Most advanced chemical weapons stash in Middle East


SYRIA IS believed widely, certainly in the West, to have a large stockpile of chemical weapons, capable of being delivered to target by a variety of means.

The fact of possession was acknowledged last month when the Assad regime threatened to use chemical weapons if the country was attacked from outside.

“Any stock of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] or unconventional weapons that the Syrian army possesses will never, never be used against the Syrian people or civilians during this crisis, under any circumstances,” a foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, told a news conference live on Syrian state television on July 23rd.

“These weapons are made to be used strictly and only in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic,” he added.

Eleven days before Makdissi’s press conference, it was reported that some chemical weapons were being moved from their storage areas.

Some US officials were concerned that the weapons might be used against rebels or civilians, or that they were being hidden, possibly from inspection, should that become an issue in the current crisis.

On July 13th, George Little, the press secretary at the Pentagon, the headquarters of the US department of defence, told reporters there were no indications that Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles had become less secure.

“Our assessment remains what it’s been for some time: the Syrian regime has control of its chemical weapons stockpiles,” said Little.

Syria is believed to have begun developing chemical weapons in 1973, prior to the October 1973 Yom Kippur war when a coalition of Arab states, led by Egypt and Syria, launched a surprise attack on Israel.

Before the 19-day war, which ended in Israeli victory, Egypt had given Syria artillery shells capable of delivering chemical weapons.

Syria, which is one of only seven nations not party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, has what experts regard as the most advanced chemical weapons programme in the Middle East but it is highly dependent on external sources for precursor chemicals and some equipment.

The chemical weapons they have include mustard gas; sarin and tabun, both colourless nerve agents; VX, an odourless liquid nerve agent with the consistency of oil; and cyanide, according to unclassified reports by the Central Intelligence Agency and Jill Dekker, a bio-defence consultant based in Brussels and formerly a consultant to the Nato Defense Establishment in bio-warfare and counter terrorism.

In December 2007, Dekker was in no doubt but that Syria was a serious player when it came to chemical weapons.

“Contrary to how the US State Department and other agencies tend to downplay the sophistication of the Syrian biological and nuclear programmes, they are very advanced,” she said in an interview.

“Syria has always had the most advanced chemical weapons programme in the Middle East.”

She added: “The Syrians run their biological programmes out of the Syrian Scientific Research Council in Damascus. They have separate wings for separate pathogens. They also have a number of programmes running in Aleppo. The Syrians are 100 per cent committed to deniable operations as their modus operandi.”

In a report to the US Congress last year the CIA, referring to chemical weapons, said, “Syria has had a CW [chemical weapons] programme for many years and has a stockpile of CW agents, which can be delivered by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets.

“We assess that Syria remains dependent on foreign sources for key elements of its CW programme, including precursor chemicals.”

In a similar report for 2006, the agency said Syria’s arsenal included “the nerve agent sarin, which can be delivered by aircraft or ballistic missile”. The report also said that Syria “is developing the more toxic and persistent nerve agent VX”.

In July 2007, Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that a Syrian arms depot had exploded, killing at least 15 Syrians. It said the explosion happened when Iranian and Syrian military personnel attempted to fit a Scud missile with a mustard gas warhead. Syria stated that the blast was accidental and not chemical.

Apart from the recent July 23rd comments cited here, Syria, like Israel, has long been deliberately ambiguous about what exactly it possesses in terms of chemical weapons, with government leaders only rarely discussing them. Before the civil war, the weapons were believed to be in six sites: Al Safir (a Scud base), Cerin, Hama, Homs, Latakia and Palmyra.

Sources: New York Times, July 23rd;; Jane’s Defence, and The New English Review, December 2007