FPI Fact Sheet on Syria and Chemical Weapons

April 25, 2013

By FPI Policy Director Robert Zarate and Senior Policy Analyst Patrick Christy

The White House’s April 25th letter to congressional leaders states: “Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.”

  • The U.S. Government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states: “Sarin is a human-made chemical warfare agent classified as a nerve agent. Nerve agents are the most toxic and rapidly acting of the known chemical warfare agents. They are similar to certain kinds of pesticides (insect killers) called organophosphates in terms of how they work and what kind of harmful effects they cause. However, nerve agents are much more potent than organophosphate pesticides.”
  • In Iraq, Saddam Hussein used sarin gas in 1988 to kill 5,000 people in the Kurdish city of Halabja.
  • The Japanese terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo used sarin gas in an attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 that killed 13 people and sickened 5,000.

Key U.S. allies and partners, including Britain, France, Israel, and Qatar, have already claimed the Assad regime has used chemical weapons.

  • On April 23th, Israeli Brigadier General Itai Brun, head of the IDF Military Intelligence research and analysis division, said “To the best of our understanding, there was use of lethal chemical weapons. Which chemical weapons? Probably sarin.”
  • On April 18th, the Washington Post reported:  “Britain and France have informed the United Nations that there is credible evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons on more than one occasion since December, according to senior diplomats and officials briefed on the accounts.”

President Obama has repeatedly warned that “chemical weapons moving around or being utilized” by the Assad regime would cross a “red line.”

  • President Obama warned on August 20, 2012: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.  That would change my calculus.  That would change my equation.”
  • President Obama reiterated his warning on March 21, 2013: “The fact that Hizbollah’s ally—the Assad regime—has stockpiles of chemical weapons only heightens the urgency.  We will continue to cooperate closely to guard against that danger. I’ve made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders:  We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists.  The world is watching; we will hold you accountable.”

Use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would clearly violate the 1925 Geneva Protocol.  The Associated Press reported in December 2012: “If Syria used chemical weapons, it would be violating international law—specifically, the 1925 Geneva Protocol that bans the use of chemical and biological weapons. But because it is not a signatory to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, Syria has reserved its right to produce and store chemical weapons. The only other countries that have not ratified that convention are Egypt, Israel, Angola, South Sudan, Somalia and Burma.”

Assad Regime and Chemical Weapons

U.S. government reports indicate the Assad regime possesses chemical weapons stockpile.  Director of National Intelligence’s unclassified report to Congress, the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community of March 12, 2013, noted:  “We assess Syria has a highly active chemical warfare (CW) program and maintains a stockpile of sulfur mustard, sarin, and VX. We assess that Syria has a stockpile of munitions—including missiles, aerial bombs, and possibly artillery rockets—that can be used to deliver CW agents. Syria’s overall CW program is large, complex, and geographically dispersed, with sites for storage, production, and preparation.”

  • In July 2012, the Assad regime admitted for the first time that it possessed weapons of mass destruction, adding the regime would use chemical weapons if attacked.  Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi stated: “No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria… All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.”

Syrian opposition group claims new chemical attacks near Damascus.  The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake reports that the Syrian Support Group (SSG) “issued a report that said two chemical weapons attacks were conducted on April 25 in the southern part of Daraya, a suburb of Damascus. One doctor working from the Daraya medical center said 75 victims were treated for symptoms including ‘muscle spasms, bronchial spasms, headaches, dizziness, vomiting, and miosis’ following a 1 a.m. rocket strike. Another 25 victims were sent to the medical center complaining of similar symptoms when a second attack hit the area at 7 a.m. local time, according to the SSG and a statement from the local coordinating council of Dariya, a media group affiliated with the Syrian opposition.”

The Assad regime operates a number of chemical weapons production and storage facilities throughout Syria.  The Institute for the Study of War’s Joseph Holliday wrote in March 2013: “The regime has a small number of chemical weapons production facilities and a number of storage sites. Comprehensive open-source data on Syrian chemical weapons sites are unavailable, but likely locations have been identified throughout Syria, concentrated in southern and central Syria.”

Intelligence officials believe the Assad regime could use various aircraft—including Sukhoi-22/20, MiG-23, and Sukhoi-24—or missiles to deliver chemical weapons.  NBC’s Robert Windrem reported: “In terms of delivery systems, Syria has a few dozen SS-21 ballistic missiles with a maximum range of 72 miles; 200 Scud-B's, with a maximum range of 180 miles; and 60 to 120 Scud-C's with a maximum range of 300 miles, all of which are mobile and capable of carrying chemical weapons, according U.S. intelligence officials.”
The Assad regime reportedly could deploy weapons within two to six hours of orders being issued.  The New York Times reported: “The head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, warned in a confidential assessment last month that the weapons could now be deployed four to six hours after orders were issued, and that Mr. Assad had a special adviser at his side who oversaw control of the weapons, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported. Some American and other allied officials, however, said in interviews that the sarin-laden bombs could be loaded on planes and airborne in less than two hours.”

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