As the fights in Syria continue, and the international community is unable to stop the slaughter that last for over a year, there are many other technical aspects related to this country that should worry the big democracies. One is represented by the fate of Syria’s chemical warfare. The main players in the next government in Damascus are not known, but the need to rely on a democratic – non-jihadist – government would be more than wishful thinking. However, the world is worried and is hoping/wishing/sending the message that they would prefer that the chemical stockpile will be transferred into ‘democratic hands’.
Till then, a short review of Syria’s chemical dangers.
The legal framework
Syria is not part of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and its support for the ban on WMD was only at the declarative level. It is signatory of the Biological Warfare Convention but has not ratified it yet. Also, it is part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and maintains a civil nuclear program. The international community tried for years to investigate suspicions that Dair Alzour facility produce plutonium but failed to obtain clear evidences. However, the same was said about the chemical warfare that was officially declared by officials in Damascus a couple of years ago. The declarations of the officials were directed against possible attacks from abroad.
With an international community too busy with the London Olympic Games, the crisis in Europe and the summer holidays to intervene, the only possible target of the declarations could be only the State of Israel, where the official declarations were very cautious.
The history of chemical weapons
The involvement of Syrian authorities for developing the stockpile of chemical weapons started in the early 1980, according among others, to a declaration of the then CIA director William Webster in 1989. With the help of Russia and other big powers – France, among others – Syria succeeded to have it. It is also said that the first chemical weapons were offered by Egypt in 1973, on the eve of the attack on Israel, but the main provider seems to be the same Moscow. After Egypt and Israel signed the basic treaty in 1979, this support for Damascus took and end and Moscow became officially the main direct provider.
As in many other countries with problematic democracies and long history of oppression of their own citizens – see Iran, North Korea, for instance – such weapons involves a lot of investment and under the table negotiations with the big powers – to be read corruption. As many other countries in the area, the excuse of the regime for such programs was that they feel threatened by the state of Israel, a lame excuse to justify their underdevelopment and lack of any concerns for the fate of their ‘people’. However, the acceleration of the efforts towards acquiring chemical weapons was determined as well following various conflicts with Turkey, either due to the support of Syria for the Kurdish independence, or the various water sharing conflicts over the Euphrate river. The so-called political ‘Muslim’ unity manifests rather when it is about a hate-based cause.
For the moment, it is supposed that it manufactures: Sarin, VX, mustard gas and Tabun. The production is developed at least in five locations, many of them the playground for different recent fights: Al Safir – where it probably it is hosted as well a Scud missile base, Cerin – where the biological weapons are developed -, Hama – where cyanide gas was used in 1982 against an uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood -, Homs, Latakia and Palmyra. Some of the biological weapons that the Syrian scientists developed could be: anthrax, tularemia, cholera, ricin, canulpox. It is also said that Syria helped Russia to install anthrax in missile warheads.
The current Syrian production could be of few hundred tons of chemical agent per year. The clear locations and the exact capabilities remain at a great extent vague.
Moscow continue to be a strong supporter of Assad’s regime – and latest media news outlined that his glamorous and British educated wife found refuge in Putin’s Russia. And, as in many other post-Cold War cases, the old people from the old guards continued to get involved in various businesses with or without the direct support of their new bosses. Some paid for this as it was the case of retired Lieutenant General Anatoliy Kuntsevich in 1996, found guilty for shipping 800-kilograms of precursor chemicals to Syria.
Both Moscow and Washington are trying to deter Assad – wonder how do they keep in touch nowadays? – and his cronies to give up the idea of using the chemical weapons.
The big question will be how to keep a tight control of the nuclear capacities and the chemical stockpile in the middle of the chaos. Among all the ‘spring’ countries, Syria presents the most dangerous situation and thus, the old enemies should decide to work together. Once again, at least when it comes to the Middle East affairs, the EU gave another proof of inadequacy.