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Syria regime 'reeling, armed to the teeth' with chemical weapons

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The Furqlus Weapons Depot, approximately 30 miles outside Homs, Syria, is shown in this July 6 satellite image.

Like a three-card monte player, the Syrian government has been shifting its chemical weapons around the country in the midst of the country’s increasingly violent and chaotic civil war, leaving foreign intelligence agencies to guess where the outlawed weapons of mass destruction might end up – and under whose control.

U.S. and Israeli officials fear that the weapons and chemical agents, which typically are kept separately until they are ready for use, could fall into the hands of terrorists or be used against rebel forces by the ruling Alawites in a last-ditch stand.

Almost as frightening, experts say, would be if rebel forces seized some of the weapons.


“No one but the Syrians knows the inventory, and if the rebels overrun one of these depots, there are worries about the physical control of the weapons,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., think tank. “It may get down to individual Syrian soldiers making decisions.”

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The fluid situation on the ground and questions about the locations and quantities of the chemical weapons have intelligence analysts grasping at straws, said Rob Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. intelligence analyst on Syria.

“No scenario is too fanciful,” he said. “We are in such uncharted territory. The regime is reeling and armed to the teeth.”

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But intelligence reports and U.S. and Israeli experts interviewed by NBC News say two things are certain: The Syrian government has the most developed chemical weapons program in the Third World and it has used them on its own people at least once before.


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Heightening concern about the weapons, a Syrian military defector, Gen. Mustafa Sheikh, claimed in an interview with Reuters on Saturday that Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad were repositioning chemical weapons for possible use against the opposition in retaliation for the assassination of four top security officials. 

“We don't know why" they have begun moving chemical weapons from storage, a senior U.S. official said, confirming the movement. He refused to speculate whether the Assad regime could be preparing to use the weapons in an attempt to quell the continuing civilian uprising.

Machine guns operated by motorcycle brakes? Get a glimpse at the rebels fighting against Assad's forces in Syria's mountainous Jabal al-Zawiya area.

On Monday, Syria responded to the report by saying it would unleash its chemical and biological weapons only in the event of a foreign attack — the first time it has acknowledged that it possesses such weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The statement “backfired,” said Danin, the Council on Foreign Relations fellow. "All it did was heighten international concerns about the (chemical weapons) stockpile," he said. “If anything is going to trigger intervention, it’s this. It’s a potential causus belli” — “cause of war,” in Latin.

'Serious red line'
On Monday, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little warned that if the Assad regime used chemical weapons on civilians, that would cross a “serious red line.”

"We would, of course, caution them strongly against any intention to use those weapons," he said. Little also reiterated that, at this point, the U.S. believes the chemicals are still secure.

Str / AP

Anti-government clashes continue as Western and Arab nations launch a diplomatic offensive to halt the violence.

U.S. officials have long believed that the Syrian government had stockpiled the banned chemical weapons.

Last year, in its most recent public report to Congress covering WMD developments, the CIA stated, “Syria has had a CW (chemical weapons) program for many years and has a stockpile of CW agents, which can be delivered by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles and artillery rockets.”

U.S. intelligence reports indicate that Syria possesses the nerve agents sarin and tabun as well as traditional chemical weapons like mustard gas and hydrogen cyanide. The CIA report also stated that Syria “is developing the more toxic and persistent nerve agent VX,” which is more persistent than sarin and tabun and capable of rendering an area – or a city – uninhabitable “for some days.”     

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Dani Shoham, a chemical weapons expert with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said he believes Assad’s scientists already have done so.

“My assessment is that they successfully developed weaponized VX,” he said.

Syria is believed to have thousands of chemical weapons and hundreds of missiles and aircraft to deliver them. Israel has estimated that Syria has "several thousand" bombs that could be filled mostly with sarin and more than 100 warheads.

The key city of Aleppo has come under ferocious assault, bombarded by fighter jets and machine gun fire. The Syrian government's main priority is taking control of the major cities – without enough troops to control the entire country, they are on the offensive. NBC's Richard Engel reports from northern Syria.

More significant is that Syria has a chemical weapons infrastructure, not just the weapons themselves. It is said to have vast stocks of  agents available for loading into munitions as well as the precursor chemicals. It is one of only seven nations in the world that has not ratified the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, the arms-control agreement that outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of such weapons.

In terms of delivery systems, Syria has a few dozen SS-21 ballistic missiles with a maximum range of 72 miles; 200 Scud-B's, with a maximum range of 180 miles; and 60 to 120 Scud-C's with a maximum range of 300 miles, all of which are mobile and capable of carrying chemical weapons, according U.S. intelligence officials.

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Bombshells filled with chemicals also can be carried by Syrian Air Force fighter-bombers, in particular Sukhoi-22/20, MiG-23 and Sukhoi-24 aircraft. In addition, some reports indicate short-range unguided Frog-7 artillery rockets may be capable of carrying chemical payloads.

The weapons systems are -- or were -- in a number of sites close to Israel and near cities where Syrian security forces have fought rebels and shelled civilian areas. But the shifting of the weapons has disguised their current location and raised new concerns about what the Assad regime is planning to do with them.

Like Iraq and Egypt, Syria has employed chemical agents against its people, using hydrogen cyanide on insurgents in the early 1980s, according to congressional investigators.

Following violent demonstrations by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in January and February 1982, Syrian army units sealed off the city. According to a November 1990 Senate Foreign Relations Committee memo, the army units then went to every house suspected of hiding insurgents and pumped in cyanide gas, killing all the occupants. Later, the government broadcast a report saying security forces had taken fierce reprisals against the Brotherhood and its sympathizers, "which stopped them from breathing.”

The Syrian government's army is descending on the northern city of Aleppo where the city was seized by rebels. NBC's John Ray reports.

Danin, the Council on Foreign Relations expert on Syria, said Syria’s statement on Monday acknowledging its chemical weapons was a thinly disguised threat to the rebel forces. “It was meant as a message to insurgents.”

Beyond their use against insurgents, U.S. and allied fears about the chemical weapons fall into three categories:

  • That they could fall into the hands of Sunni jihadis aligned with al-Qaida;
  • That the Assad regime could give them to Hezbollah, which is aligned with Iran and already has a significant arsenal of missiles and rockets;
  • That they could be used to shield an enclave set up by Assad forces to protect Syria’s minority Alawites, from which most of the government elite is drawn.

Danin thinks all three scenarios are unlikely, but added that they can’t be completely discounted, especially if further movement of the weapons is detected.

“Any movement or potential movement raises the ante,” he said. “You can be agnostic about whether (Assad) stays or goes, but this is one area that that mobilizes the U.S. and Israel to move to preparatory steps. Both the threat and objective are clear and identifiable.”

What you need to know about the Syria crisis

Danin said that terrorists -- either Islamic jihadis fighting with the rebels or Hezbollah fighters – gaining control of such weapons would be the most dangerous scenario.

“Shifting them to Hezbollah would be dangerous, provocative and incendiary,” he said. That, he said, would be “a Doomsday scenario and it would prompt prevention measures.”

But Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Washington, D.C., office of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said even a rebel seizure of chemical weaponry would be alarming, since they could conceivably be quickly be spirited away.

“Should the insurgents overrun one of the chemical weapons depots, the question is, if you walk into a room are there weapons you wheel out or do they require more attention?” he said. “Some are ‘ready to roll’ is my impression.”

'Threat is real indeed'
Indeed, while the location of the stockpiles is now in question, the areas where the weapons were believed to be stored all are near scenes of some of the worst violence since the uprising against Assad began 1 ½ years ago.

Reuters

While some concerns have been raised that  Syria could use the weapons against Israel or Turkey, perhaps as a diversion, most experts see that possibility as far-fetched.

“In terms of the size, diversity, quality and operability of the CW arsenal, the threat is real indeed,” said Shoham, the Israeli expert. “In terms of likelihood that it would be employed, I would level it low against Israel and Turkey and appreciable against the insurgents.”

However, the general threat to Israel was noted by the CIA as far back as 2001, "Syria probably has weaponized sarin into aerial bombs and SCUD missile warheads, which gives Syria the capability to employ chemical agents against targets in Israel. ...While the SS-21s likely would be employed primarily against military bases and forces in northern Israel, the SCUD's longer range and larger warhead suggests that it could be used against Tel Aviv and other cities." 

Myth vs. truth in the Syrian conflict

Even if Syria’s chemical weapons are never used, they could play a role in ending the conflict.

Danin suggested that if the weapons remain in secure locations, they could serve as a deterrent against foreign intervention.

“I think it does play a role at the end of the day,” he said. “It provokes and deters at the same time. It makes a country like Turkey think twice about a limited military intervention and reinforces the notion that Syria has a very powerful military.”

But Spector, of the Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said the weapons would be a wildcard in a negotiated settlement that would see Assad relinquish power.

“The best outcome would be for those who guard the chemical stocks to remain in place during any transition of power, and to place the sites under international supervision so that the weapons would remain secure and a process could be developed to verifiably destroy them,” he said.

That would require some delicate conversations, Spector said, with whomever winds up in control of the weapons.

“You may have to persuade those in control to manage the weapons and not let them be purchased, have some understanding with them that they will be provided with supplies and their families safeguarded,” he said.

Robert Windrem is a senior investigative producer for NBC News.

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