Dealing With Syria’s Dangerous Arsenals

Leonard S. Spector and Egle Murauskaite

The current situation in Syria poses severe and perhaps unprecedented risks: a country with large stockpiles of nonconventional weapons is undergoing a violent revolution that could topple its government and dissolve the security measures for those weapons.

An analysis of the situation must start by taking into account a number of factors associated with different types of weapons, as well as territorial and political changes that will be taking place as events unfold. Of particular concern is that President Bashar al-Assad’s troops could abandon their posts and leave Syrian chemical weapons facilities unattended, a scenario that already has prompted considerable preparation by the United States and other governments.

At the same time, however, the transition period after the fall of Assad—an event that many analysts inside and outside the U.S. government regard as a near certainty—may present a unique opportunity to persuade Syria’s new authorities to remove chemical weapons and other proliferation-sensitive arms from Syria’s active arsenal as part of an agreement to obtain formal international recognition and economic assistance.

Dangerous Military Assets

The focus of international concern has been Syrian chemical weapons,[1] which will also receive the greatest emphasis here. Yet, at least four other classes of Syrian military assets deserve international attention, each of which presents its own risks and will require a different approach. These four categories are

  • small arms and light weapons (for example, automatic rifles, light machine guns, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades,)
  • heavy weapons (for example, tanks, artillery, and aircraft),
  • weapons of particular danger if acquired by terrorists (for example, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, high explosives, landmines, and unguided rockets), and
  • ballistic missiles.

The objectives for the United States and its partners with regard to the Assad regime’s control of its stockpiles of various weapons are complex. Assad’s fall would likely be accelerated if the Free Syrian Army captured stocks of his small arms and light weapons; indeed, the United States is currently facilitating the provision of such weapons to these fighters.[2] There is, however, a need for caution: a recent report has indicated that large portions of foreign weapons assistance, particularly the arms shipments from Qatar, are going to hard-line Islamist factions.[3]

Defections by large, heavily armed units of the Syrian military to the side of the insurgents, as well as defections of units responsible for Syria’s arsenal of hundreds of Scud and other guided missiles, would also not be unwelcome developments. Such defections would erode Assad’s claim to leadership and, in the case of heavy weapons, deprive him of at least some of the capabilities he has turned so viciously and indiscriminately against civilians.

In contrast, where easily portable weapons of particular interest to terrorists are concerned, continued control by government forces is probably safest because, as noted, terrorist groups are known to be operating in the country in parallel with the Free Syrian Army.[4] Although the latter probably can maintain control over pieces of large, high-value equipment it acquires, such as howitzers, aircraft, and guided missiles, the Syrian rebels have greater difficulty maintaining effective custody of hundreds of easily pilfered and concealed items, such as landmines and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles known as man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS).[5]

During the current turmoil, Syrian chemical weapons can best be managed if they remain under the secure control of their present guardians, loyal to the Assad regime. At the same time, the most urgent need is to ensure, for humanitarian reasons, that these weapons are not used in the ongoing conflict. As the Obama administration reiterated on August 20, Assad has been warned not to take this step, which would certainly lead to calls for military intervention against him that even Moscow would find difficult to oppose.[6] French President François Hollande issued a similar warning.[7]

The subsequent imperative is to ensure that control over these weapons is maintained and that chemical agents and munitions are not transferred to others. Readily transportable, chemically armed artillery shells would be the easiest to divert and could be used by Hezbollah or another group possessing standard artillery pieces of the type found in Syria’s armory. Even limited numbers of chemical munitions transferred to Hezbollah could notably worsen the threat to Israel and reinforce the group’s ability to deter future Israeli retaliation for conventional rocket and missile attacks.

Al Qaeda cadres operating in Syria are a further concern. Terrorist detonation of even a handful of chemical munitions in a Western city could wreak havoc. An added challenge is that the loss of control over the vast Syrian chemical arsenal could make it impossible to establish at a later time that none of it had passed into new hands.

Although fears of broad use of chemical weapons to quell the Syrian population seem to have subsided, a “defensive use” scenario is a growing concern. In particular, as it gradually loses control of the country, the Assad regime could attempt to establish a defensible perimeter around Damascus or along a part of the Syrian coastline, leading to territorial partition of the country. In this setting, Assad and his allies might threaten to use chemical weapons to preserve their stronghold, regardless of the July 2012 statement by the Syrian Foreign Ministry that chemical weapons would be used only to defend the country against external intervention.[8]

Shifting Battle Geography

If current trends continue, increasing portions of Syria will come under the control of insurgent forces. Already some reports are suggesting that Assad has focused on maintaining control over the country’s major cities, while the Free Syrian Army forces are increasingly taking over the countryside.[9] Syrian chemical weapons production and storage facilities were built outside major population centers, probably deliberately, to enhance secrecy and safety, but as the current phase of the conflict unfolds, they may fall within insurgent-controlled territory.

Under a number of scenarios, the expansion of insurgent-controlled territory could lead the elite troops guarding Syria’s chemical arsenal to lose control over portions of it.

  • Custodians of the chemical stockpile could be pulled away from their posts and reassigned to the front lines of the unfolding civil war, much as Assad pulled troops from the Golan Heights area in July to protect Damascus.[10]
  • Custodians could desert their posts to return to and protect their families as domestic turmoil continues.
  • Depending on the ebb and flow of battle, Assad could abandon chemical weapons sites and their custodians if it were not possible to maintain lines of supply and communication with them.
  • Custodians could defect to the rebel cause, transferring control over chemical weapons stocks to the Free Syrian Army, whose plans to manage such materials may be rudimentary at best, given the rebels’ confused lines of authority.
  • Custodians, weakened by isolation, could be overrun by insurgent troops if Free Syrian Army leaders sought to demonstrate, through capture of a site symbolizing Assad’s military strength, that the Syrian leader was losing his grip on power.
  • Bribery, bargaining for passage out of the country, or ideological commitment could lead the guardians to offer assets under their control to Hezbollah, al Qaeda, or other nonstate actors.
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In this environment, the United States should work with the Free Syrian Army to have the latter make clear that chemical weapons custodians who find themselves behind insurgent lines should peacefully relinquish formal control over these stockpiles and then stay in place to protect them. The site guardians should be incentivized to take such actions with pledges of protection against retaliation, adequate supplies to sustain them, and possibly even rewards from the post-Assad government.

The Assad regime’s decision to move some of its chemical weapons in July was thought to be for the purpose of securing these stockpiles from falling into the rebel hands, suggesting it was pursuing a course of restraint. Yet, according to one account in the German press, Syria conducted missile tests in August using unfilled chemical weapons warheads, reportedly with the help of Iranian and North Korean experts.[11] This would suggest that the regime continues to consider using chemical weapons, at least as a deterrent against military intervention. Concerns about the nature of and reasons behind the relocation of Syrian chemical weapons grew more serious as U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed a second round of “multiple, ‘limited’ movements” of these assets at the end of September.[12]

Some chemical assets, such as large stocks of bulk agent, may be difficult to transport and may remain in place, potentially falling behind insurgent lines along with other, fixed military assets, such as airfields and missile storage and production sites. The Free Syrian Army has claimed to be aware of the locations of chemical weapons storage sites, with one spokesman declaring that the Syrian rebels would welcome assistance from the West in securing these facilities.[13] In another press report, the rebels claimed to have taken a missile base in Damascus, which they asserted contained missiles armed with nonconventional warheads. Citing the discovery as evidence that Assad planned to use chemical weapons against civilians, the rebels’ Supreme Military Council called for the international community to intervene “before the regime moves to a new level of crimes.”[14] Together with al Qaeda-linked fighters, Syrian rebels also have captured a missile base near Aleppo, claiming that the Assad regime was aiming these missiles at the Syrian people; the base was destroyed by the government’s air power shortly afterward.[15]

Although concerns about the Assad regime resorting to new levels of violence remain very real, the political reasons behind recent rebel rhetoric on chemical weapons must be acknowledged. Knowing that the international community regards the issue of chemical weapons use as particularly sensitive and has identified it as a potential trigger for intervention, the rebels may be inclined to place particular emphasis on that issue in their rhetoric in the hopes of keeping international attention focused on their plight.

Reshaping Assad’s Legacy

Governments coming to power through revolution, civil war, or secession have the crucial, immediate goals of gaining international recognition and legitimacy, integrating into the world economy, and, depending on the circumstances, obtaining significant outside economic assistance. Renouncing nonconventional weapons by terminating suspect activities, eliminating stockpiles of weapons and weapons material, and subscribing to key nonproliferation treaties has repeatedly been made a requirement for such benefits.

In the 1980s and 1990s, new regimes in Argentina, Brazil, and South Africa (seeking to end years of isolation) and in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine (seeking to distance themselves from their Soviet past) have pressed for international acceptance and in this context chosen to renounce nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons programs. South Africa also dismantled its small-scale biological weapons program, and Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan dismantled Soviet-era biological weapons facilities.

Following its 2003 decision to seek accommodation with the international community after decades of rogue behavior, Libya abandoned its nuclear weapons program and joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, agreeing to destroy its sizable chemical weapons arsenal after placing it under the monitoring system of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). By the time the Libyan civil war erupted in February 2011, it had destroyed more than half of its stocks of chemical warfare agents.[16] The new government in Tripoli has pledged to continue this process, declaring previously undisclosed stockpiles of loaded chemical munitions to the OPCW and inviting international inspections to ensure subsequent assistance in the destruction of the arsenal.[17]

Libya also agreed to eliminate its missiles capable of carrying 500-kilogram payloads 300 kilometers or more (so-called Category 1 missiles, under the guidelines of the Missile Technology Control Regime), although this action appears to have been delayed. As part of their renunciation of nuclear weapons, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine scrapped their intercontinental ballistic missiles. Ukraine and a number of other former Soviet-bloc states also eliminated nonstrategic missiles with capabilities greater than the Category 1 classification after the fall of the Soviet Union.[18]

Developments in Syria create an opportunity for the international community to move that country in a similar direction and put in place important constraints on Syria’s chemical weapons and armory of 300- and 500-kilometer-range Scud missiles and shorter-range but more accurate SS-21s. The process can be started during the current phase of active conflict; evolve further during the future transition phase, as Assad is pushed aside; and become more formalized when new leaders begin to govern the country.

Yet, the process is likely to be more challenging than in the cases discussed above. Unlike Libya and the other renouncing states, which faced no external antagonists when they abandoned their nonconventional weapons or missiles or both, any government that takes power in Damascus can be expected to consider itself the heir to Syria’s decades-long confrontation with Israel. In these circumstances, Syria’s chemical and missile arsenals may be seen as both an essential deterrent to counter Israel’s nuclear capability and a valuable bargaining chip, to be relinquished only in return for a significant concession from Israel, such as return of the Golan Heights.

The U.S. government should take action to avoid such a relapse to the status quo. As the Free Syrian Army seizes territory where chemical or missile assets are situated, Washington should be ready to offer assistance in securing such sites, including arrangements for an international team of experts to help with monitoring the locations. The group might include experts from nearby Turkey or Jordan, as well as from states outside the region having the requisite familiarity with managing chemical arms and missiles. Given the threat of continued violence, the teams might be composed of specially trained military personnel and might be accompanied by a security contingent. The working premise would be that they had been invited to provide assistance by those controlling the sites and would not engage in combat to gain access to the sites or, once in place, protect them from attack.[19]

During the transition phase, as control by successor forces expanded, international assistance could be offered to them in disabling and dismantling portions of the chemical and missile arsenals to make them less readily usable. For chemical weapons, this could mean removing chemical agents from munitions; with regard to missiles, warheads might be removed from these systems or transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) partially disabled or moved to locations far from their associated missiles. Where production facilities came under the control of successor forces, the United States and others working with Washington could press for a halt in new production. International experts might be invited to undertake an initial analysis of how portions of the chemical arsenal that are deteriorating and pose safety hazards might be destroyed.

Ideally, by the time the new government took power, a trajectory would have been established that would be pointing toward the elimination of these capabilities, reinforced by an international presence at key sites. Diplomatic recognition of the new government and infusions of foreign assistance to rebuild the country could be made conditional on commitments toward significant further progress on this path.

Even if political realities within Syria made it impossible as a practical matter for the new government to fully and formally renounce its chemical weapons and missile capabilities, numerous partial measures could greatly reduce the threat they posed. These might include the mothballing of production sites; the sealing and periodic inspection of chemical weapons storage facilities; the requesting of expert assistance from the OPCW in managing the country’s chemical sites and, possibly, in sealing or inspecting chemical weapons storage sites (a special directive from the UN Security Council would probably be required for the last-named activities); and the placing of TELs, missile fueling vehicles, or essential components in sealed bunkers that might be monitored by a team of donor-country personnel.[20]

Shifts in territorial control and the flux of the transition period could be used to resolve outstanding questions regarding Syria’s apparent nuclear weapons program, whose centerpiece, a nearly operational North Korean-built reactor near al Kibar, was destroyed by Israel in September 2007. Although Syria is a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and is obligated to place all of its nuclear facilities under monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Assad government has refused to permit international inspectors to visit three sites suspected of being part of the Syrian nuclear program.[21]

If the sites come under insurgent control, the Free Syrian Army should be pressed to authorize such inspections, perhaps starting with an informal visit by a team of international experts to these locations, akin to visits of this kind to Libyan sites housing that country’s nuclear program and chemical weapons program in 2003, to begin resolving the issues concerning the nature and purpose of these facilities. The IAEA would not itself be able to undertake activities in Syria until invited by the government recognized by the Security Council as the legitimate government of that country.

Although decisively resolving the issue of nonconventional weapons will have the greatest political significance, in terms of both the diplomatic effort required and the potential gains, addressing the issue of conventional weapons will prove critical for geographic containment of the unrest. Small arms and light weapons, for which there is a ready and lucrative international market, will likely be extensively pilfered during the chaos of the transition period. Given the scale of Syria’s arsenal and the likely dispersion of its armories, this may be all but impossible to prevent.

Meanwhile, heavy weapons, including aircraft; missiles; MANPADS; bulk explosives; and landmines may be stored in fewer locations, more rigorously inventoried, and thus more easily controlled. International support will be needed to assist this control mission, with due consideration to including Russian participation if needed to avoid the appearance of Western intervention.

It is not clear that a window of opportunity has yet opened that will permit outsiders to shape the future disposition of Syrian military assets, but if present trends continue, that window will soon appear. The United States is preparing plans to deal with a number of contingencies relating to the fate of Syria’s many arsenals. It is important that plans to constrain the next government’s inheritance of Assad’s chemical and missile armory be placed high on this list and that Washington be prepared to implement such plans swiftly, as soon as the opportunity to act comes to hand.

Leonard S. Spector is executive director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies’ Washington, D.C., office. From 1997 to 2001, he served as assistant deputy administrator for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration. Egle Murauskaite is a research associate at the James Martin Center. Some of the points discussed in this article were first raised in Spector’s July 19 testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade.


1. Biological weapons may also be at issue, but little is known about Syria’s possible program. Nuclear weapons and fissile material are not known to be present in Syria. Following the revelations about the al Kibar nuclear reactor, however, three sites to which International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have subsequently been denied access are suspected of having equipment or facilities that could be relevant to nuclear weapons production.

2. The United States has supported its regional allies in providing small arms to the Free Syrian Army, but continues to insist that the allies refrain from supplying heavy weaponry to the rebels. Robert F. Worth, “Citing U.S. Fears, Arab Allies Limit Syrian Rebel Aid,” The New York Times, October 6, 2012. Despite these calls, the Free Syrian Army apparently received a number of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles from foreign supporters at the end of July, with their first known use reported in mid-October. “Syrian Rebels Acquire Surface-to-Air Missiles: Report,” Reuters, July 31, 2012; Rick Gladstone, “UN Envoy Seeks Pause in Syria for Holiday,” The New York Times, October 15, 2012.

3. David E. Sanger, “Rebel Arms Flow Is Said to Benefit Jihadists in Syria,” The New York Times, October 14, 2012.

4. According to a news report, there is “a steady flow of Arab men” from Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, as well as Muslims from the United Kingdom and the United States, coming to join the ranks of the Free Syrian Army and then being trained by jihadists with Afghanistan war experience. Suleiman Al-Khalidi, “Arab Islamist Fighters Eager to Join Syria Rebels,” Reuters, July 31, 2012. The conflict is increasingly attracting Sunni radicals, and the jihadist message is used as a recognizable brand to attract foreign funding for the cause, strengthening the hand of these groups in Syria. Neil MacFarquhar and Hwaida Saad, “As Syrian War Drags On, Jihadists Take Bigger Role,” The New York Times, July 29, 2012. In addition, there is a growing presence of professional fighters from Iraqi al Qaeda groups in Syria. “State Dept.: Al Qaeda in Iraq Fighting in Syria,” CBS/Associated Press, July 31, 2012; Ghaith Abdudl-Ahad, “Al-Qaida Turns Tide for Rebels in Battle for Eastern Syria,” Guardian, July 30, 2012.

5. If Syrian conventional weapons are transferred out of the country, there is a risk that they could be used in local conflicts, as was the case in Mali following the recent turmoil in Libya. A large number of Malian Tuareg people were serving in the Libyan army, and following the collapse of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s regime, stocks of sophisticated weaponry were left unattended and fell into Tuareg hands. The Tuareg returned to Mali, forming a militia group and sparking the 2012 Tuareg rebellion, which soon evolved to include the forces of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

6. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by the President to the White House Press Corps,” August 20, 2012.

7. Steven Erlanger, “France Urges Creation of Interim Syrian Government, Pledging Recognition,” The New York Times, August 27, 2012.

8. See, for example, “Syrian Regime Makes Chemical Warfare Threat,” Associated Press, July 23, 2012; “Syria Asserts Chemical Arms Only to Be Used Against Foreign Aggressors,” Global Security Newswire, July 23, 2012,

9. See, for example, Joseph Holliday, “Syria’s Maturing Insurgency,” Middle East Security Report, No. 5 (June 2012).

10. “Syria Moving Troops From Golan to Damascus: Israel,” Agence France-Presse, July 17, 2012.

11. “Syria Tested Chemical Weapons Systems, Witnesses Say,” Der Spiegel, September 17, 2012.

12. Lolita C. Baldor, “Panetta Says Syria Moved Some Chemical Weapons,” Associated Press, September 28, 2012.

13. Yousuf Basil and Tim Lister, “Syrian Rebels Claim Knowledge of Chemical Weapons Sites,” CNN, September 29, 2012; “Syria Tested Chemical Weapons Systems, Witnesses Say.”

14. Elad Benari, “Syrian Rebels Claim to Take Over Chemical Weapons,” Arutz Sheva, August 29, 2012.

15. “Syrian Rebels Capture Government Missile Base, Activists Say,” Los Angeles Times, October 12, 2012; Jim Hoft, “Jihadists Linked to Al-Qaeda Capture Missile Base in Syria,” Gateway Pundit, October 12, 2012,

16. Daniel Horner, “Libya Sets Date to Destroy Chemical Arms,” Arms Control Today, June 2012.

17. See, for example, “Libyan Chemical Weapons Stockpiles Intact, Say Inspectors,” Reuters, November 4, 2011.

18. “Ukraine Finishes Scrapping Scud Missiles,” Global Security Newswire, April 14, 2011,; “Bulgaria, Slovakia Still Hold SS-23s,” Arms Control Today, September 1997; Youliana Ivanova, “Bulgaria: Goodbye Missiles, Hello NATO,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 2002.

19. As suggested earlier, where Assad forces guarding chemical weapons sites are cut off behind Free Syrian Army lines, the rebel Syrians would negotiate access with site managers promising that no harm will come to the arsenals’ guardians when Assad falls.

20. The new government might justify the restraint in the chemical weapons area by claiming that although the Assad regime was prepared to use chemical weapons, disregarding Syria’s adherence to the Geneva Protocol of 1925 that prohibits the use of such weapons, the new government hopes never to use these arms and has undertaken a series of transparency and restraint measures to demonstrate this commitment.

21. According to press reports, the sites are located near Masyaf, the village of Marj as-Sultan near Damascus, and Iskandariyah. See David Albright and Paul Brannan, “Satellite Image Shows Syrian Site Functionally Related to Al Kibar Reactor,” Institute for Science and International Security, December 1, 2010,