Syrian Site Security: An Educated Guess (Updated with new information)

Foreign Policy has published an excellent piece by R. Jeffrey Smith that helps to fill in many of the unanswered questions I posed in an earlier blog post I wrote about Syrian site security. In light of this new information, I am re-posting and updating my original blog post to include the latest information.


After years of calculated ambiguity, former Syrian spokesman Jihad Makdissi confirmed Syria’s possession of chemical weapons in July 2012. Despite Makdissi’s statement,  Damascus has never officially declared its chemical weapons stockpile and has instead chosen to follow a policy of calculated ambiguity.

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.”

Smith writes that American officials believe that Syria possesses between 350  and 400 metric tons of chemical precursors and is suspected of having sarin, mustard, and VX. Notably, Smith reports that U.S. officials believes that “Syria devised its nerve weapons as binary agents.” This means that the chemical precursors are stored separately in their delivery vehicle and are not mixed until right before or during the flight to the target.

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. While Smith notes that the units assigned to guarding the chemical facilities are loyal and well trained, it is impossible to know how rigorous they are in their accounting of Syrian precursor agents and chemical delivery vehicles. Moreover, there has been no open-source information about Syrian chemical facilities and if they are designed to defend against a sustained and well coordinated attack by determined individuals.

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 comes 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. While the attack took years to plan and was not terribly effective, it nevertheless led to panic. It also demonstrated that scenarios involving rogue groups being able to manufacture and use chemical weapons, while improbable, are not implausible.

To help prepare for a worst case scenario, Smith reports that U.S. and British special forces are training Turkish commandoes to secure chemical weapons facilities. This training is likely to include how to operate in a chemical environment. The U.S. is also reported to have sent to Turkey chemical protection suits and, I am assuming, atropine injectors for the Turkish commando units. Moreover, Turkish planners, according to the report, are worried about the panic and massive influx of refugees after a chemical attack. They are also concerned about the threat of a chemical cloud wafting over the border and endangering Turkish civilians on the border. In either case, Turkey and the United States, according to the report, are taking steps to train the Turkish military and Turkish first responders.

Nevertheless, the chaos in a post-Assad transition, combined with the uncertainty of chemical accountancy by Assad’s forces, is likely to pose a number of significant problems in the future. Beyond site security, troops/inspectors/officials will be left with the task of accounting for Syrian chemical weapons/precursor agents. It is far from certain how this task will unfold. Moreover, scant attention has been paid to this issue.

Stay tuned . .

About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
This entry was posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria, Turkey, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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