A new report from an Israeli think tank cites several scenarios in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad transfers or loses control of chemical weapons. (AFP)
HERZLIYA, ISRAEL — A new Israeli academic report detailing Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities cites “a real and immediate threat” that chemical weapons, agents or precursors could fall into the hands of terrorist organizations.
In a 12-page report released Monday by Israel’s Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), senior research scholar Ely Karmon cites multiple scenarios in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad intentionally transfers or loses control of the country’s vast stockpiles of gas, nerve and blistering agents.
The report, which bolsters one of the White House arguments in favor of military action against the Assad regime, cites the “realistic” possibility of Syria transferring chemical weapons to allied terror groups, including but not limited to Lebanese-based Hezbollah.
It noted that Syria had previously provided long-range rockets and heavy weapons to its Iranian-sponsored ally, and that Hezbollah “could be able to use chemical weapons or agents under Iranian or Syrian guidance.”
The report also flagged Assad’s prospective transfer of chemical weapons to proxy Palestinian organizations, “especially the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command ... one of the most sophisticated and dangerous Palestinian terrorist groups.”
While the Assad government or loyalist militias maintain control of chemical depots and storage sites in most major cities, the ICT report said “it is unclear who holds” facilities in at least two urban areas temporarily held by rebel forces.
“Opposition forces have cemented control over northern and eastern governorates and are continuously trying to overrun Syrian weapons depots, which they have not succeeded to do except for the suspected takeover of a factory outside of Aleppo by Jabha al-Nusra in August 2012,” the report stated.
According to Karmon, “the nightmarish scenario of chemical weapons falling into the hands of the Free Syrian Army’s many local ‘brigades,’ or worse, in the hands of various Islamist and jihadist factions ... could materialize at any moment.”
The ICT scholar said persistent monitoring of the Syrian government and opposition forces is required to assess the growing threat of chemical weapons proliferation.
The report is the first in an ongoing ICT project aimed at gauging the threat and assessing operational responses to the proliferation of Syrian chemical weapons.
Based on open-source data, the Monday report estimates Assad’s arsenal at 1,000 tons, with storage sites in some 50 cities, most of them located until recently along Syria’s northern border with Turkey.
While initially supported by imports from Russia, Egypt, Germany, France, Iran, North Korea and possibly other countries, the report claims stockpiles are indigenously produced and include “traditional agents, such as mustard; more modern agents, such as sarin; and persistent nerve agents, such as VX.”
The report notes that much of Syria’s military-grade arsenal is binary, meaning agents are stored separately and must be combined before lethal use. It listed four sites where sarin and VX are produced, including a sprawling complex established in 2005 and located some 20 kilometers southeast of Aleppo, which the report describes as the country’s premier facility for chemical production, storage and weaponization.
Research, development and testing is led by the Damascus-based Centre d’Etude et Recherche Scientifique, which ICT notes reports directly to Assad and has been the focus of western sanctions for more than a decade.
A second research and development facility called Jamraya is located northwest of Damascus. Established in the 1980s with assistance from the former Soviet Union, the report flags Jamraya as “home to some of the most important strategic military bases in Syria and critical weapons are developed and stored there.”
In a Monday interview, Karmon said it is unlikely that known chemical weapons production and storage facilities would be targeted in any prospective military operation in Syria due to the risk of huge collateral damage from the dispersal of toxic substances.
“These sites, for the most part, must be controlled on the ground through safeguards,” he said.