The Syrian Crysis & Chemical Weapons

When Libya was enduring an intervention by NATO before Gaddafi was overthrown and killed, there was concern that country had an undeclared stockpile of chemical weapons. In fact, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found stocks of sulfur mustard agent in January of 2012, as reported by the BBC. Years before, Gaddafi had publicly claimed that Libya had given up its programs for the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The presence of chemical weapons in Syria is even more likely and their means of delivery more sophisticated. Further, Syria is a smaller and more populated country than Libya, increasing the risk of exposure to civilians, or at some point to UN Peacekeepers and refugees, many times greater. Any major intervention in Syria will require that the threat of chemical weapons be countered. Syria’s chemical warfare capability is known to be in a state of readiness and therefore likely a greater threat than any nuclear capability it may have. The presence of Syria’s chemical weapons destabilizes the area and may even affect any decision by Israel about dealing with Iran’s nuclear threat. Syria is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The presence of weapons of WMD stockpiles in Iraq, including chemical weapons, was cited as a justification for Operation Iraqi Freedom. After that operation, efforts were made to locate those weapons, but the results were inconclusive. Possibly Saddam Hussein’s WMD were transferred to Syria. Whether or not they were, Syria itself has been producing chemical weapons, which could be used as a last resort by the Syrian military, and there is a fear that rebels would use those weapons if they could capture them from sites where they are stockpiled. Or, the Free Syria Army (FSA) might pass along such weapons to other (terrorist) factions outside the country, perhaps in Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon. Chemical weapons could be used by irregular pro-government factions against the FSA or civilians.

Most recently, Israel has become alarmed at the prospect that Hezbollah in Lebanon could get its hands on Syrian weapons, perhaps including chemical arms, including warheads for Scud Ds, following recent reports that the FSA had captured a Syrian Air Force Base. Sarin, VX and other nerve agents, along with mustard compounds, can be used in missiles. Sarin is lethal if inhaled even in very small quantities. VX is a deadly nerve agent that resists breaking down in the environment. Mustard is a blistering agent that was used extensively during the 1980 through 1988 Iran-Iraq War.

Syria began developing chemical weapons in 1973, when the Egyptian government reportedly gave Syria artillery shells capable of delivering chemical weapons. Syria has an extensive chemical weapons program, and a variety of delivery methods: missiles, rockets, artillery shells, and air-dropped munitions. The country has been dependent on assistance in procuring important precursor chemicals and equipment from Russia, Egypt, West Germany, France, Iran, North Korea, and possibly other countries over a period of 20 years. Syria has been able to acquire an offensive chemical weapons capability that continues to be the regime's strategic deterrent against Israel, and was rebuilding its chemical weapons capability in 2009, according to satellite images analyzed by Jane's Intelligence Review. Russia has delivered millions of protective masks to the Syrian military.

The estimate from the Turkish, Arab and Western intelligence agencies that have been tracking Syrian efforts since the early 1980s is that Syria has a stockpile of approximately 1,000 tons of chemical weapons, stored in some 50 different cites, mostly located in the northern part of the country that is closer to the Turkish border. Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) teams attached to Turkey’s General Directorate of Civil Defense have been activated in the provinces which border Syria.

Syria's chemical weapons are reportedly being monitored, but their control will remain a challenge in the event of a military intervention. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, tons of military-grade high explosives vanished from within Iraq. Stockpiles of the powerful nitroamine high explosive HMX were subsequently employed against US and coalition forces. If Assad’s authority crumbles in Syria, it is unlikely that the country's 50 chemical storage and manufacturing facilities can be secured in the absence of a major military operation.

The threat is clear and the consequences potentially a humanitarian disaster. Even if Syria’s chemical warfare agent production and storage facilities could be destroyed by air strikes, the downwind dispersal of the chemical agents or their combustion products could expose thousands of people to injury and death.

After WWII, the United States had an enormous stockpile of the same chemical warfare nerve and blister agents as exist in Syria today. In recent years, the US Congress directed the US Army to destroy that material. That mission was assigned to the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency (CMA), with support from other agencies, which has completed the destruction of 27,000 tons of material, in 2.3 million munitions and bulk containers, in the last fifteen years at several facilities in the United States. The mission was accomplished with minimal risk to the public.

The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) assisted the CMA in its mission, focusing on human health for both the worker and the community, particularly related to potential exposure to chemical agents. CDC examined exposure prevention measures such as chemical agent monitoring systems and associated quality assurance, personnel protective equipment selection and use, special air handling provisions, and chemical agent control techniques. CDC also examined chemical agent exposure events for human health risk significance. This involved chemical agent release air dispersion modeling, and reviewing worker exposure information, such as cholinesterase depression data or actual symptoms. CDC can develop air exposure criteria to protect workers and the nearby community, and provide a health-based resource to local health professionals on chemical agent-related issues.

At CMA facilities, chemical munitions and containers were broken down, liquid agents incinerated or hydrolyzed, explosives detonated, and metal components decontaminated. At this time, these facilities are being closed down. Conceivably the equipment could be dismantled, transported, and reassembled at sites overseas. It is likely that no other agency in the world is as capable of doing the job of eliminating the threat of Syria’s chemical weapons as the CMA. The personnel of that agency could be made available to train others in methods and equipment. CDC could work with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Syria.

Absent the steps described, the threat of Syria’s chemical weapons now and in the future will remain a serious one. Such a mission assigned to the CMA will require a significant military mission to support it. Whether such a military operation is to occur in Syria is unknown at this time. Even if a military intervention in Syria occurs, the question of chemical warfare agent production and storage, or deployment, may be ignored.

The opportunity to rid the world of a large amount of chemical weapons may occur in Syria in coming months. Such an opportunity should not be overlooked.

William Ewald served from 1977 to 2003 in the US Army, Reserves, and National Guard. He retired as a Master Sergeant. He was a Chemical Operations NCO and was trained at the US Army Chemical School.


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