Intelligence Services Allege Significant Stockpiles of Gases, Missiles at Military Bases Could Be Targets Amid Unrest
August 27, 2011
By Jay Solomon
WASHINGTON—The U.S. and Israel are closely monitoring Syria’s suspected cache of weapons of mass destruction, fearing that terror groups could take advantage of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad to obtain blistering agents, nerve gas and long-range missiles, according to officials from both countries.
U.S intelligence services believe Syria’s nonconventional weapons programs include significant stockpiles of mustard gas, VX and Sarin gas and the missile and artillery systems to deliver them.
United Nations investigators also recently concluded that Damascus had been secretly constructing a nuclear reactor with North Korean help before Israeli jets destroyed the site in late 2007. U.S. and U.N. nonproliferation officials continue to worry that Pyongyang may have provided Syria with additional nuclear-related equipment.
“We are very concerned about the status of Syria’s WMD, including chemical weapons,” Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, said in an interview. “Together with the U.S. administration, we are watching this situation very carefully.”
Israel has historically held concerns about the fall of the Assad regime, which has largely kept the Syria-Israel border quiet for the past 40 years. Still, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has increasingly voiced support for democratic change in Damascus.
“We see a lot of opportunity emerging from the end of the Assad regime,” Mr. Oren said.
A senior U.S. official said Syria’s suspected chemical weapons arsenal “is of great importance and…under intense study.”
U.S. and Israeli officials won’t disclose exactly how they are keeping tabs on Syrian weaponry. But in the past, the U.S. and Israel have tracked activities at Syrian military installations using satellites and human spies. In 2008, the George W. Bush administration released detailed photographs and other intelligence of a reactor allegedly set to produce weapons-grade plutonium on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria.
Washington’s concerns about Syria mirror in some ways those held about Libya, where U.S. intelligence agencies are trying to help rebels secure mustard gas, shoulder-fired missiles and light arms amassed by Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in recent decades. The Obama administration is concerned these weapons could fall into the hands of militant groups and terrorist organizations operating across North Africa and the Middle East.
During a short-lived détente with the U.S. that began in 2003, Col. Gadhafi gave up the equipment needed to develop nuclear weapons.
Mr. Assad’s government has repeatedly denied that it has developed any nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. It accuses Israel of having developed the largest nuclear and chemical weapons arsenal in the Middle East, a charge Israel neither confirms nor denies.
Syria is one of six nations that isn’t a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the production and stockpiling of chemical weapons.
U.S. and Western intelligence services view Damascus as a central player in a global proliferation network that includes North Korea, Iran and the militant groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
U.S. officials believe North Korea has assisted both Damascus and Tehran in developing medium- and long-range missile systems. U.N. investigators also concluded in a recent report that Syria and Iran oversee sophisticated smuggling networks that move light arms and Katyusha missiles into Lebanon and the Palestinian territories via sea and land. Last year, the U.S. charged Syria with transferring long-range missile technologies to Hezbollah, a charge Damascus has denied.
A 2009 report by the Central Intelligence Agency said: “Syria has had a [chemical weapons] program for many years and already has a stockpile of CW agents, which can be delivered by aircraft, ballistic missiles and artillery rockets.”
Current and former U.S. officials said Syria has at least five sites where it produces chemical-weapons agents, including mustard gas, Sarin and VX. Mustard gas is a blistering agent used extensively in World War I. Sarin and VX are nerve agents that are considered more lethal.
But the officials said these facilities are difficult to track as they are spread across Syria and centered in such cities as Damascus, Hama, Latakia and Aleppo. Some production facilities are at military facilities that also store Syria’s Scud missiles.
U.S. officials said there are no indications that the Assad regime has transferred chemical weapons to Hezbollah or Hamas. They also stressed that there are no indications that any Syrian weapons facilities have been compromised or are vulnerable.
Still, U.S. officials said there are worries that this situation could change if Syria follows Libya into a period of prolonged unrest or civil war. There have already been reports of some Syrian military units splintering into pro- and antiregime elements, although the overall structure of the armed forces appears intact, U.S. officials said.
The level of U.S. concern about the stockpiles would grow should Syria descend into even deeper chaos or full-blown civil war, a U.S. official said. “That scenario is on the radar screen, and a lot of people are watching this closely, but we’re not there right now,” the official said.
Nonproliferation experts are particularly concerned that Syrian army units could be diverted away from guarding the weapons sites if the instability in the country continues. There are also fears that elements of the Syrian army could seek to sell artillery shells tipped with chemical or agents.
“The fear is fragmentation,” said Leonard Spector, head of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, an independent think tank in Washington. “If you have a situation where the military fragments, or where some of the locations are overrun, then you have all these other contingencies you have to plan for.”
—Adam Entous contributed to this article.