Syrian Chemical Weapons Fears Heat Up


2012-12-06 by Richard Weitz

In the past few days President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and a number of other U.S. and foreign officials have issued highly visible public warnings to the Syrian government not to use their chemical weapons stockpiles.

In a speech at the National Defense University (NDU) on December 3, President Obama said that his administration had “increased concern” that Syria would engage in the “totally unacceptable” use of chemical weapons. “If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons,” Obama warned, “there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”

The White House’s Press Secretary, Jay Carney, indicated earlier that day that the United States might take military action, in consultations with allied governments, to address the threat. “We think it is important to prepare for all scenarios,” Mr. Carney said. “Contingency planning is the responsible thing to do.”

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said that Czech chemical weapons and decontamination troops were in Jordan training the local forces.

The Syrian crisis has heightened concern about the Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons. Credit Image; Bigstock 

A U.S. task force in Jordan has been helping monitor the weapons, which are also under constant observation by U.S. satellites and drones.  Other sources of information ion Syria’s chemical weapons include the monitoring of Syria’s communications and human intelligence, such as foreign spies and Syrians who oppose the regime or at last want to prevent a chemical catastrophe.

Media outlets reported that “intelligence sources” had detected recent indications that the Syrian government has been relocating its chemical weapons components.  This may be in preparation for an attack, but more likely represents an attempt to keep the weapons out of the hands of the anti-Assad insurgents, who have made major gains in recent weeks.

Syria and Chemical Weapons

Syria is widely suspected of having one of the world’s largest chemical weapons arsenals, including a range of chemical agents (from unsophisticated choking agents like Mustard to more deadly Sarin gas to advanced VX nerve agents), several delivery systems (such as missiles, bombs, and shells), and multiple stockpiles in which the chemical precursors can be rapidly combined to arm the weapons.

Since Syria’s ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons have been thwarted, its chemical weapons are seen as partly an equalizer to Israel’s suspect nuclear weapons.

Carney’s wording made it sound as if the Obama administration was most concerned about possible future developments: “We believe with the regime’s grip on power loosening, with its failure to put down the opposition through convention means, we have an increased concern about the possibility of the regime taking the desperate act of using its chemical weapons.”

Syria’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jihad Makdissi had earlier confirmed that the Syrian government had chemical weapons but he insisted that the regime would only use them to denied Syria against foreign aggression, not against the Syrian people.  Following the latest round of warnings, Syrian friendly media outlets reaffirmed that the government would “not use these types of weapons, if they were available, under any circumstances against its people.”

If Syrian forces did use chemical weapons against the anti-Assad guerrillas, they could prove very effective against the defenseless fighters. But the chemical attack would inflict mass casualties on Syrian noncombatants, who also lack protection.

Such an attack is unlikely since Russia and other foreign allies of Assad would find it hard to support a regime that used such weapons. Russian government representatives have made reassuring comments that the Assad regime has promised it would not use chemical weapons against its domestic opponents.

The Syrian regime could use, or threaten to employ, chemical weapons against foreign governments.

The most probable target is Turkey, which has been the most visible backer of Assad’s opponents. Turkey has provided sanctuary for more than 100,000 Syrian refugees and has provided the Free Syrian Army with a safe haven to recruit, train, stockpile weapons, and conduct cross-border raids into Syria. One reason why NATO, on December 4, approved the deployment of Patriot surface-to-air interceptor missiles in Turkey is because Syria has hundreds of ballistic missiles that can carry chemical warheads.

Another possible target of Syria’s chemical weapons would be Israel.

Although Israelis are better protected from chemical attacks than Turkey’s civilians, attacking Israel would correspond to the logic Saddam Hussein employed in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. If Syria managed to bring Israel into the war, Israel’s intervention could change the conflict’s dynamics, perhaps leading some Arab states to reduce their support for Assad’s opponents.

Perhaps a more serious danger is what will happen to the chemical weapons when the Assad regime falls.

Someone, probably U.S. and perhaps other foreign troops, will need to secure the chemical agents and related infrastructure to prevent terrorists from gaining control of them.

The recent fears surrounding the possible use of chemical weapons stockpiles by regime diehards in Syria, or their seizure by extremists among the insurgents, underscore the continued danger of chemical weapons proliferation and the need to take stronger measures to oppose it.

Chemical weapons have been successfully manufactured and used by terrorists as well as by national governments, underscoring that they are the easiest weapon of mass destruction to make, obtain, and use. The Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan undertook a large-scale program to develop WMD during the early 1990s. Despite investing considerable resources, the cult was unable to develop nuclear or biological weapons, but it did succeed in developing and launching several chemical attacks using sarin gas.

The poorly secured caches in the former Soviet Union offer potential supplies for terrorist organizations, criminal groups and rogue regimes alike.

The Soviet chemical weapons program encompassed a wide range of military, industrial and agricultural organizations and employed thousands of scientists. As a result, it has been extremely difficult to locate all the chemical weapons stockpiles or to track former Soviet experts who worked in the program.

Some insurgents in Iraq used such chemical weapons against Iraqi security forces, civilians and coalition troops in 2007, in the form of vehicular-borne improvised explosive devices that combined conventional explosives with chlorine gas in canisters. When the conventional detonations occurred, they ruptured the chlorine tanks and dispersed the chemical agent.


The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) outlawing chemical weapons has in some ways been the most successful nonproliferation agreement in history.

Its achievements include an explosively rapid growth in membership, the elimination of almost all the massive stocks of chemical weapons developed during the 20th century and, most importantly, the absence of chemical warfare in state-on-state conflicts since the convention’s entry into force in April 1997. These accomplishments are particularly notable given that, unlike biological weapons, chemical weapons had been previously widely used in warfare, and unlike nuclear weapons, almost any state can make rudimentary chemical weapons and many can readily develop rather sophisticated ones.

Yet, certain problems remain regarding the convention’s goals of achieving universal membership and the timeline for the complete elimination of all national chemical weapons stocks. As the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons noted at the same NDU event where Obama spoke, in the future, the CWC will need to evolve from an institution primarily concerned with disarming member states’ chemical weapons stockpiles to one that can respond adequately to threats of proliferation and use by both nonmember states and nonstate actors, especially terrorist groups.

Even after the CWC signatories eliminate their residual chemical weapons stockpiles, the difficulty of dealing with nonmembers will remain. Of the nonmember states, some, such as Israel, have signed the convention but have never ratified the treaty. Others, such as Egypt, North Korea and Syria, have never signed or acceded to the convention.

Furthermore, the CWC must be updated in order to respond to the challenges resulting from the advent of new scientific and technological developments. State Parties worry that the CWC, negotiated and ratified in the 20th century, may prove unable to manage effectively the revolutionary advances in chemical manufacturing processes, equipment and technologies that could affect the convention in coming years. These advances have resulted in more multipurpose chemical plants that can rapidly change the chemical products they produce, raising the risk that countries could quickly “break out” of their CWC restrictions by swiftly converting to the mass production of banned chemicals.

Outsourcing and other new business models involving the greater separation of production and distribution made possible through improved global communications and information networks are also challenging the means by which the CWC oversees the commercial chemical industry. More-widely dispersed chemical facilities and workers, who can collaborate using improved communications technologies, increases the burden on monitoring processes designed to counter older proliferation strategies.

In addition to helping design more-deadly chemical weapons and unconventional production processes, progress in engineering and nanotechnology could result in the advent of new types of delivery systems for chemical weapons that could circumvent existing WMD defenses.

CWC members, including the United States, could also profitably devote more resources to enhancing their ability to assist a country that is attacked with chemical weapons. In many cases, the equipment that the States Parties have pledged to offer a country suffering a chemical attack is reaching the end of its anticipated operational life and needs to be replaced.

In addition, many States Parties have yet to indicate what, if any, assistance they might provide to a country suffering a chemical weapons attack, or even to fulfill their CWC obligation to provide annual information on their national chemical defense programs. Many countries that have pledged to render assistance to a country suffering from a chemical incident lack the means to transport their aid packages to distant locations. It also remains unclear whether some of their pledged assistance has concurrently been offered to other organizations, such as regional security organizations like NATO and the African Union, which might also respond to an emergency. In such cases of concurrency, the provider would have to divide or share its emergency aid among these institutions.

The third CWC review conference, scheduled for 2013, offers an opportunity to modernize the CWC to address these and other challenges.

Also see the following for a look at the challenge of dealing with Syrian chemical weapons: