News / Middle East

Syria's Chemical Weapons Vulnerable as Conflict Widens

A general view shows Khan al-Assal area near the northern city of Aleppo, Syria, near the site where forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad claim was Tuesday's chemical weapon attack, March 23, 2013.
A general view shows Khan al-Assal area near the northern city of Aleppo, Syria, near the site where forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad claim was Tuesday's chemical weapon attack, March 23, 2013.
As fighting continues between Syrian government troops and a variety of opposition forces, including Islamic militants, there are growing concerns about the security and vulnerability of Syria’s suspected chemical weapons stockpiles.

Syria is said to have one of the world’s largest chemical weapons arsenals, including mustard gas, the nerve agent sarin and VX - the most toxic of all chemical agents. Syria also has the military hardware to deliver chemical weapons such as ballistic missiles, artillery rockets and shells as well as bombs dropped from airplanes.  

But experts say there is very little hard data on Syria’s chemical weapons program. Syria decided not to be party to the Chemical Weapons Convention that outlaws the production, possession and use of such weapons.

Most of the stockpile estimates come from intelligence agencies and analysts. They believe Syria’s chemical weapons are produced in four or five facilities and stored in dozens of places throughout the country.

Finding chemical weapons sites

Greg Thielman, an analyst with the Arms Control Association, a private research firm, said the U.S. intelligence community has a pretty good idea of where some of the chemical weapons stockpiles are. But he also issued a warning.

“One recalls how definitively [Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld said we knew exactly where Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons were and of course he didn’t have any at that point,” said Thielman. “So I’m sure we don’t know all the locations. I’m sure we know some of them, but they are multiple and I know that western intelligence services are trying to keep an eye on the ones we know.”

Thielman said that while there is a chance that these weapons could fall into the hands of militant groups such as Hezbollah or al-Qaida, that threat so far appears to be in check.

“One of the silver linings to the dark cloud over Syria at the moment, is that as far as we know, these large stockpiles of chemical weapons are still securely in the hands of the Assad regime, which means that at least right now, there is not a high danger of the chemical weapons stockpiles being disseminated to non-governmental terrorist groups.”

How to secure chemical weapons

There has been some discussion about what to do to secure the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal if the crisis escalates.

The U.S. Defense Department estimates it would take 75,000 American forces to properly secure the stockpiles.

John Pike, head of Globalsecurity.org, a firm specializing in defense issues, said “Obviously sending in western troops to secure stockpiles in Syria would be a real challenge."

"For the Syrians who spent a long time developing that capability, they aren’t just going to turn it over as soon as the Americans showed up. So you would have to fight your way through the Syrian army in order to get to it,” he said.

Some have called for western nations to bomb suspected Syrian chemical weapons sites.

Bomb chemical sites?

But that idea is rejected by Greg Thielman of the Arms Control Association.

“Sometimes I read that we should attack some of the chemical weapons facilities. I think that is a very reckless charge," he said.

"Any kind of kinetic action against the facilities would likely spread [nerve] agents to innocent civilians - and it’s just a very reckless charge,” said Thielman. “And in light of the enormous cost of the Iraq war in terms of lost opportunities, American deaths, Iraqi deaths, maimed Americans, budget deficits - how can people make these suggestions so casually. It baffles me.”

Analysts reflect western fears that if rebels, combined with militant or Islamist forces, continue to gain control in more areas of the country, Syria’s chemical stockpile will be vulnerable. Depending on who gets their hands on chemical weapons, and what they do with them, analysts warn what happens next is anybody’s guess.

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.

You May Like

Video Obama to Send 3,000 Troops to Liberia in Ebola Fight

At Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, President says US will take leadership role for a global response to deadly Ebola virus that is ravaging West Africa More

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

Muslims in Kunming say that they condemn the violence, it is not a reflection of the true beliefs of their faith More

Humanitarian Aid, Equipment Blocked in Cameroon

Move is seen as a developing supply crisis in West Africa More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Seth_DeKooters from: Hartford, CT
May 11, 2013 10:57 AM
Readers of this article remember that it was "discovered" in 2003 by Felix Gundacker, a genealogist working with The Boston Globe, that John Kerry's paternal grandparents were born Jewish as "Fritz Kohn" and "Ida Löwe", in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and changed their names to "Frederick and Ida Kerry" in 1900; and that Voice of America is an agency of the US Government. Mr. Kerry concealed his part Jewish heritage from the voters of Massachusetts most of his adult life letting them believe his was 100% Irish/English..


by: Nora from: USA
May 10, 2013 2:58 PM
why can't we let Israel take care of this..?? the only people who should be concerned about Syrian Chemical weapons are the Muslim Brotherhood Government in Turkey... why should we care?? Assad knows that if he funnels these weapons to the Shiite Hesbulla he signs his own death warrant... the best thing for him to do is to use those weapons against Turkey... i say - good riddance for Turkey' Muslim Brotherhood Government...

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Spacei
X
September 17, 2014 4:20 AM
The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid