While United Nations officials said that more than 8,000 people have died in a year of political unrest in Syria, some experts fear the collapse of Bashar AL-Assad regime may actually be worse than the threat of all-out civil war. According to some, the sudden demise of Syria’s dictator has the potential to expose the Middle East and the world to a massive new threat from chemical and biological weapons.
Syria has been stockpiling chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction since the late 1970s and is widely believed to possess one of the world’s largest inventories of mustard blister agent, sarin nerve gas and possibly VX nerve agent. “The country is a chemical powder keg ready to explode,” says a report released last week by the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Hundreds of tonnes of chemical weapons, chemical warheads for medium-range, Soviet-built Scud B and C ballistic missiles, air-dropped bombs and conventional artillery shells are believed to be stored in about 50 sites around Syria. At least four chemical weapon production facilities are located in the towns of AL-Safira, Hama, Homs and Latakia, while massive munitions storage depots are located at Khan Abu Shamat and Furqlus.
“The situation in Syria is unprecedented,” said Charles Blair of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in a recent report for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. “Never before has a WMD-armed country fallen into civil war.”While there was considerable concern internationally that Libyan chemical weapons and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles might fall into the hands of terrorists during last year’s fight to depose Muammar Gaddafi, the threat posed by Syria is exponentially higher. “The Libyan chemical stockpile consisted of several tonnes of aging mustard gas leaking from a half-dozen containers that would have been impossible to utilize as weapons. Syria likely has one of the largest and most sophisticated chemical weapons programs in the world. 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.”
For some experts, defections from Syria’s armed forces and attacks on government weapons storage depots by rebel soldiers all pose a threat. “If Syria collapses into chaos or the army splits between Assad’s fellow Alawites and the majority Sunnis, a key question will be the fate of these chemical weapons and their delivery systems,” said former CIA officer Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution. “Terrorist groups, such as Assad’s friends, Hezbollah and Hamas, would love to get sarin warheads.” At least six terrorist organizations have long maintained headquarters in Syria over the years, including Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Since the country plunged into conflict last year, al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters from Iraq have also been streaming into Syria at the request of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Should centralized authority crumble in Syria, it seems highly unlikely that the country’s 50 chemical storage and manufacturing facilities and biological weapon repositories can be secured. It would take more than 75,000 U.S. military personnel to guard Syria’s chemical weapons.