Lawmakers Focus on Syrian Weapons

Farrah Zughni

A number of U.S. lawmakers have expressed concern that political instability in Syria threatens the security of the country’s chemical and conventional weapons stockpiles as well as its nuclear material. Administration officials have acknowledged the threat and say they will continue to monitor the situation.

Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. According to a Feb. 22 CNN report, the U.S. military estimates 75,000 troops on the ground will be needed to secure Syrian chemical weapons in the event of regime collapse. The stability of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has become increasingly uncertain as year-long popular uprisings and violent government efforts to suppress them continue across the country.

“We want to ensure that planning is fully underway to address potential proliferation as internal security in Syria becomes more frayed,” said Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) in a Feb. 17 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. The senators requested assurance that efforts to monitor stockpiles were a top priority and asked to be kept informed of developments. Shaheen “received an initial response to her February 17 letter and looks forward to hearing more about the Administration’s plans to prevent Syria’s weapons from falling into the wrong hands if President Assad’s regime falls,” said Al Killeffer, Shaheen’s deputy press secretary, in a March 27 e-mail to Arms Control Today.

The senators also stated that Syria’s refusal to allow IAEA inspections of the remains of a suspected nuclear reactor, which was destroyed by a 2007 Israeli airstrike, means that nuclear material in the country “may be subject to proliferation.” (See ACT, July/August 2011.)

In March 7 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Panetta described the situation in Syria as “100 times worse” than the challenge of securing weapons in Libya during its own uprisings last year. “There’s no question that [Syria has] huge stockpiles and that if it got into the wrong hands, it would really be a threat to the security not only of the regional countries, but to the United States,” he testified.

At the same hearing, Gen. James Mattis, the head of U.S. Central Command, said he believed Syria’s chemicals weapons were currently secured but that he would continue to keep “a very, very close eye” on the situation.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing the previous day, Mattis acknowledged that securing Syria’s conventional weapons, particularly shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles (man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS), was also a concern. He cautioned that if left unsecured, weapons stockpiles could fall into the hands of militant groups, such as Lebanon-based Hezbollah, “because they’re in close proximity.”

In Feb. 15 comments to reporters, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman said one element of the current U.S. diplomatic effort with regard to Syria was promoting “prudential planning” among the country’s neighbors, including awareness “that a diffusion of these chemical weapons or of MANPADS can be a threat to their security.”

A U.S.-backed UN Security Countil resolution calling for Assad to step down from power was vetoed on Feb. 4 by Russia and China.

In an effort to strengthen the U.S. response to the Syrian crisis, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously approved the Syria Freedom Support Act on March 7. The legislation, sponsored by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), imposes new sanctions against the Syrian regime, targeting the country’s energy and financial sectors as well as proliferation activities. Ros-Lehtinen chairs the foreign affairs panel.

In the Senate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced the Syria Democracy Transition Act on March 1. “The bill acknowledges the pressing need to account for the huge stockpiles of chemical, biological, and other weapons that threaten our troops and allies in the region,” Alex Conant, Rubio’s press secretary, said in a March 14 e-mail to Arms Control Today. The bill allows the president to “establish a $50,000,000 Syrian Stabilization Fund, to be drawn from amounts made available for [existing programs], to help support opposition groups and provide for the recovery, identification, and destruction of weapons in Syria.”

Some members of Congress have also worked to block military assistance to Syria from other countries. In a March 12 letter to Panetta, a bipartisan group of 17 senators expressed “grave concern” over the Department of Defense’s ongoing business with Russian state-owned arms export agency Rosoboronexport, which they say continues to supply Assad’s regime with weapons. The senators cited Thomson Reuters shipping data indicating that at least four cargo ships have traveled from the Russian port used by Rosoboronexport to Tartus in Syria since December 2011.

The letter calls for an immediate Defense Department review of alternate options to a current purchase of 21 dual-use Mi-17 helicopters from the Russian firm. “U.S. taxpayers should not be put in a position where they are indirectly subsidizing the mass murder of Syrian civilians,” the senators wrote. “The sizeable proceeds of these [Defense Department] contracts are helping to finance a firm that is essentially complicit in mass atrocities in Syria, especially in light of Russia’s history of forgiving huge amounts of Syria’s debt on arms sales.”

According to a March 19 fact sheet from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Syrian imports of major weapons increased 580 percent between 2002-2006 and 2007-2011. Russia supplied 78 percent of Syrian imports over the last four years, the report said.

Russia has not denied that it is conducting arms transactions with Syria. However, in his March 14 address to the Duma, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia was not “providing Syria with any weapons that could be used against protesters” but “only helping Syria to protect its security against external threats,” according to the Associated Press.

Clinton met with Lavrov on March 12 in an unsuccessful attempt to reach agreement on how to address the situation in Syria.