weapon attack days earlier,Khan al-Assal Syria, March 23, 2013.Animal carcasses lie on the ground, killed by what residents said was a chemical weapon attack days earlier,Khan al-Assal Syria, March 23, 2013.
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Animal carcasses lie on the ground, killed by what residents said was a chemical weapon attack days earlier,Khan al-Assal Syria, March 23, 2013.
Animal carcasses lie on the ground, killed by what residents said was a chemical weapon attack days earlier,Khan al-Assal Syria, March 23, 2013.
Western experts believe Syria has one of the world’s largest chemical weapons arsenals, including mustard gas, the more modern sarin and even VX - the most toxic of all chemical agents.

John Pike, head of Globalsecurity.com, an internet research firm, said the Syrian government also has the necessary means to deliver the chemical agents.

“They have ballistic missiles, artillery rockets, artillery shells and various bombs that could be dropped from airplanes. So however they would need to get it to the target, at least in the region, they could get it there.”

Experts said there is little hard data on Syria’s chemical weapons program because the country has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention that outlaws the production, possession and use of such weapons. Most of the estimates come from intelligence agencies and analysts.

Chemical Weapons Stockpile Unknown

Pike said it is difficult to say where the chemical weapons stockpiles are being held.

“They had several main stock facilities, but they have been moving them around, said Pike. “Presumably they have moved them to locations that they believe are secure and the locations that they believe would enable them to be used quickly if needed.”

Last year, President Barack Obama warned the Syrian government not to use chemical weapons in its war against opposition forces - not to cross a red line. He said the use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer” - but he did not specify what action would be taken.

US Says Syria Used Chemical Weapons

The White House has now disclosed that U.S. intelligence agencies “assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.” But at the same time, the administration said it would “seek to establish credible and corroborated facts” and “fully investigate any and all evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria.”

Charles Blair, a chemical weapons expert with the Federation of American Scientists, said it is much too early to say with confidence that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its people.

Difficult To Say If Syria Used Chemical Weapons

“You have elements within the Syrian military that are aligned with the rebel forces, whatever components there are - and they give them some quantity of sarin agent,” said Blair. “And then the guerilla forces, the opposition forces, which are in many cases jihadists, have every possible incentive to make it look like the Syrian government had used chemical weapons: every possible incentive - because the United States had made a red line.”

John Pike said “There is certainly the possibility that the use of this agent was not authorized at the highest level. It is curious that Syria would use a weapon of mass destruction without massively destructive effects. And I think the red line that the White House had been drawing, envisioned a rather more extensive and destructive use of poison gas than has been seen to date.”

UN Investigation Underway

The United Nations is currently investigating whether the Syrian government has indeed used chemical weapons. But analysts say that investigation has been shackled because U.N. inspectors have not been able to conduct their investigation in Syria.

Andre de Nesnera

Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

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