WASHINGTON, D.C. -The Syrian Army is by regional standards a highly-capable military force and its air force is one of the largest in the Middle East.
In addition to that, Western experts believe Syria has a large chemical weapons arsenal including mustard gas, the more modern sarin and even VX - the most toxic of all chemical agents.
“Unlike Moammar Gadhafi, who had basically dismantled his chemical weapons,” said John Pike, head of Globalsecurity.com, “the Syrians have a very active poison gas program.” Pike says they have “the medium-range ballistic missiles that would enable them to deliver it to the neighborhood - certainly to Israel and Turkey, but not farther afield, certainly not to western European countries.”
Experts say 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.
Deterrence Against Israel
Charles Blair, with the Federation of American scientists, says it makes sense for the Syrians to have a chemical weapons arsenal because they need some sort of deterrent against the Israelis.
“In 2007 the Israelis destroyed what at that point were nuclear reactors going up in what was believed was the nascent Syrian nuclear program.” Blair said “It’s entirely possible that after that, the Syrians redoubled their efforts with their chemical deterrent because they no longer had a nuclear route.”
Experts believe the chemical weapons - known as "the poor man’s nuclear weapon" - are produced in four or five facilities in Syria and stored in dozens of places throughout the country.
Weapons are secure
Aram Nerguizian, a Syria expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says these sites are well protected.
“A lot of talk about securing these facilities so far is moot,” he said, “because a lot of the elite units in the Syrian military are critical to maintaining the safeguards on those facilities. There is a strong sense of confidence within the U.S. defense community, that the Syrian armed forces currently have strong safeguards in place.”
There has been some debate about what to do to secure the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal if the crisis escalates. Some reports have indicated that the U.S. Defense Department is drawing up contingency plans to secure that arsenal.
But Charles Blair is skeptical about such an endeavor, saying “the only way that you could envision really securing the Syrian stockpile is with a large force.” He says the Department of Defense estimates that “it would take 75,000 U.S. forces to properly secure it. And there is no large standing Western army anywhere near Syria. “I don’t think there is any way that the West can secure the stockpiles," he said.
Analysts also believe it is essential to make sure that those chemical weapons don’t fall into the hands of groups like Hezbollah or al-Qaida. Experts also fear that the rebels fighting the Syrian government might obtain those arms - but they point out that right now, the rebels don’t have the necessary military systems to deliver them.