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.