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Maya Gebeily

Syria’s sarin: the threat is not over

Free Syrian Army fighters in a Damascus suburb after an alleged regime attack.

As the world debates the details and repercussions of the August 21 sarin attack in Syria, the fate of the Assad regime’s remaining stockpiles remains unknown – and dangerously so. Syria’s chemical weapons depots have already moved within the country itself, and concerns about cross-border transfers are rising.

 

Earlier this year, the US military admitted that it had lost track of some of the regime’s stockpiles, which include sarin and mustard gas, as well as VX nerve agents. Aram Nerguizian, security expert and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told NOW that losing track of weapons that weren’t well-documented to begin with is to be expected. “This is a dynamic, messy conflict where nothing stays on the grid forever,” Nerguizian said. Timothee Germain, research fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control Studies, explained that a potential reason for stockpiles “going off the grid” could be that the regime has consolidated many of its smaller storage sites “into larger, central ones, to respond to the rebel’s territorial gains.”

 

This move is a sensible security measure, as it minimizes the risk of multiple sites being overrun, but also magnifies the consequences of a loss of control over these stockpiles. Normally, the chemical agents are stored separately from the munitions that are used to deliver them, but when consolidating sites, the different components of the full chemical weapons systems get stored together, making them readily deployable from a single site. Germain highlighted that he had no specific evidence that the regime had relocated elements of this system in this way, but said that it would make the most sense.

 

Still, both Nerguizian and Germain highlighted the high level of speculation about the location of the stockpiles and where they may be getting moved inside Syria. As Nerguizian said, “you’re not going to be able to track a system like chemical weapons… because there is a mobility component in all of this.”

 

It is precisely this mobility component that is of such great concern, particularly for cross-border transfers. Within Syria, the Assad regime maintains tight control over the stockpiles. “So far, ironically, you have relatively stable safeguards, even in the current circumstances, by Assad’s forces,” Nerguizian told NOW.

 

Cross-border transfers, whether to pro- or anti-regime groups, are only likely to happen if and when regime security over chemical systems is severely degraded.

 

According to Germain, Assad and his allies may choose to relocate chemical weapons stockpiles outside of Syria in order to better secure them. “If the regime is on the verge of collapsing, it might try to transfer some of its high-value assets to neighboring allies, much like what Saddam Hussein attempted in 1991,” Germain told NOW by phone.

 

But residents of Lebanon need not worry that the stockpiles will find a new home in their country, as both Germain and Nerguizian assessed that Hezbollah, the Assad regime’s closest ally in Lebanon, would be an unlikely recipient. The two experts cited the Party of God’s lack of adequate equipment for handling or storing the stockpiles. “Stewardship of chemical weapons has some complexity to it,” Germain told NOW, “and requires infrastructure and expertise that is hardly compatible with the capabilities of a non-state actor, even one as organized as Hezbollah.”

 

Becoming the proud new owners of chemical weapons might also actually be more of a threat to Hezbollah than a boost. Nerguizian pointed out that there is a fundamental “illogic” to Hezbollah acquiring chemical weapons, because “it just paints one big bull’s eye on them” in Israel’s eyes. In July 2013, Israel struck a convoy of weapons systems attempting to cross the Green Line from Syria into Lebanon; the careful monitoring of this border and the complete intolerance of any weapons transfers to Hezbollah render such a transfer unlikely. According to Germain, “Israel will not tolerate the risk of letting Hezbollah keep such weapons, [and] is therefore likely to go to great lengths” to prevent their transfer. He concluded that “the cost of use [of a chemical weapons system] would be way higher than the benefits it could yield on the battlefield.”

 

Instead, chemical weapons might be transferred to Syria’s eastern neighbor, whence pro-Assad Shiite allies come to fight alongside the regime. “The monitoring of any transfer to Iraq would be much more complicated than in the case of Lebanon,” Germain told NOW, “since the border is much larger, difficult to control, and much further away from Israel.”

 

The extensive spectrum of anti-Assad groups that may gain control of loose chemical weapons systems is also of concern. “It’s not just bad guys we associate with the regime that we have to be concerned about,” said Nerguizian. “You’re talking about a very broad range of players who, in the event of regime destabilization, regime collapse, or any real opportunity to gain access to an unconventional war-fighting capability like chemicals weapons systems, are going to try to do something about [it].”

 

In one scenario, elements of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, which the US treats as the official military arm of the Syrian opposition, could gain control of a chemical weapons depot. Germain assessed that FSA would consider this a “significant propaganda victory” that would allow them to “expose the regime’s use of chemical weapons in the conflict beyond any doubt.” If more radical parties like Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or other extremist groups gain control of the weapons systems, the result is infinitely more worrying. In this case, the groups may threaten the usage of the chemical agents, or worse, may actually follow through with their deployment. For Germain, the group most likely to do so would be al-Qaeda in Iraq, which would be able to relocate the weapons across the porous Syrian-Iraqi border and would be willing to actually use them in Iraq. 

 

Despite the significant worries emanating from the mobility of these weapons systems, destroying them is no less risky. Security expert Hashim de Gordon-Bretton, alongside other chemical weapons experts, points out that any air strikes on chemical weapons depots would be unlikely to destroy the stockpiles and would, in fact, worsen the security situation. “People would be killed in the vicinity of the air strikes,” Gordon-Bretton told NOW by phone, “[and] the guard would be killed as well, so it would make it more likely that the remains of the chemical weapons could fall into terrorist hands and could end up outside of the country.”

 

On the possibility of chemical weapons transfers or the likelihood of a successful destructive strike, Nerguizian remains cautious. “It’s a highly speculative environment, and I can’t stress that enough.”

 

“None of this is static, and most of us are trying not to speculate ourselves into a corner… All great plans end when war begins.” 

Free Syrian Army fighters in a Damascus suburb after an alleged regime attack. (Image via Reuters)

"Becoming the proud new owners of chemical weapons might also actually be more of a threat to Hezbollah than a capability boost."