The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international body overseeing efforts to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, announced on
February 10 that a third batch of banned materials had been shipped out of Syria, destined for destruction abroad. The material was transferred to a Norwegian cargo vessel and accompanied by a multi-nation naval escort. Reportedly, the three shipments represent just 11 percent of the country’s declared chemical arsenal.
Iran would likely prefer to preserve considerable portions of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and transfer them to Iran or Hezbollah rather than see them destroyed.
Despite the transfer, Syria has demonstrated deep ambivalence, if not subterfuge, regarding its commitment to comply with UN and OPCW demands to destroy its chemical weapons arsenal and infrastructure. According to the UN-OPCW timetable, the removal of chemical weapons from Syria is now running approximately two months behind schedule. Damascus did request a reformulated timetable on February 21 to complete the export, but it is apparent that the June 30 deadline will not be met.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has argued that his forces cannot safely move the toxic chemical compounds in the midst of Syria’s three-year-old civil war. At first glance, the claim appears to make sense, but in reality is little more than an excuse for Syria to continue to drag its feet. The technical and practical arrangements have been put into place to remove chemical weapons from Syria, including chemical warfare agents, binary-patterned materials, and precursor chemicals intended for further production of chemical weapons.
Assad has also been accused of stockpiling advanced weaponry – including chemical and biological arms – in the heartland of his Alawite sect’s region. He apparently believes these weapons could be useful in ensuring his and his sect’s political, and perhaps physical, survival in the event that Syria eventually breaks up.
Vis-à-vis the international community, Assad’s commitment to eliminate his chemical weapons arsenal bolsters his position considerably, as he is the only person capable of carrying out the destruction orders. Thus, apart from rebel groups inside Syria fighting to unseat the current leadership, virtually no one in the international community will try to remove Assad from power.
Yet, it also means that prolonging the elimination process could preserve Assad’s position at the top of the Syrian hierarchy. This is likely an incentive for Assad to drag out the process, and buys him time to salvage some of the arsenal, either inside Syria or by smuggling the weapons to Iran, Russia, or Hizballah. In any event, the process of destroying Syria’s chemical arsenal will undoubtedly be protracted and unreliable.
It is obvious that curtailing Syria’s strategic capacity to employ weapons of mass destruction is essential to the international community, and it is evident that the chaotic situation in Syria renders the process prone to interference. This will continue to be true regardless of any level of cooperation between international inspectors and the Assad regime. The international community must ask what portion of Syria’s huge chemical weapons cache Assad intends to retain and hide even after international inspectors “complete” the process, and where he is likely to hide them.
There are three potential answers to this question, depending on the political outcome of the current fighting. Assad could continue to rule Syria, become the leader of only the Alawite sect, or be deposed altogether. Each of these possibilities is likely to affect Assad’s intentions as to the pace, mode, and extent of the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
The results of these scenarios do not depend on Assad alone. Iran and Russia are close allies, and both enjoy a large degree of political influence in Syria. For Iran, this is ostensibly due to Tehran’s support for Syria’s chemical weapons program since the early 2000s. It is therefore significant that Iran would likely prefer to preserve considerable portions of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and transfer them to Iran or Hizballah rather than see them destroyed.
Eliminating Syria’s declared chemical arsenal – 1,300 tons of weapons and precursor chemicals – is but one problem to overcome. It is equally important to ensure that the declared amount represents the real quantity of chemical weapons in Syria.
There is a legitimate concern that the declaration was crafted for Western ears, to convince the international community that Syria possessed amounts of chemical weapons stockpiles that would roughly match Western estimates, when in reality it possesses far more. The Syrian army also has a history of smuggling and hiding chemical stockpiles in remote, unfamiliar areas of the country.
There is also reason to believe the military would resume weapons smuggling, let alone if presented with the opportunity. Alternatively, the weapons could be transferred in secret from Syria to Iran, Russia, or Hezbollah. This last scenario is particularly relevant considering that parts of the arsenal are likely to bear damning indications of Iranian and Russian involvement.
This means the apparent export of chemical weapons from Syria might actually play no more than a partial role in the ultimate removal of banned arms from the country. There is a real danger that parts of these stockpiles could be seized by al-Qaeda or other terror groups currently operating in Syria. However, it should also be noted that Syria may decide that its national interest lies in preventing the transfer of chemical weapons across its western border to Hezbollah. Israel could consider such a transfer as a casus belli, which could lead to a large-scale confrontation.
Practically speaking, the international community must not only ensure that Syria’s “official” 1,300 tons of chemical agents are destroyed, but also that no additional, undeclared stockpiles remain in Syria. This includes a variety of incapacitating chemical warfare agents that the Assad regime could innocently describe as “riot control agents.” Further complicating matters, the regime possesses several delivery systems that can be used for employing unitary chemical weapons, binary chemical weapons, and conventional payloads.
Lastly, it is significant that the discussion of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal does not include, by definition, the country’s biological weapons complex. Syria is not a state party to the Biological Weapons Convention, and has no international commitments in that regard. Syria has been developing biological weapons since the 1980s; these elements include certain bacterial pathogens and toxins – and perhaps the smallpox virus – that have reached the level of deployable biological warfare agents.
The Syrians have probably removed all components of their biological weapons program from facilities that contained both chemical and biological components and are under the international inspection regime. But there are three separate facilities dedicated to the development, production, and storage of biological weapons: adjacent to the port city of Latakia, in Cerin, and within the framework of the military compounds affiliated with the General Establishment for Blood and Medical Industries (also known as DIMAS), which is directly supervised by the Syrian Ministry of Defense. These biological weapons depots must be dealt with.
It is unlikely that 100 percent of Syria’s chemical arsenal will be removed from the country and destroyed, and the fate of the remaining chemical weapons cache will be hard to track. The complexity of the Syrian situation presents unique challenges for this ambitious program. In addition, other regional examples make the prospect of chemical disarmament in Syria unpromising.
It is instructive that Libya, which voluntarily embarked on a chemical disarmament process in 2004, has yet to complete that process.
In real terms, then, the best that Western powers can hope for is the elimination of a considerable part of Syria’s actual chemical weapons arsenal. But, as outlined above, the possible disposition of the remaining weapons is a cause for deep concern.
Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Dany Shoham, a microbiologist and senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is recognized as a top Israeli expert on chemical and biological warfare in the Middle East. He is a former senior intelligence analyst in the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli Ministry of Defense.
A BESA Center Perspectives Paper, published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family