U.S. Closely Monitoring Syria's Chemical Weapons Stockpile

Some officials fear Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could use the weapons against protesters. What happens if he does?

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A pro-Assad demonstrator hangs by a crane in Damascus / AP

WASHINGTON--The United States is quietly but closely monitoring the status of Syria's large chemical-weapons stockpile amid fears that the regime of autocratic ruler Bashar al-Assad could use the warfare agents to quell continued political protests or divert the materials to extremist groups that operate in the region.

U.S. government officials declined to discuss specifics of the monitoring operation or what intelligence resources were involved, citing the need to maintain secrecy about operational tactics. They acknowledged, though, that there is a great deal of concern in Washington over Syria's chemical arsenal.

"It is extremely important that we maintain visibility on Syria's chemical weapons and it is something that we as an intelligence community" are actively involved in doing, a U.S. intelligence official told Global Security Newswire.

A joint U.S.-Israeli surveillance campaign in Syria was first reported by The Wall Street Journal in late August. Since that time, "it hasn't diminished in importance at all," according to another U.S. official.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivities surrounding the intelligence operation.

The United States is believed to have prepared contingency plans for dealing with Syria's toxic arsenal should it appear that the regime is about to use the weapons or pass them to affiliated extremist organizations such as Hezbollah.

Syria is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It has also never publicly declared to the international community its chemical arsenal, which is understood to comprise hundreds of tons of nerve and blister agents, its doctrine for using such weapons or their exact capabilities. Still, Syria's status as a chemical-weapons possessor is widely accepted as fact.

The Middle Eastern state is not known to have ever used those materials, which date back to the 1970s, according to information compiled by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Most analysts believe that Damascus developed them as a deterrent to outside attack, namely from Israel, and not for use against ithe Syrian people.

The Assad regime, though, has earned a reputation for brutality toward its own people. More than 4,000 Syrians have been killed in the political uprising that began this past spring, according to the United Nations. The rising body count has U.S. officials and analysts worried that if the Syrian leadership feels besieged and without other options, it could revise its calculus on the use of chemical weapons against Syrian army defectors and protesters.

In the event that the violence escalates into a full-blown civil war, opposition forces would likely try to gain control of the regime's chemical-weapon sites. A civil war would also likely increase the prospects of Assad's ordering the use of his chemical armaments, according to Leonard Spector, deputy director of the James Martin Center.

"We are aware of the situation in Syria and continue to follow the events as they unfold," a Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Col. April Cunningham, said in a prepared statement. "The potential use of chemical weapons by any state poses a security threat to international security."

The chemical-weapons surveillance campaign in Syria is not the only such effort that the United States has been involved with this year. When Libyan civilians rose up in February against dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi's decades-long rule, U.S. intelligence and defense officials used a variety of assets to keep tabs on the nation's small stockpile of declared mustard-blister agent.

The United States worked with NATO and Libyan opposition forces to establish a team of specialists that watched over Libya's known chemical-weapon facilities to deter government forces from seeking to use or divert chemical-warfare materials, according to an Agence France-Presse report. Undeclared sites have also been identified as the Qaddafi regime was ousted.

The State Department also said that t used "national technical means" to monitor Libya's chemical sites. National technical means are typically understood to encompass reconnaissance aircraft and satellites.

Obama administration officials would not disclose whether such technology is also being used to monitor Syria's chemical-weapon sites, on the grounds that revealing such details could jeopardize the integrity of the operation. Unlike in Libya, NATO and the United States have no internationally sanctioned mandate for military operations in Syria, nor do they have the relationships with Syrian opposition groups similar to those established with the Libyan rebels.

Syria's chemical-weapons program is considerably larger than Libya's, which would presumably make monitoring it more of a challenge.

"This is a full-blown chemical-weapons program, not the remnants" of one, as in Libya, Spector said. "You have large inventories ... there are a lot of people milling around the sites," presumably guarding them and managing day-to-day operations.

Syria's chemical-weapons program is understood to be comprised of four production facilities, at al-Safira, Hama, Homs, and Latakia, along with two munitions storage sites at Khan Abu Shamat and Furqlus. Additionally, there is a chemical-weapons research laboratory near Damascus, according to Michelle Dover of the James Martin Center.

"You're also looking at a program that is almost completely self-sufficient from the research and production through the storage and weaponization," said Dover, citing open-source information dating back to the 1980s.

The 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.

"We do not have any information that suggests there have been changes to the security of Syria's chemical-weapons stockpile," a State Department official said in an e-mail to GSN. "Syria is a country of significant proliferation concern, so we monitor its chemical-weapons activities very closely. We will continue to work closely with like-minded countries to limit proliferation to Syria's chemical-weapons program. We believe Syria's chemical-weapons stockpile, composed of nerve agents and mustard gas, remains under Syrian government control."

Damascus is a well-known backer of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which both base their headquarters in the Syrian capital. Syria is also a supporter of Hezbollah and last year was accused by Israel of providing Scud ballistic missiles to the Lebanese militant group.

Noting reporting on contingency plans prepared by the Pentagon for military operations to prevent militants from obtaining Pakistani nuclear weapons, Spector said it was reasonable to extrapolate that preparations have also been made to respond to crisis situations involving Syria's chemical arms.

Such events might include the Assad regime preparing its chemical arsenal for an air attack on protesters and army defectors or the weakening of security around the chemical sites. The details of presumed action plans are closely held.

"It would seem illogical to think that Pentagon has not brainstormed contingency plans," Spector said.

Spector said he believes the United States has "definitely" issued backdoor diplomatic threats to Damascus of serious consequences should Assad order chemical-weapon attacks on opposition activists. "I'm sure that message has been conveyed."

Although Washington is concerned about the potential chemical-weapons threat, it is not the Obama administration's primary focus in dealing with Syria, according to the issue expert. "I think they have still-more-urgent items that are constantly on top of the agenda," such as persuading the Arab League to pass sanctions against the regime and pushing for Assad to step down, he said.

A key factor in U.S. contingency thinking is thought to be what actions Israel could take unilaterally if it believes that a chemical-weapons attack or proliferation is imminent, Spector said.

Israel in June 2007 mounted a sneak aerial attack on a Syrian site at Dair Alzour that it suspected of housing an unfinished atomic reactor with military applications.

A crucial element of any potential Israeli calculus on striking against Syria's chemical assets would be identifying the exact location of the weapons, Spector said.

"You have a lot of sites, and not all of them may be known, and you really have to do a lot of work;, you really have to get everything," Spector said.

Also likely weighing on Israeli and U.S. thinking is whether a strike on Syria's chemical arsenal could backfire by pushing opposition forces to rally around Damascus in response to a foreign attack, Spector said. "You don't want to create an environment where the country rallies around the government because they face an external attack."

The Israeli Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

This article was originally published in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.