Assad’s Chemical Weapons Capacity
Weapons, Delivery Systems, and Preparation
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It has become apparent in the past few weeks that the Assad regime, either out of concern for the safety of its CW stockpiles or in preparation to defend its dwindling control in the country, has relocated many of its formidable chemical weapons reserves. The following is background on Syria’s chemical weapons history, the delivery systems it can utilize to deploy these weapons, and the likelihood of an actual chemical attack against Opposition targets inside Syria now and in the future.
Syria’s chemical weapons program has relied mainly on foreign sources for much of its WMD development history. It probably received its first chemical materials, already weaponized, prior to the joint Syrian-Egyptian attack on Israel in the 1973 war. When the Camp David Accords ended the tactical alliance between Syria and Egypt, and after Israel’s destructive 1982 campaign in southern Lebanon exhibited to Syria Israel’s conventional weapons supremacy, Damascus turned to the Soviets as its main supplier of CW weapons and delivery systems. By the 1990s, Syria had functioning chemical agent production centers near Aleppo, Homs, and Hama. There are no indications that these facilities have closed. It is now believed that Syria has the most advanced chemical weapons capability in the Middle East, and the third most advanced (behind the US and Russia) in the world
Syria is reported to have large stockpiles of Sarin gas, as well as limited supplies of VX and Mustard gasses.
Sarin: developed as a pesticide by a German chemist in 1938, but deemed too lethal to use agriculturally. Sarin causes the same effect on humans as pesticides have on bugs, namely producing rapid muscle stimulation, then muscle failure, and a subsequent inability to function or breath. When exposed to a lethal dose, a human can die within minutes or after up to 18 hours. Sarin has no odor or color, and can be used as a vapor, in food, or in water. Contaminated clothing can give off lethal fumes for up to 30 minutes after exposure. Heavier than air, Sarin collects in low-lying places.
VX: developed by a British chemist in the early 1950s, it is considered the most toxic agent ever synthesized. Unlike Sarin, which evaporates relatively quickly, VX is thick and oily, and can remain in an atmosphere for months. It attacks the body in a manner similar to Sarin. Heavier than air, VX collects in low-lying places.
After Scud missiles launched from Iraq exploded in major Israeli cities during the 1991 Gulf War, the Syrian regime recognized the benefits of stockpiling these long-range and nuclear-capable weapons. It began acquiring Scud missiles and technology from North Korean and Iranian markets, and eventually became capable of producing its own Scud C and Scud D missiles with the assistance of China, North Korea, and Iran. As of 2004, Syria is estimated to possess the largest stockpile of these ballistic missiles in the Middle East, estimated at that time to be around 400-600 operational weapons. Tunnels and underground storage facilities were originally built in Hama and Aleppo (see “Preparation”) to house these weapons, and others likely exist throughout the country.
As of December 12, 2012 the Syrian military has for the first time fired at least six Scud missiles from Damascus into rebel-held areas in the north, though none are reported to have been tipped with chemical warheads. As rebel forces gain control of former regime weapons stockpiles, which include surface-to-aid missiles, Assad may be deciding to replace the newly threatened capabilities of his air force with Scuds and other missile systems.
Scud B: +Range: 175-205 miles +Payload: 2,200lbs
Scud C: +Range: 340-430 miles +Payload: 1,100-1,700lbs
Scud D: +Range: 620-930 miles +Payload: 2,200lbs
Distance from Damascus to Aleppo: 193 miles Distance from Damascus to Istanbul: 657 miles Distance from Damascus to Tel Aviv: 133 miles
The Syrian military also has a formidable arsenal of bombs and artillery shells that can be (and reportedly have been) filled with chemical agents, then delivered via warplanes or heavy guns.
The current media attention drawn towards Syria’s chemical stockpiles was borne from the recent relocation of such materials from territories threatened by rebel movements to safer areas inside the regime’s control. The reported weaponization of these materials, if true, is a significant threat escalation, but it is not necessarily an indication of the regime’s intentions to use the weapons immediately or at all. It is more likely that any weaponization of materials was intended to consolidated the chemicals with their delivery systems in order to speed up their extraction from conflict zones (keeping in mind that key CW production facilities and Scud stores are in the heavily embattled areas of Homs, Hama, and Aleppo), and/or to posture Syrian military might in order to deter international military intervention. Leon Panetta’s statement on Tuesday regarding a de-escalation and lack of new steps towards Syrian CW deployment serves to substantiate this theory. It is indeed quite frightening to know that Assad has all of the equipment and material he needs to launch a chemical strike, and that, as US officials have said, the international community would be able to do very little to stop such a strike. But the regime is aware that using these weapons would spell a quick end to its existence.
Numerous other rumors have recently surfaced that may suggest large-scale chemical weapons use is nigh. Reports that Syrian Army troops have recently received gas masks and radiation suits, that chemical weapons have already been used in small amounts on the battlefield this year, and that Assad has previously sprayed pesticides in Syria’s embattled northwest leaving residents bleeding from the nose and mouth, have all surfaced in the months leading up to the most recent CW hype. Though, as stated, it is not likely the regime will deploy these weapons now, as the regime continues to crumble and Assad grows more desperate (reports from Russian officials are already indicating that Assad is losing hope), chances are increasing that Assad may attempt to flee Damascus. As he has voiced his intention to die in Syria, he may choose to flee to the predominantly Alawite coastal region in the shadow of the still heavily pro-Assad Nusayriyah mountains rather than exit the country entirely. Should this happen, as Syria expert Joshua Landis says, the chance that Assad will then resort to using chemical weapons in rebel-controlled territories on the other side of the mountain range “goes way up.” With his back to the coast and both a geographic and a sectarian stronghold around him, the use of chemical weapons could become far more likely.