Fearful of a nuclear Iran? The real WMD nightmare is Syria

By Charles P. Blair | March 1, 2012

As possible military action against Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program looms large in the public arena, far more international concern should be directed toward Syria and its weapons of mass destruction. When the Syrian uprising began more than a year ago, few predicted the regime of President Bashar al-Assad would ever teeter toward collapse. Now, though, the demise of Damascus’s current leadership appears inevitable, and Syria’s revolution will likely be an unpredictable, protracted, and grim affair. Some see similarities with Libya’s civil war, during which persistent fears revolved around terrorist seizure of Libyan chemical weapons, or the Qaddafi regime’s use of them against insurgents. Those fears turned out to be unfounded.

But the Libyan chemical stockpile consisted of several tons of aging mustard gas leaking from a half-dozen canisters that would have been impossible to utilize as weapons. Syria likely has one of the largest and most sophisticated chemical weapon programs in the world. Moreover, Syria may also possess an offensive biological weapons capability that Libya did not.

While it is uncertain whether the Syrian regime would consider using WMD against its domestic opponents, Syrian insurgents, unlike many of their Libyan counterparts, are increasingly sectarian and radicalized; indeed, many observers fear the uprising is being “hijacked” by jihadists. Terrorist groups active in the Syrian uprising have already demonstrated little compunction about the acquisition and use of WMD. In short, should Syria devolve into full-blown civil-war, the security of its WMD should be of profound concern, as sectarian insurgents and Islamist terrorist groups may stand poised to seize chemical and perhaps even biological weapons.

An enormous unconventional arsenal. Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is thought to be massive. One of only eight nations that is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention — an arms control agreement that outlaws the production, possession, and use of chemical weapons — Syria has a chemical arsenal that includes several hundred tons of blistering agents along with likely large stockpiles of deadly nerve agents, including VX, the most toxic of all chemical weapons. At least four large chemical weapon production facilities exist. Additionally, Syria likely stores its deadly chemical weapons at dozens of facilities throughout the fractious country. In contrast to Libya’s unusable chemical stockpile, analysts emphasize that Syrian chemical agents are weaponized and deliverable. Insurgents and terrorists with past or present connections to the military might feasibly be able to effectively disseminate chemical agents over large populations. (The Global Security Newswire recently asserted that “[t]he Assad regime is thought to possess between 100 and 200 Scud missiles carrying warheads loaded with sarin nerve agent. The government is also believed to have several hundred tons of sarin agent and mustard gas stockpiled that could be used in air-dropped bombs and artillery shells, according to information compiled by the James Martin Center.”)

Given its robust chemical weapons arsenal and its perceived need to deter Israel, Syria has long been suspected of having an active biological weapons program. Despite signing the Biological Weapons and Toxins Convention in 1972 (the treaty prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons), Syria never ratified the treaty. Some experts contend that any Syrian biological weapons program has not moved beyond the research and development phase. Still, Syria’s biotechnical infrastructure undoubtedly has the capability to develop numerous biological weapon agents. After Israel destroyed a clandestine Syrian nuclear reactor in September 2007, Damascus may have accelerated its chemical and biological weapons programs.

It’s hard to guard WMD when a government collapses. Although the United States and its allies are reportedly monitoring Syria’s chemical weapons, recent history warns that securing them from theft or transfer is an extraordinary challenge. For example, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, more than 330 metric tons of military-grade high explosives vanished from Iraq’s Al-Qaqaa military installation. Almost 200 tons of the most powerful of Iraq’s high-explosives, HMX — used by some states to detonate nuclear weapons — was under International Atomic Energy Agency seal. Many tons of Al-Qaqaa’s sealed HMX reportedly went missing in the early days of the war in Iraq. Forensic tests later revealed that some of these military-grade explosives were subsequently employed against US and coalition forces.

Even with a nationwide presence of 200,000 coalition troops, several other sensitive military sites were also looted, including Iraq’s main nuclear complex, Tuwaitha. Should centralized authority crumble in Syria, it seems highly unlikely that the country’s 50 chemical storage and manufacturing facilities — and, possibly, biological weapon repositories — can be secured. The US Defense Department recently estimated that it would take more than 75,000 US military personnel to guard Syria’s chemical weapons. This is, of course, if they could arrive before any WMD were transferred or looted — a highly unlikely prospect.

Complicating any efforts to secure Syria’s WMD, post-Assad, are its porous borders. With Syria’s government distracted by internal revolt and US forces now fully out of Iraq, it is plausible that stolen chemical or biological weapons could find their way across the Syrian border into Iraq. Similarly, Syrian WMD could be smuggled into southern Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank, Israel, and, potentially, the United States and Europe.

At least six formal terrorist organizations have long maintained personnel within Syria. Three of these groups — Hamas, Hizbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad — have already attempted to acquire or use chemical or biological agents, or both. Perhaps more troubling, Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters from Iraq have streamed into Syria, acting, in part, on orders from Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. In the past, Al Qaeda-in-Iraq fighters attempted to use chemical weapons, most notably attacks that sought to release large clouds of chlorine gas. The entry of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups into the Syrian crisis underscores its increasingly sectarian manifestation. Nearly 40 percent of Syria’s population consists of members of minority communities. Syria’s ruling Alawite regime, a branch of Shia Islam, is considered heretical by many of Syria’s majority Sunni Muslims — even those who are not jihadists. Alawites, Druze, Kurds, and Christians could all become targets for WMD-armed Sunni jihadists. Similarly, Shiite radicals could conceivably employ WMD agents against Syria’s Sunnis.

Religious fanaticism and WMD. Evidence of growing religious fanaticism is also reflected in recent Syrian suicide attacks. Since last December, at least five suicide attacks occurred in Syria. In the 40 years preceding, only two suicide attacks were recorded. Al Qaeda-linked mujahidin are believed to be responsible for all of these recent attacks. Civil wars are often the most violent and unpredictable manifestations of war. With expanding sectarian divisions, the use of seized WMD in Syria’s uprising is plausible. To the extent that religious extremists believe that they are doing God’s bidding, fundamentally any action they undertake is justified, no matter how abhorrent, since the “divine” ends are believed to legitimize the means.

The situation in Syria is unprecedented. Never before has a WMD-armed country fallen into civil war. All states in the region stand poised to lose if these weapons find their way outside of Syria. The best possible outcome, in terms of controlling Syria’s enormous WMD arsenal, would be for Assad to maintain power, but such an outcome seems increasingly implausible. And there is painfully little evidence that democratic forces are likely to take over in Syria. Even if they do eventually triumph, it will take months or years to consolidate control over the entire country.

If chaos ensues in Syria, the United States cannot go it alone in securing hundreds of tons of Syrian WMD. Regional leaders — including some, such as Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, that are now backing the insurgency and the regime, respectively — must come together and begin planning to avert a dispersion of Syrian chemical or biological weapons that would threaten everyone, of any political or religious persuasion, in the Middle East and around the world.

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Topics: Biosecurity, Opinion

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