Home Commentary and Analysis The Problem of Syria’s Chemical Weapons

The Problem of Syria’s Chemical Weapons


By William Tucker

Throughout the Syrian civil war there has been a lot of coverage over the status of chemical weapons in the country – and for good reason. Unfortunately, some of the best analysis of the topic has been lost in the haphazard media coverage of Syria and its conflict. Initially, the topic really came to the fore in July when the spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, Jihad Makdissi, stated, “No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria,” he said. “All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.” Many intelligence services around the world have long suspected that Syria was manufacturing and stockpiling chemical weapons; however much of the evidence regarding this presence has not been made public as it was acquired clandestinely. Makdissi’s televised statement would seem to lend credence to this intelligence. So much so that the Syrian government issued a statement soon after claiming, “all of these types of weapons – if any – are in storage and under security.”

The inadvertent claim from the Foreign Ministry was complimented by similar claims from several high ranking defectors. Major-General Adnan Sillu told the UK based Times newspaper that, “we were in a serious discussion about the use of chemical weapons, including how we would use them and in what areas. We discussed this as a last resort – such as if the regime lost control of an important area such as Aleppo.” Sillu further stated that these high level discussions included the possibility of transferring the weapons to Hezbollah – a statement certain to capture the attention of Western capitals. Another defector, Nawaf al-Fares, the former ambassador to Iraq, also claimed that the regime would use chemical weapons if it felt sufficiently threatened. Truth be told, it is difficult to take the publicly stated word of a recent defector at face value because they have a personal agenda. Many times they seek to justify their decision to leave their home country, while others look to bolster their standing with their host government. Either way, the statements of a defector must be vetted, or at least corroborated with secondary or tertiary sources. In this case other open source information may do well to support these claims.

These other forms of open source intelligence, such as commercial satellite photography, have shown that Syria built a new chemical weapons plant around 2009 at Al Safir near Aleppo. Al Safir, also called Safira and As Safirah, is an existing base that may have been expanded for additional chemical weapons development under a strategic cooperation agreement between Syria and Iran signed in November 2005. An accident in Aleppo that killed many Syrian military officers and foreign engineers occurred in July 2007 when Syria attempted to arm SCUD missiles with Sarin and Mustard agents. This information was disclosed by a Syrian military officer to Jane’s, a UK based publication focused on military and intelligence matters. Once again, denials were issued from Damascus. The regime even offered an alternative explanation for the event, but it was largely implausible. The accident in Aleppo may have prompted the regime to resume its chemical activities in Al Safir – a location further from the city and away from scrutiny. These accounts are certainly compelling and provide insight into the Middle East’s largest chemical weapons program.

Today, Al Safir is once again in the news. According to Spiegel, the Syrian military tested different missile systems for delivering chemical munitions at the site with observers from Iran and North Korea. This would be in line with the Jane’s report from 2007 that Syria was working on arming SCUD missiles with chemical warheads; however the Spiegel report doesn’t specify what type of missiles the Syrians were testing. This is an important distinction as some delivery systems have different requirements for delivering chemical weapons. For instance, some rocketry requires the chemicals to be premixed in compound form prior to launch; while some artillery shells are in binary form and become mixed due to the force from firing and revolving of the projectile from the barrels rifling. Spiegel does refer to the delivery system as a “missile” which would require the premixing of binary components. Furthermore, the defense technology blog Danger Room quoted an unnamed U.S. official as stating that Syria had gone through the process of mixing chemical precursors – binary chemicals combined to create the weaponized compound. In this case, the official was reportedly referring to Sarin, a non-persistent nerve agent. This would seem to compliment the Spiegel claim. Premixing the binary chemical, as reported, would allow for the chemical weapons to be delivered to a target via missiles or rocket fire from a ground position or by aircraft. The Syrian military still retains the capability to use both methods.

There are several reasons why the use of these chemical weapons should be viewed with a bit of skepticism. Most the reports in the open source have constantly referred to Sarin as the chemical agent of choice despite the Syrians diverse chemical collection. If Sarin is in fact the weapon that was recently mixed, then we must consider what it takes to effectively use that particular agent. Sarin is known as a non-persistant nerve agent often recognized by the abbreviation GB. Non-persistant simply means that the agent, once released, has a limited window in which it is harmful. The nerve agent aspect refers to the method that the chemical is designed to harm its target. Nerve agents are designed to disrupt the mechanism that allows the nerves to communicate with the body’s organs. This eventually leads to overstimulation of the organs resulting in complications that can be lethal. The problem with using Sarin is that it takes a lot to be useful because the target area must be completely saturated due to Sarin’s short lifespan. To accomplish this, the aggressor typically employs a mix of delivery systems to strike the target. According to the open source reports, the regime doesn’t appear to have done the amount of work necessary to effectively use Sarin. Syria’s military may employ a mix of different chemical agents in addition to Sarin, but the issue of ensuring the soldiers are properly protected and capable of handling these different chemicals is a difficult task in the best of times. Keep in mind that the current situation on the ground may preempt typical methods of employment. If necessary, or significant pressure on the regime is present, the use of the weapons may become an option despite the ideal use scenario.

This presents a significant problem to Syria’s neighbors and, in fact, the larger global community. If a conventional military intervention is not conceivable at the moment, and many nations with the military capability to intervene have been hesitant to do so, how will the use, or probable use, of chemical weapons change this calculus? Quite frankly, it’s not a simple answer. Like most possessors of chemical or biological weapons, Syria has distributed its stockpile to multiple sites across the country to protect it from conventional attack and shorten the distance between the stockpile and forward deployed troops. While many of these sites are known, there is a very real possibility that other sites are unknown to intelligence. Furthermore, current reporting suggests that the Syrians have already moved some of these stockpiles. Without an active collection program to identify chemical and biological manufacturing and storage sites, or the ability to track the weapons movements, the chances for a successful interdiction decrease significantly. With such a diffuse target set, conventional military forces employed to secure these sites would have to be rather large. The estimate of 75,000 troops by the Pentagon for this task is quite realistic.

Another aspect to consider is the reasoning behind the current activity. Assad may believe that a conventional military intervention is a remote possibility, but however remote it is, the possibility remains. Thus far, Western powers have stated that the use of chemical weapons are a red line, not necessarily the deployment of said weapons. In other words, Assad may be sending a message that he retains some capabilities that can be leveraged in political negotiations by demonstrating some activity at his chemical weapons sites without actually employing them. In fact, Assad may see the recent announcement that NATO has deployed several PATRIOT batteries to the Turkish-Syrian border as a positive development. These are not necessarily offensive weapons, but they do reinforce the Turkish claim that the Assad regime still remains a viable threat. This would reinforce Assad’s position. The regime’s response to rebel movements over the past few months has been disjointed and unevenly applied. This could mean that Assad still retains some military capability, but its effectiveness and long term viability are in question. It has to be considered that the Syrian president may be looking for a way out. Engaging in activity with his chemical weapons may be nothing more than a sign that Assad still has leverage, but is willing to negotiate an exit. By escalating the crisis, Assad demonstrates that he possesses assets that could be used as concessions. In every political negotiation, the parties involved try to demonstrate their importance as a way of retaining some probability that their interests will be considered. Assad is no different and his chemical arsenal is the perfect lever to gain attention.