Western intelligence agencies suspect Syria’s government has several hundred tons of chemical weapons scattered across as many as twenty sites throughout the country, the Washington Post reported yesterday. This heightens concerns about the ability to secure the arsenals in the event of a complete breakdown of authority in the war-torn nation, US and Middle Eastern officials added.
Western officials in the Washington Post report noted that they are monitoring the storage sites, but expressed growing fear that they have not identified every location. They also raised concern over some of the deadly weapons being stolen or used by Syrian troops against civilians. ‘We think we know everything, but we felt the same way about Libya,’ a former American intelligence official who was briefed on US preparations for both conflicts told the Post. ‘We had been on the ground in Libya, yet there were big surprises, both in terms of quantities and locations.’
Due to the risks posed by the stockpile, the US intelligence community has devoted enormous resources to monitoring facilities via satellite imagery and by developing plans to safeguard the weapons if the crisis worsens, current and former US officials noted in the report. Nevertheless, the officials acknowledged, in the same report, the difficulty in securing chemical depots inside Syria, given the fighting underway and the likelihood of fierce resistance from the Syrian army to any incursions by outside forces.
In August, a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, said the Assad regime would not use chemical weapons against its people, but warned that it would unleash its arsenal against what he called ‘foreign invaders’. Following Syria’s unprecedented declaration, President Obama cautioned the Syrian government that any deployment of its chemical weapons would cross a ‘red line’ and invite an immediate response by the West.
Israeli Intelligence officials are concerned that Syria’s chemical weapons will fall into the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon. In an annual security cabinet briefing earlier this week, Israel’s intelligence heads told ministers that the country is constantly monitoring chemical weapons caches in Syria, adding that any attempt to smuggle chemical weapons to Hezbollah may lead to an Israeli operation – which could result in an outbreak of violence along the northern border.