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al safira
The Al Safira base

In 1968 Syria ratified the Geneva Protocol that prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons, yet the Protocol does not limit production or storage of the very same chemical agents. In 1972 the Damascus government also signed (but didn't ratify) the “Convention on toxic and biological arms”. The Syrian authorities, however, never signed the convention commonly known as the “Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction”.

The lack of a signature at the bottom of the abovementioned convention was justified by Syria as being a measure of protection against the aggressiveness of Israel which - not a small detail in the eyes of the Syrians - signed the convention but never had it ratified by its parliament. Tel Aviv also possesses nuclear weapons. The lack of international controls over the chemical weapons owned by Syria makes it difficult to quantify exactly what chemical agents Syria has, where they are produced and where they stockpile such agents. With the advent of civil war there increases a risk that such chemical agents fall into the wrong hands.

Syria has no doubt one of the most important arsenals of chemical agents in the Middle East. This capacity to produce them and the possibility to use them have been guaranteed by the assistance of various countries in the course of time. Since the 70's Egypt (during the '73 war), the USSR (now Russia), North Korea (especially in the loading of the missile nose-cones), and lately Iran (since 2005) all contributed to increase the arsenal of Bashar al Assad. Iran allegedly provided assistance in the production of chemical precursors through the Organization of the Iranian Military Defense, with a 1$ billion fund promised by Ahmadinejad while in Damascus in 2007.

The agreement included the financing of scholarships to Syrian students for their studies at the Institute for Technology and Applied Sciences at the University of Teheran.

In addition to international assistance in the sector (especially in armed systems capable of launching chemical, tactical and strategic warheads, artillery nose-cones and air-ground bombs), it is a fact that the technology regarding the use of chemical weapons is easier to come by, acquire and administer than nuclear power.

All that we know about the quality of chemical agents owned by Syria, their quantity, production sites and stockpiling, derives from the statements of defectors, info gathered by governments and intelligence agencies (through the use of drones and spy satellites as well) and from the statements of experts. All of the above must be contextualized and evaluated on the basis of intentions and interests of those issuing the statements.

On February 5, 2003, the then-US secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to the United Nations. During his statement he showed videos, played telephone recordings and showed photographs to the Security Council to prove that Saddam Hussein had sought weapons of mass destruction. All of it to spark the second Gulf war. History teaches us that the line between the truth and a lie is a very ephemeral one indeed. As we all know those weapons were never found and Powell's exposure will remain a landmark in the history of disinformation.

Which types of chemicals

Syria surely owns vesicant agents such as Iprite (mustard gas) and nerve gases as well. The latter, more efficient than the Mustard gas, has been accessible to the alawite regime at least since 1986, the year in which such accessibility was officialized by the US Special National Intelligence Estimate and later emphasized by the public statements of Israeli leaders like the then-Prime Minister Yitzhaq Shamir, the Defense Minister Yitzhaq Rabin and the Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. In 1996 Russian authorities charged the former general Anatoly Kuntsevich with having shipped 800kg of chemical precursors (components for nerve gases) to Syria. In July 2001 a Syrian missile test with the presumed use of chemical warheads was reported.

From 2002 until today, reports by the CIA have always confirmed the presence of vesicants and nerve gases (especially Sarin, which has no smell nor color). Among these was their most lethal evolution (in the viscous state, more toxic and persistent than the gas itself): VX. This chemical agent, allegedly sold to Syria by the aforementioned General Kuntsevich, allegedly resembles an equivalently lethal Russian chemical agent called “substance 33” or “V-gas”. The same chemical agent had been promised (end of the 80's, beginning of the 90's) by the then-head of the Chemical Military Service, General Pikalov, to Syria during one of his visits to Damascus.

In May 1998 an experiment with Scud-C missiles armed with VX warheads was carried out near Damascus. The same was done in the year 2000 with a Scud-D and in July 2001 with a Scud-B near Aleppo.

In July 26, 2007, the loss of mustard gas (Iprite) from a plant near Aleppo (where fighting between loyalists and rebels has been ongoing for months) caused the death of tens of people.

It seems that Syria opted for stockpiling the chemical agents in a liquid base rather than in a binary system. In other words, the chemicals are kept in containers (generally stainless steel with protection valves) and need to be mixed an instant before being used to render them aggressive. This facilitates their handling, transportation and use. It must be noted that precursors are often automatically mixed inside the nose-cone or the warhead of the bomb after its launch, thus making the agent aggressive only against the objective and not during launching procedures.

The need for coupling precursors at the last instant is due to their volatility. Once they are mixed, the agents maintain their lethal effect for a limited amount of time (roughly 60 days, or 10 weeks for nerve gases). As we mentioned, all of these chemical agents are highly toxic and, once they are used, cause widespread contamination. The nerve gases strike a person's nerve system and cause immediate death. The vesicants pertain to the category of the “incapacitants” and produce - during a span of 24 hours - burns, respiratory problems, damages to the eyes and edema of the lungs. Their tactical uses are thus distinct: the former are used to physically eliminate the enemy, the latter are used to weaken physically and psychologically (and are thus used mainly against the civilian population).

The quantities

We have no data on the quantities of available chemical agents in Syrian hands even though, in the evaluations of western intelligence agencies, there should be several hundred tons of them (especially iprite and/or vesicants). Yet the quantities are not so important since a small quantity of such chemical agents is sufficient to cause great damage. It is far more important to note that such chemical agents are generally stockpiled in protected sites (military deposits, bunkers, caves, tunnels or underground facilities) and that they are guarded by elite corps of the Syrian army, especially the Republican Guard. This offers some measure of safety so that even in the uncertainty of civil war the Syrian chemical arsenal will not end up in the hands of radical and terrorist groups such as Jabhat and Nusra. It is rumored that Hezbollah units have also been deployed in the protection of the chemical caches (or, alternatively, they have been used in the training of the Syrian military who protect the caches). This is certainly not good news, especially for Israel.

Where they are produced and stockpiled

There is some information available about the sites where Syrian chemical weapons would be stockpiled. Sometimes these informations are contrasting and sometimes they are undermined by disinformation. More often than not info, hypotheses, statements by defectors and instrumental emphasizing by countries or intelligence agencies make the truth hard to grasp.

Yet there are no doubts about one such place. The place where research and studies on aggressive chemical agents (and perhaps on biological weapons as well) have been concentrated. It is the Centre D'Etudes et de Recherches Scientifiques (CERS), with headquarters in Damascus. Egypt, Russia (the Oriental Petrochemical Industry) and the Iranian Military Defense Organization have all collaborated with the CERS on such studies. Three stockpiling facilities are administered by the CERS, two of which are just a few tens of kilometers from Damascus (Dumayer and Khan Abu Shamat). The third is located in the district of Homs (Furglus).

Additional aggressive chemical agents (especially Sarin) are allegedly stockpiled in 5 air bases (for two reasons: because they might be mounted inside airplane bombs or missiles and because the airforce is the regime's most trusted armed force). The stockpiling facilities were once scattered in over seventy different locations. Recently, because of the civil war, chemical agents have been concentrated in 10-12 locations only.

Then there are the production facilities. In time Syria has wanted to render itself independent in the production of chemical precursors. The installations where production takes place were located in an industrial center in Homs (VX production), in a Scud missile base in Hama (VX, Sarin and Tabun production), in Latakia (near the harbor), in Aleppo (in the area of Al Safira, which is also an experimentation-research center and missile base - Scud D - where rebel attacks have concentrated themselves lately) and in Masyaf (between Homs and Banyas). In August 2012 near Al Safira in a deserted area (Diraiham, near the village of Khanasir), the Syrian and Iranian experts have run tests on nose-cones armed with aggressive chemical agents. In Hama and Aleppo there are also two alleged underground facilities for the production Scud-B and Scud-C missiles run with the direct cooperation of Iran. North Korea and China have also provided assistance in the past.

Altogether, counting research centers, production facilities, aerial or missile bases and stockpiling facilities (some of the precursors would have been kept separately from the rest of the mix in some facilities), there are over 30 sites at risk.

Finally, there is the civil part of the structure, with at its head the Syrian pharmaceutical industry, a sector that has developed thanks to the assistance of French companies. Syria covers roughly 85% of its pharmaceutical needs with Its local production. There is a public company called “Saydalaya” that administers imports of raw materials in a state of monopoly. The sector is so developed that part of the Syrian production of pharmaceutical supplies is exported to the Middle East and Africa. Some of the Syrian pharmaceutical companies are also licensed to produce for other foreign companies.

Behind the legal production of medicines, however, the Syrian regime has used its connections to acquire “dual use” technology and to import the raw materials needed for its military aims.

The fact that the Syrian pharmaceutical industry supports the chemical weapons sector is proven by the events of 1991. In that year there were a series of incidents with venemous gases that forced 5 pharmaceutical factories to halt production: three in Aleppo, one in Damascus and one in Homs. Perhaps it is not by hazard that these factories are located in the same areas that are today considered to be where aggressive chemical agents are developed.

Apart from “Saydalaya”, there are two more public companies that are thought to be implicated in the military program:

- DIMAS in Damascus. The company officially produces serums, but it is headed by a general (Hikmat Tahrani) and is under the superintendence of the Ministry of Defense.

- THAMECO in Damascus. The company depends from the Ministry of Industry. In the past this company created a consortium with French companies for the construction of a second facility in Aleppo. The structure went bankrupt in 1989 and was later allegedly transformed by the Syrians in a plant for the production of chemical agents.

France was involved more than others in the Syrian pharmaceutical sector because, during the 80's, they furnished most of the materials and assistance needed by Syria. Yet in 1992, France adhered to the so-called “Australia Group”, which implied monitoring every export that could be considered “dual use”. After 1992, Syria sought materials on the black market with the complacence of the Russian authorities.

Speaking of the pharmaceutical sector, one must not overlook the fact that Syria produces over 2 million tons of phosphates annually in a large facility located in Palmira (the facility was built with the assistance of Russia and through a joint-venture with an Indian firm). Phosphates are widely used in the pharmaceutical sector and in other sectors.

The development of biological weapons

Syria seems to have made advances in the field of biological weapons as well. In 1990, the then-US secretary of defense Dick Cheney had spoken officially about the issue. In 2011 the head of the US National Intelligence wrote a report for Congress in which Syria's possession and ability to develop biological weapons was hypothesized.

The hypothesis stemmed from the presence of a facility in Cerin, on the Mediterranean coast, where biological agents (together with pharmaceutical products) were allegedly researched and produced. Additional programs would have been started at the CERS in Damascus, which has a biological department. The CERS used to organize weekly international conferences on “Arab Sciences” in order to acquire know-how in the sector. The CERS has also sent its technicians to France to study toxicology and virology. Another center of research (officially marine research) for the development of toxins from animals and marine plants would be active in Latakia.

These structures allegedly produce bacterial agents such as anthrax and cholera and toxins like botulin and ricin (plant toxin). Anthrax is usable even in extreme environmental conditions, while the cholera germ can pollute water and foods. Toxins such as botulin have devastating effects. The possibility of spreading epidemics such as smallpox, the plague and brucellosis is also part of the biological warfare department.

Syria's capacity in the development of biological weapons is no different from other Middle Eastern countries such as Israel, Iraq and Iran. It is an unequivocal fact that a country able to develop and handle aggressive chemical agents can apply that ability in the biological field as well. It is also very hard to distinguish between the military and civil finalities of biological program.

The Syrian biological sector has developed greatly thanks to Russian help, especially in terms of arming missile warheads. With regards to the development of ways to disperse germs and bacteria in the air (and chemical agents as well) the know-how would have been acquired from the University of Aleppo in conjunction with several German universities. The use of biological agents as a weapon of mass destruction is more efficient if those agents are launched with long-range missiles, thus making the agents a strategic, not tactical, weapon.

bashar al assad
Bashar al Assad

Possible foreign intervention

The United States have openly admitted (see the recent public statements of General Martin Dempsey, joint chief of staff of the US army) that there exists no preventive measures that could stop Bashar al Assad's regime from employing aggressive chemical agents. It also seems problematic to recover such agents were they taken from the loyalists and landed in the hands of the rebels. Thus it is a fact that right now the US cannot take action. The most they can do is threaten to take action, as did Barack Obama (August 2nd and December 3rd 2012), Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta. The only thing Israel can do is distribute Diazepam, an antidote against nerve gases, to its military medical facilities.

In order to check Syrian chemical arsenals, international troops would have to be used on the ground in Syria, which is highly improbable for the time being. Nevertheless, the US president has drawn a “red line”, saying that the employment of chemical agents on the part of the regime would cause an immediate intervention of the superpower in the Syrian conflict. Yet even if the “red line” were to be crossed (it would mean that the regime is collapsing), the deployment of troops would take too long to prevent Assad from using the chemical/biological weapons extensively. Neither would it guarantee the securement of stockpiling facilities by the international contingent, seen that according to recent studies the task would require at least 75 thousand soldiers. The truth is that as of today there aren't any countermeasures that could avoid the use and dispersal of aggressive chemical agents.

There are rumors of elite troops from both Western and Arab countries (including instructors from the Czech republic) being presently trained in Jordan (150 of these are allegedly American). Israel would have pressured king Abdallah of Jordan for authorization to fly over the country in case air attacks against bases and stockpiling facilities are needed. There is also an alleged accord between the US and Turkey for the transit and temporary stockpiling of aggressive chemical agents on Turkish ground and in three facilities in Turkey, Israel and Jordan that are presently active and under US supervision. All of these options show that the problem cannot be solved.

The employment of special forces (that would have to fight together with the rebel militias) or an air strike against stockpiling facilities are both problematic. The first option would cause loss of men and raise the problem of having to back rebel groups whose trustworthiness is unknown, the latter would be even riskier, for a bombardment of the facilities could produce a toxic cloud. It has been evaluated that if the chemical agents owned by Syria were to be destroyed safely - this could be done with special incinerators that protect the environment - it could take anywhere from six months (optimistic evaluation) to a year's time (the more realistic evaluation).

Instructions for the use of chemical agents

As we have said, aggressive chemical agents can be inserted inside the nose-cones of artillery projectiles or tank projectiles, missiles and bombs. Syria has the technical know-how to do any of the above.

Speaking of surface-to-surface (SS) missiles, Syria has over 700 Scuds that have striking ranges varying from 300 km (type “B” and “D”) to 5-600 km (type “C”). For lesser distances they can use the SS-26 (also called Iskander 9K720, with an approximate range of 250 km) and the SS-21 (70-80 km). At least 100 of Syria's Scuds of the “B” type can be armed with chemical warheads (especially Sarin and VX) as well as an additional 80 missiles of the “C” type. All of these missile's chemical (or biological) warheads are mounted with aerial dispersion or cluster mechanisms that can magnify their efficiency upon impact.

It also seems that Syria has implemented a packaging system for the chemical agents that can be used in both airplane bombs and artillery projectiles (or even tank projectiles). The difference being that an airplane bomb can carry up to 250kg of explosive (or chemicals) while an artillery projectile, depending on its caliber, can carry anywhere from 1,5 kg to 5,5 kg. A tactical rocket can carry up to 8 kg.

The Syrian army is made up of about 315.000 foot soldiers, 40.000 airforce men, 60.000 belonging to the aerial defense and 8.000 in the navy (423.000 men overall). They own 3700 tanks, over 3.200 artillery cannons, over 1.300 rocket launchers, 1,200 mortars, roughly 400 airplanes and over 170 helicopters. It is clear from these numbers that if Bashar al Assad were to decide to use chemical or biological weapons, he would cause widespread death and destruction. During the last 10 years the importation of weapons from Russia has increased by 580% (this explains Moscow's reluctance to lose such an important client).

The latest developments

Information about the Syrian chemical arsenal is mostly extracted from the statements of defectors and refugees. Adnan Silou, a General that joined the rebels, spoke of them. General Manas Tlass (son of the more well-known Mustafa), who defected to France, also revealed some information. Also, in December, General Abdelaziz Jassim al Shalal, former head of the military police who later joined the rebels, said that Assad's army had used chemical weapons in Homs. It is perhaps the most documented claim (there is a video by Al Jazeera and statements by the US consul in Istanbul) of the possible use of venemous gases by the regime. The agents would have been fired in the neighborhood of Al Bayada in Homs, where loyalist tanks opened fire. The video shows people vomiting, coughing and having trouble breathing before being rushed to the hospital. Perhaps it wasn't Sarin, which has more devastating effects, but something similar to it and less lethal.

On July 24, 2012, the spokesman for the Syrian government, Jihadi Maqdisi, mentioned for the first time that Syria possesses chemical and biological agents and threatened to use them in case of a foreign attack.

Intelligence-wise (we are talking about satellite monitoring systems and drone here) there have been signs of odd movements, such as the transport and binding of precursors, the loading of warheads, unusual activity near the facilities and the transfer of chemical agents to military bases by means of special units.

jabhat al nusra
Jabhat al Nusra

The main problem is not so much that Syria might decide to use the chemical agents, as such an act would mean that Bashar's regime has collapsed. The problem is that these chemical agents might land in the hands of Islamic extremists and terrorists. The military capabilities of the Jabhat Al Nusra militias, made up of foreign Islamic combatants that are doing quite well in the north of the country, are part of the problem.

It is not by chance that on December 11th, 2012, Washington has included the group among the “foreign terrorist organizations”. Jabhat Al Nusra has over 10.000 well-trained and well-equipped men (with funding coming from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar). Of these, about 3.000 are fighting near Aleppo right around the Al Safira base. Also, if any of these aggressive chemical agents were to land in Lebanon (the 2008 adherence of Lebanese authorities to the Convention on chemical weapons is irrelevant), it would be a devastating blow to Israeli national security.