2012-07-16

Syrian unrest raises questions about chemical weapon security

As Assad's grip on power slips, questions about the safety and security of Syria's vast chemical weapons arsenal worries nonproliferation experts.

By Aaron Stein for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 16/07/12

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As the Syrian uprising has spread and President Bashar al-Assad's grip on power appears to be loosening, concerns about the site security and safety of Syria's large chemical weapon stockpile have heightened.

  • Turkish officials in chemical suits search for weapons inside truck during mock drill in Antalya. [Reuters]

    Turkish officials in chemical suits search for weapons inside truck during mock drill in Antalya. [Reuters]

Little is known about the precautions Syria has taken to guard its current chemical weapons facilities and research centers against theft or armed assault, or under what circumstances the regime would use chemical weapons.

There are fears that a rogue commander or Assad himself may get desperate and use chemical weapons to stave off military or regime collapse. Another possibility is the capture of chemical weapons agents and their delivery vehicles by the Free Syria Army (FSA) or other outside groups affiliated with Hezbollah in Lebanon or al-Qaeda.

Syria is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention – a 1993 agreement requiring member states to destroy existing stocks of chemical weapons within ten years and bans their future development, production, stockpiling, transfer, and use – and is alleged to be the only country in the Middle East that still has an active chemical weapons program. It is believed that Damascus has acquired large quantities of blister and nerve agents and the necessary delivery vehicles to use them in combat.

George Little, a spokesman for the US Pentagon, told reporters on July 13th that Syria's weapons stockpiles appear to be secure. "We would, of course, caution them strongly against any intention to use those weapons. That would cross a serious red line," Little said.

Syria military commanders apparently have wide authority in the field. During a wide-ranging interview with Turkey's Cumhurriyet newspaper, Assad claimed that the decision to shoot down a Turkish unarmed F-4 reconnaissance airplane was not a "central decision" and that the authority to fire has been delegated to the soldiers manning the anti-aircraft battery.

Worries about the delegation of release authority to local field commanders have raised questions about Assad's control over his armed forces and about the regime's control of its vast chemical weapons arsenal.

For Turkey, which has seen its relationship with Assad sharply deteriorate, the question is critical. On the one hand, Ankara has to deal with tens of thousands refugees, while on the other its geographic proximity makes it far more exposed to the potential fallout of Syria's collapse than its major allies in the West.

Kemal Kaya, a defense analyst at the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute, told SES Türkiye that he doesn't think Assad would use chemical weapons against insurgents or regional states because it would provoke "devastating retaliation" by NATO and Turkey.

"At that time, neither Russia nor China can defend the Assad regime," he said.

But some other analysts, such as Atilla Sandikli, a retired Turkish colonel and head of Istanbul-based Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies, believe Turkey should consider Syrian chemical weapons as a "serious threat."

He said Assad has already proven he won't listen to the international community and has shown hostility towards Turkey by downing a Turkish jet last month. "Turkey should be ready to answer any type of possible provocations and threats from Assad," he said.

In February, CNN cited a Pentagon report estimating that it could take more than 75,000 troops to secure Syria's chemical weapons facilities. Given NATO's hesitance to intervene in Syria - and Russia and China's looming veto threat at the United Nations Security Council - a large scale military intervention is unlikely.

Absent a clear military option to secure these facilities, weapons experts agree that Syria’s regional neighbors should make clear to Assad, the Syrian National Council, the FSA, and the other groups operating in Syria through back channels and public statements that the use of chemicals or chemical weapons during the conflict will not be tolerated and will be punished.

"Helping secure these facilities physical would be a very challenging task for any country, but first and foremost I would encourage the use of backchannel and public statements that would hold anyone with the use, theft, or smuggling of chemical weapons accountable for their actions in international criminal court," Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, told SES Türkiye.

Alakbar Raufoglu contributed to this article.

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  • Anonymous about 2 years

    In Kardak crisis, all the world has come together as one body. While there is this situation in Syria, in spite of making our plane crashed, I really wonder how many out of 100 people will say “No” to war in a plebiscite?

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    I’m saying “No!” to war. While we are wandering around jobless, we deeply resent Prime Minister to assign salary to the refugees. Eve if we enter into the war, the Turkish youth should know that this is not for Tayyip Erdoğan but for the Turkish lands. Everybody should understand that.

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    Peace at home, peace in the world. If you start fighting with your neighbor for no reason, you should know that the decision is not yours. Nobody can given an account of the lands and lives we will lose neither in this nor in the other world.

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    Mustafa Kemal Ataturk says “War is only legitimate when other nations come to your lands to kill you and you are ready to die for your country. Otherwise it is murder.”

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    They did not filled up the admirals into Silivri for nothing. Everybody should pull himself together. Recep is strictly obeying the instructions coming from the overeas. May Allah rehabilitate both him and us.

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    Turkey should deal with murderers, baby killers instead of dealing with Syria.

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    Why the relations with Syria had been deteriorated before entering into the bridal chamber?? This country is not so cheap. There are so many, so great brave men. It’s the time to stop being abused and indeed this time is already over anymore but our people are still sleeping. If the country is lost, they will say “Uh, Oh!” but it will be too late then. I remember M.Kemal and his fellow soldiers from the private soldier to the admiral with deep respect and apologize for today. Wake up my Turkey, wake up. It’s the time for Turkey after Iran. The ones who can not see this are stupid. Come on beautiful people of my beautiful country, all together towards the awakening.

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    Turkey should reply like Turkey, otherwise more events will cause us to be exposed to revilements and traumas in the international arena.

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    “No!” to war.

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    Forget the war, USA has placed an embargo on us during 1974 Cyprus Peace Operation. We’ve sent money in sacks to the same USA during occupancy of Libya. In 1974, it was Kaddafi who said to us “Take whatever you need.” by sending their petrol and two Mirage planes and opening their depots to us.

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    Turkey made the correct decision by not entering into war. European countries are playing a game on Muslims.

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    This article is completely biased. Syria has never been and will never be without a commander, and it didn’t fell either. I go there every other day. If there is only one leader, who thinks about his people, that is Bashar Assad. They started attacking him without waiting for him to make reforms. We should ask them why. Ask those Syrians, who come to Turkey, if Turkey provides annual fuel support to families. Syria provides free healthcare and medicine whether you have social security or not. Syrians had all kinds of freedoms. Turkey has more bans in place than Saudi Arabia does. What freedom are they talking about? The prime minister and that provocative minister of foreign affairs – they are all the US’ men. What a shame! Destroying a country cannot and should not be that easy. What kind of Muslimhood is that? They are certainly not Muslim and they can’t be. We are just watching how our country is serving the purposes of the US and Europe. And they will never accept Turkey into the European Union, I am personally sure of that.

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    MPs and ministers should send their children to war. That is enough! You are still sucking the blood of the poor. “No” to war! What are we fighting for? Religion? Enough! Nobody buys it anymore. It is not even clear what we are fighting for. What a shame!

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    What deal Turkey have with Syria? It should mind its own business. People had turned to cannibals due to hunger, will almost eat each other, gathering bread from the garbage. Who received aid in this sacred Ramadan? As if it’s a skill, Ramadan street dinners. Shame on you, it’s sinful, if the citizen would have money, why he should wait for five hours on the street just to break his fast? It’s pity, so pity, may Allah help them.

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    Murat

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    In Syria, they’ve collapsed the state. It’s bandits’ time now. All bandits from Al-Qaeda to PKK and … (Translator’s note: The sentence was left incomplete.)

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    In my opinion, Turkey should stop its internal fights first, and then should look at another direction.

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    I have come to understand that our governments’ job is very difficult. The AKP is in the same situation, too. It is a world war that we are living right now – Egypt, Libya, Syria… The world is going through a turbulent time which will witness emergence of new states. The AKP’s current stance resembles İsmet İnönü’s approach during World War II: wait, analyze and take up your position. I know that it might sound like a contradiction, but they are now loyally following Mustafa Kemal’s words to protect the borders set forth in the Misak-ı Milli (National Pact). I think this is the stance that must be adopted by a statesman. A stateman would of course make statements about the developments in the neighboring countries, but the late President Turgut Özal was much more gutsy. There are no politics in war. We should know that and think accordingly. I have confidence in my country’s statesmen and army.

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    We are being fooled. Turkish people are being deceived. I don’t understand what happened to these people. Everywhere is full of lies, schemes and demagogy and nobody asks what is going on. We are counting the number of martyrs everyday. We are losing our country. The PKK is influential everywhere. Separatists have become ever more daring. Where will all these lead to?

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    The Kurds who set up the Turkish state were not fool like you.

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    No to war!

  • Anonymous about 2 years

    This game has newly started. Countries, that want to “bite” Turkey, will use every opportunity amid this turmoil. They would want to use Turkey as a tool, but of course this is not easy because we are not Arabs. Our country is a developed one.

Name: Anonymous - Have your comments posted immediately!


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