Plans for Syrian Chemical Stocks Drafted

Farrah Zughni

Amid ongoing concerns about the fate of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, officials in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East are making plans to secure it once the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falls.

The U.S. military has “finalized its assessment” and completed “initial planning” for operations in Syria, including securing the country’s chemical weapons, in the event of a regime collapse, according to a June 14 CNN article. The network also reported that the United States contacted a number of states for possible collaboration in this effort.

Earlier this year, a number of U.S. legislators called on the Obama administration to prepare to address “potential proliferation” if the country’s internal security dissolves. Popular uprisings in Syria, which began early last year, have been met with violent government retaliations. (See ACT, April 2012.)

Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the size of its chemical weapons arsenal is not publicly known. In March testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described the situation in Syria as “100 times worse” than the challenge of securing weapons in Libya after the fall of Moammar Gaddafi’s regime last year.

As part of its Syria planning, the U.S. military decided on the number of troops, types of units, and funding required to perform specified tasks, the CNN report said. Officials told CNN that France, the United Kingdom, and the United States have been “discussing contingency scenarios, potential training and sharing of intelligence about what is happening in Syria with neighboring countries including Jordan, Turkey and Israel.”

On June 17, the European Union imposed sanctions on exports of luxury and dual-use goods to Syria. The list includes a number of chemicals that may be used as “precursors for toxic chemical agents” and “chemical manufacturing facilities, such as reaction vessels and storage tanks,” that could be used to create chemical weapons.

“In the current situation, the EU must keep up the pressure on the Syrian regime. EU sanctions target those responsible for the appalling repression and violence against the civilian population,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in announcing the sanctions June 15.

Last month, a number of Israeli defense officials spoke out about Syria’s chemical stocks. Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh called Syria’s chemical stocks “the world’s largest” and warned that the Assad government would “treat us the same way they treat their own people,” according to a June 11 article in The Times of Israel. Maj. Gen. Yair Golan said Israel needed to continue to gather intelligence on Syria’s weapons stocks but also consider options for possible proliferation scenarios, including whether it would be “wise” or “nonsense” to attack “convoys carrying sophisticated and advanced Syrian weaponry if they are detected ahead of time,” according to a June 4 article in The Jerusalem Post.

Although Syrian resistance forces recognize the need to secure the country’s chemical weapons stockpiles once the Assad government falls, planning for that effort is only in the early stages, Brig. Gen. Akil Hashem, who retired from the Syrian army in 1989 after 27 years, said in a June 12 interview.

Rebel forces have begun to look into the issue, but have not fully developed a plan, said Hashem, who spent four months, ending March 1, as a military adviser for the Syrian National Council, a coalition of opposition groups. “Putting together a plan to secure chemical weapons is not simple. It needs a lot of discussion and work,” he said. “According to my understanding, the Syrian National Council didn’t address this so far.”

His account is at odds with a May 28 article in Haaretz that cited an anonymous former Syrian officer as saying the opposition leadership has plans “to take control of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons depots and secure them in the first hours after the regime collapses.”

Asked to respond to Hashem’s comments, Lt. Col. Wesley Miller, a U.S. Department of Defense spokesman, said in a June 14 e-mail to Arms Control Today that the United States was “closely monitoring Syria’s proliferation-sensitive materials and facilities.” The Defense Department believes Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles remain secure, and it has seen “no credible reporting” that the Assad regime has used or transferred chemical weapons, he said.