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
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]
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.