Syria's CBWs: Clear and present danger

Syria's CBWs: Clear and present danger

The dangers will not melt away in a post-Assad scenario. In fact, they could get much worse.

The 16-month-old civil war in Syria led by a motley of opposition groups to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime has seen several ups and downs. On July 18 the Syrian regime suffered a serious setback when a powerful bomb blast in the Syrian national security council premises killed three members of Assad’s inner coterie which included his brother-in-law Gen Assef Shawkat and minister of defence Dawoud Rajha.

Given the increasing levels of attrition from the higher echelons of the Syrian army in recent weeks, the deaths led to predictions of impending collapse of the regime.

While the collapse theory has a ring of truth to it, it will be preceded by a protracted and bloody conflict. What complicates the matter further is the fact that Syria possesses the largest stockpile of chemical weapons (CW) in the Middle East with the means to deliver them. It is also suspected that Damascus has an active bio-weapons (BW) programme. The active involvement of jihadi groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda in Iraq in the Syrian civil war is a cause for concern particularly with regard to the security of the chemical and biological weapons.

Pubic broadcast

On July 23, the Syrian foreign ministry spokesperson Jihad Makdissi made a public broadcast where he tried to allay fears about the safety and security of the Syrian CBW stockpile. Makdissi’s broadcast is important for several reasons. Apart from being the first ever public admission of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons stockpile, the statement reiterated the Syrian policy of not using these weapons against its own population.

The Syrian programme is believed to have begun in 1973 with initial CW capability from Egypt in the run-up to the October ’73 war with Israel. Currently, Syria has the largest CW programme in the Middle East with over 50 suspected chemical and bio-weapon storage and production facilities. It operates four large CW production facilities at al-Safir, Hama, Homs and Latakia and has over a dozen storage sites spread across the country.
The Syrian BW programme is believed to be centered on the Syrian scientific research council (SSRC) near Damascus, and is suspected to be fairly advanced in terms of weaponisation and dispersal techniques.

Syria is not a member of the international conventions which outlaw the possession and use of Chemical and Biological weapons. Damascus’s chemical weapons stockpile is believed to run into several hundred tones of mustard blistering agents. Syria is also believed to possess large stockpiles of the deadly nerve agents like Sarin and VX. In addition, Syria also runs a chemical weapons research facility near Damascus.

The fact that Syria possesses an effective means of delivering these weapons make the situation more dangerous. Syria possesses an estimated 700 scud missiles and its variants in addition to the short-range solid fuelled SS-21. The missiles are believed to be capable of carrying warheads filled with sarin nerve agents. 

The advanced state of Syria’s chemical and bio-weapon and missile capability pose several dangers. One apparent fear is the possibility of the CBW weapons falling into the hands of the jihadi groups in case the Assad regime collapses.

In the light of recent statements, the possible use of these weapons against foreign troops in case of international intervention also cannot be discounted. Another danger if the current trends continue could be the use of these weapons against the insurgents by the Assad regime in case its very survival is at stake. Though Russia and the United States have warned the Assad regime against use of chemical and bio-weapons, it might not be Assad’s decision to take or prevent if the survival of the regime is under question.

The dangers will not melt away in a post-Assad scenario. In fact, they could get much worse. With the lack of a central authority security the weapons could also be used by the Sunni terror outfits against the Shiite (Alawaite) and Christian minority. Also, it is not a given that the new regime that replaces Assad would give up the chemical and bio-weapon capability as it could view them as a bargaining chip to be used in any future negotiations with Israel.

The international community has definitely been on the overdrive to put in place plans to safeguard the Syrian WMD stockpile. Israeli leaders like Prime Minister Netanyahu have even spoken of plans to destroy Syria’s capability in case of a collapse of the Assad regime. The situation in Syria is unprecedented. A WMD-armed country has never before witnessed civil strife. The active involvement of terror groups like Hezbollah and the al-Qaeda make the situation extremely dangerous as the collapse of the regime could result in these weapons and the means of delivering them, falling into the hands of these groups. These are dangerous times in the Levant.

(The writer is an assistant professor in the international strategic and security studies programme at NIAS, Bangalore)