UK warns of Syria weapons ‘catastrophe’

‘Serious concern’ that regime’s chemical stockpiles may fall into al-Qaeda’s hands

Buildings  damaged by Syrian government airstrikes and shelling, in the Salah al-Din neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria. Photograph: AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC

Buildings damaged by Syrian government airstrikes and shelling, in the Salah al-Din neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria. Photograph: AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC


Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of al-Qaeda militants if Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is toppled, with potentially “catastrophic” consequences, a British parliamentary committee has warned.

The intelligence and security committee, which oversees the work of the intelligence agencies, said there was “serious concern” about the security of the “vast stockpiles” of chemical weapons amassed by the regime.

In its annual report, the committee – made up of senior MPs and peers – said the list of chemical agents acquired by Dr Assad was thought to include sarin, ricin, mustard gas and VX – described as “the deadliest nerve agent ever created”.

‘Highly worrying’
The danger was underlined by MI6 chief Sir John Sawers who told the committee there was the risk of “a highly worrying proliferation around the time of the regime fall”.

The committee said: “There has to be a significant risk that some of the country’s chemical weapons stockpile could fall into the hands of those with links to terrorism, in Syria or elsewhere in the region – if this happens, the consequences could be catastrophic.”

British prime minister David Cameron disclosed last month that al-Qaeda-linked elements fighting the regime had already attempted to acquire chemical weapons for probable use in Syria. Britain has also accused Dr Assad of using chemical weapons against his own people.

The threat was underlined by British foreign secretary William Hague who yesterday said Britain was considering supplying the Syrian opposition with protective equipment against chemical and biological weapons use.

In its report, the committee said al-Qaeda elements and other jihadists fighting in Syria represented “the most worrying emerging terrorist threat” to the UK and its allies, amid fears they could take advantage of the “permissive environment” to plot attacks on targets in the West.

“Large numbers of radicalised individuals have been attracted to the country, including significant numbers from the UK and Europe,” it said.

“They are likely to acquire expertise and experience which could significantly increase the threat posed when they return home. Furthermore, there is growing concern about the risks around extremist groups in Syria gaining access to regime stocks of chemical weapons.”

Separately, the UN Security Council yesterday called on Lebanese Hizbullah militants to end any involvement in the conflict in neighbouring Syria, while Lebanon’s UN envoy pledged that his country would keep its borders open to Syrians fleeing the violence.

Hizbullah has sent thousands of fighters to help Dr Assad’s forces combat rebels, according to Israeli and western estimates. Israel is boosting its forces on the Syrian border, where it believes Hizbullah is preparing for the day when it could fight Israel.

The security council statement did not explicitly name Hizbullah due to objections from Russia, council diplomats said. But they added that it was clear Hizbullah was the intended target of the council declaration. – (PA; additional reporting Reuters)