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, 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 Getting to Zero AIDS Infections

More than 35 million people around the world are infected with HIV, a disease that is both preventable and treatable

Children, Childhoods Lost in European Refugee Crisis

According to UNICEF, 190,000 children applied for political asylum in Europe in the first 9 months of this year - twice as many as last year

What Happened When I Landed in Antarctica

Refael Klein chronicles what it's like to visit one of the coldest, most desolate places on Earth

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
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.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs