Sunday, August 5, 2012

Syria's Stockpile of Chemicals

With the recent announcement that the al-Assad regime would not use chemical weapons against its civilian population to quash the current year and a half old uprising, I thought it was time to look at a couple of sources that provide us with information regarding Syria's chemical weapons capabilities since it is an issue that, until recently, received minimal media coverage.

The NuclearThreat Initiative (NTI), a non-partisan, non-profit organization with a mission to reduce the risk of the use of weapons of mass destruction, states that Syria is suspected of having one of the most advanced chemical weapons capabilities in the Middle East.  Syria’s initial sources of chemical weapons were supplied by Egypt prior to the October 1973 war with Israel; artillery shells containing sarin and mustard gas that were never utilized.  From this humble beginning, a cottage industry developed and blossomed.  By the beginning of the new millennium, it is estimated that Syria was spending between $1 billion and $2 billion dollars annually on its ballistic missile and chemical and biological weapons capabilities.

Since the 1970s, Syria has developed the capability to produce mustard gas, sarin and possibly VX nerve agent; many analysts feel that Syria's arsenal of CW is the most formidable of any Arab State.  Largely, it is believed that Syria felt it necessary to develop these weapons to trump Israel's possession of nuclear weapons and to counter Israel's superiority in both artillery and armour.

As background information, let's look at these chemical agents in turn:

1.) Mustard gas is also known as sulphur mustard.  Mustard gas is known as a vesicant or blistering agent because it causes blistering of the skin, eyes and mucous membranes, particularly in the respiratory tract.  It is either odourless or has the smell of onions, garlic or mustard.  It can also damage DNA.

2.) Sarin is classified as a nerve agent; these chemical warfare agents are considered among the most toxic and rapidly acting of all chemical warfare agents.  They are similar in nature to insect pesticides known as organophosphates and were originally designed for use as pesticides.  Exposure is either through skin contact, through respiration or through ingestion when sarin is mixed with water.  Post-exposure symptoms to odourless sarin vapour appear within seconds and within minutes to hours after exposure to liquid sarin.  Sarin exposure prevents the proper operation of the chemicals that regulate the body's glands and muscles; as a result, exposure to small doses can impact the victim's ability to breathe and can result in changes to heart rate and blood pressure and exposure to large doses results in loss of consciousness, paralysis and respiratory failure.

3.) VX is also classified as a nerve agent, once again similar to organophosphate pesticides.  Exposure is through skin contact, eye contact or through respiration.  VX is primarily a liquid exposure hazard and does not mix easily with water.  VX is the most potent of all nerve agents, particularly if exposure is through skin surfaces.  Symptoms of exposure are similar to what is experienced with exposure to sarin.

In 1971, under a Presidential directive, Syria mobilized the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), a "civilian"agency that, by 1973, had become the engine for the local development of weaponry for the Syrian Army.  Since it quickly became apparent that Syria would not be able to develop nuclear weapons, President al-Assad and the director general of the SSRC, Syrian nuclear physicist Abdullah Watiq Shahid, did a mid-course correction and began to explore the option of developing chemical and biological warfare agents.  At one point and in what now appears to be an extremely ironic move, the SSRC even secured funding from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for the purchase of equipment.  The SSRC was responsible for setting up the first facility for the production of chemical weapons, producing di-chloro, a main source of sarin.  Some of Syria's most important sources of knowledge for the manufacturing of chemical weapons came from the USSR, Russia, West Germany, France and Iran.

Syria has been producing chemical weapons since the 1980s at facilities located near Hama, Homs and Al-Safira in the Aleppo region as well as Damascus, names that have become familiar as sites of heavy military and rebel action in recent weeks.  Syria relies on foreign sources for equipment and precursor chemicals with Iran being identified as a major supplier of Syria's chemical weapons requirements.  In 2005, Syria signed a mutual defence pact with Iran, allowing Iran to store its weapons and missiles in Syria.  In addition, Syria agreed to store hazardous materials for Iran and Iran would supply military aid to Syria including technology for weapons of mass destruction and an upgrade of Syria's chemical and ballistic missile systems.  In return, Syria will continue to arm Hezbollah, the Iran-sponsored terrorist group.  This agreement was structured so that both nations would protect each other from international pressures should either nation come under the threat of sanctions or military action.  This agreement greatly complicates any efforts to unseat the al-Assad family, particularly through military intervention.

Thanks to Russia, China and North Korea, Syria has one of the largest arsenals of offensive weapons in the Middle East.  Syria has a large stockpile of Scud and short-range ballistic missiles.  According to Global Security, in 2003, Syria has a combined total of between several hundred and a thousand Scud and SS-21 missiles, capable of delivering chemical warheads.  Syria has also developed a longer-range Scud missile, the Scud D, with a range of 700 kilometres.  The Scud D was built with the aid of North Korean technology.

 From this information, you can quite quickly see that Syria has availed itself of the technology from a diverse selection of the world's superpowers, major partner countries in NATO and a handful of the world's pariah states.  This has allowed Syria to develop a home-grown chemical warfare industry that is second-to-none in the Middle East.  The greatest danger lies in the fact that Syria has greater destructive capabilities than either Iran or Iraq yet, until recently, these capabilities appear to have flown well under the radar of the world's leadership and the mainstream media.  Unfortunately for Syria's civilians, the 18 month long uprising could have a very, very ugly ending if the ruling class is cornered and desperation sets in.  It appears that they have the ability to inflict extreme pain if they so choose.


  1. Assad is definitely not a nice person but many of the groups opposing him are not much better. Freedom vs oppression gets complicated by Sunni vs Shia which is further complicated by America vs Iran.

    Hezbollah, the Iran-sponsored terrorist group - in what way are they a terrorist group, a sincere question? When it comes to the Middle East and terrorist designations, I keep thinking of America where the Indians were savages and carried out atrocities while the Whites were innocent victims who never did anything aggressive, merely defended themselves.

  2. It all depends on your classification of terrorist, doesn't it? The United States, Canada, Israel and Great Britain list Hezbollah as a terrorist group, however, the EU refuses to since Hezbollah is involved in the political process in the Middle East. That said, some top Hezbollah officials have been listed by the EU as terrorists.

    You're right. It is odd and very, very complicated.