Syria has never officially acknowledged that it possesses chemical weapons, choosing only to issue veiled statements that point to their existence. For example, Hafez al Assad said in 1990:
Israel is still superior technologically; and it is capable of inflicting on the Arabs human disasters in the case of war. But Arabs can, with what they have, inflict the same disasters on it.
According to War of Nerves, “The main Syrian organization responsible for developing nerve agents was the Center for Scientific Studies and Research . . . Although Syria had extensive mineral deposits of phosphorus, it relied for chemical precursors and specialized production equipment on commercial suppliers in West Germany, Switzerland, and India. By the end of the 1980s, Syria had built chemical weapons production plants that were reportedly located near the cities of Allepo, Homs, and Hama.”
Despite this information, no one really has an accurate estimate of the Syrian stockpile, though they are assumed to have both blister and nerve agents. As the rebels continue to make gains, there are concerns that Bashar al Assad may use chemical weapons. In Turkey, these concerns are augmented by worries that Assad could overshoot and accidentally target Turkish border towns with either ballistic missiles or artillery shells. To help protect against the ballistic missile threat, Ankara has asked for Patriot missiles defenses, though, as I have noted, Patriot is not infallible and should not be viewed as a panacea. However, as has been noted by others, site security, the potential use of chemical weapons by the rebels, or the theft of weapons/chemical precursors should not be dismissed as fantasy.
Thus, analysts should balance fears about Assad’s chemical weapons, with a sober assessment about Syrian security at suspected chemical weapons sites. No one really has any idea about who is guarding Syria’s chemical facilities. Are they well trained and loyal to Assad? Could they be co-opted by elements of the opposition? What would happen if the rebels overran a Syrian chemical weapons facility? What would happen if rebels allied with Al Qaeda overrun a Syrian chemical weapons site? And finally, has Syria instilled a sense of good practices for security provisions at Syrian chemical weapons sites? No one really knows the answers to any of these questions.
I do know that proper site security has three essential elements: 1) physical barriers to entry, 2) well trained guards, 3) an established system of accountancy. History does provide a lesson about site security at large chemical weapons sites in cash-strapped countries. Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union, was left with a huge chemical weapons stockpile and was facing financial difficulties. Thus, some of its facilities fell into a state of disrepair and security standards were called into question. American aid programs aimed at helping shore up security at Russian WMD facilities revealed a lot about Russian security practices during and after the cold war.
Given the history of Russian – Syrian cooperation, I would assume that there is some overlap in training and, possibly, similar methods used at sensitive military sites. At Russian chemical weapons sites for example, Amy Smithson writes that inside facilities “munitions were kept in racks, similar to the storage of wine bottles, or stacked horizontally on wooden pallets. Bulk storage drums were elevated on beams to facilitate monitoring for corrosion or clean up efforts in the event of a leak.” The munitions were numbered, but certain sites lacked a uniform standard when it came to tamper seals. Moreover, according to Smithson’s interviews, certain sites lacked necessary protections like sturdy locks, appropriate fencing, and well-trained personnel.
As for weapon accountancy, “officers are personally responsible for the chemical weapons stored within a given number of buildings, usually one to five buildings. With smaller weapons such as artillery shells, then one officer is responsible for hundreds of weapons. If one is missing, the officer is held responsible.” In the Russian case, electronic records were not kept. If Syria follows similar practices, the collapse of the regime, combined with the likely fleeing of Assad loyalists from their military bases, could rob the international community of information vital to keep control over chemical weapon munitions. Even if Syria does keep electronic records, the possibility of looting, or the destruction of vital information is certainly a possibility.
As for chemical weapons precursors, Russian soldiers are reported to have dipped dipsticks into drums to keep track of the chemicals. The measurements were then recorded on paper. They also conducted a chemical analysis of the weapons to ensure that the liquid they were measuring was in fact the chemical weapons precursor. These procedures, while certainly not in line with U.S. practices, are probably sufficient to prevent theft – assuming that the guards remain in their place. Thieves can’t simply walk off with large drums of chemical precursors, and chemical munitions, while small, need lifting equipment to move around. However, all bets are off if a beleaguered Syrian army unit tasked with guarding the weapons come under heavy and sustained attack by a determined enemy. Moreover, if Assad falls and his army abandons their positions, a determined group, or even a large number of men with minimal means, could have time to access the site and make off with chemical weapons shells.
Without a rigid system of accountancy, outside forces, whether they be Syrian, American, Turkish, or from the OPCW, would have an incredibly difficult time determining if anything was missing. This is especially true when one considers that tons of chemical precursors are stored in very large storage tanks. Unless an outsider could cross reference what he/she finds with individual statements from the accountable officer and then reference those with supporting documents, it seems damn near impossible to ensure that a determined group could not have skimmed some liquid off the top.
Moreover, does Syria use tamper proof seals to ensure that no one has tried to access sensitive material? Absent some sort of seal, outside inspectors would not know if someone had access to the site. In Russia, there are reports that this practice was not widely followed, thus raising more questions about how one would account for all of Syria’s chemical precursors in a chaotic post-Assad contingency.
Lastly, there is precedent for terrorist groups being able to manufacture chemical weapons. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikiyo was able to build a chemical weapons manufacturing facility in Japan and manufacture Sarin gas. The cult then used the gas in coordinated chemical attacks in Tokyo on multiple occasions. This demonstrates that scenarios involving rogue groups being able to manufacture and use chemical weapons are not implausible.
Thus, the focus on Syrian chemical weapons should be expanded to explore these numerous outstanding questions. To date, they have not yet been sufficiently addressed in the reporting about the topic. We should all be asking ourselves about preparations to ensure that chemical precursors are not stolen. In Turkey, it would be helpful to know if soldiers on the border, foreign or otherwise, will be issued atropine injectors and chemical suits. More broadly, we all assume that the U.S. is watching sites with drones/satellites, but are those enough? And what else can countries on the border do to chip in? Moreover, what would the international community do if one of these sites are overrun? Again, we just don’t know.
Stern warnings are necessary, but prudent planning is also needed to prepare for all scenarios. Thus, analysts and the media should move away from singularly reporting on potential chemical weapons use and also focus on these broader issues. And in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, more focus should be paid to preparations being made to protect against the possible use of these weapons. This should include a more comprehensive dialogue about preparations for military units and contingencies for citizens living on the border.