Saturday, March 31, 2012

In Focus: Syria's Chemical Weapons

The Syrian regime's "toxic assets" are formidable. Foreign Policy:

Syria is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), an international agreement that outlaws the production, possession, and use of chemical weapons and requires states that join the treaty to destroy their stockpiles. Therefore, precise information on the nature and quantity of its suspected chemical agents is lacking. The Syrian government claims that it does not have a chemical weapons program, only research sites for medical civilian use. However, the CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies estimate that the country has a chemical weapons program dating from the early 1980s that is one of the largest and most developed in the world. Syria is also suspected of having a biological weapons program, but it is believed to be far less sophisticated than its chemical program. Thanks to assistance and knowledge obtained from the Soviet Union (and later Russia), Egypt, West Germany, France, Iran, North Korea, and possibly other countries over a period of 20 years, Syria was able to acquire an offensive chemical weapons capability that continues to serve as the regime's strategic deterrent against Israel's assumed nuclear capability and, perhaps more important, as an insurance policy against potential domestic threats. Syria allegedly has large quantities of mustard gas and sarin, which the regime has integrated over the years into its vast repertoire of missiles, rockets, artillery shells, and airdropped munitions. Mustard gas is a blistering -- though not necessarily fatal -- agent that was used extensively in World War I and reportedly during the 1980 through 1988 Iran-Iraq War. Sarin, which is lethal if inhaled even in very small quantities, is the nerve agent that killed 13 people and sickened about 1,000 during a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 by the Japanese cult of Aum Shinrikyo. In addition to mustard gas and sarin, Syria may also be in possession of VX, a deadly nerve agent that resists breaking down in the environment. In short, Syria's chemical weapons program is thought to be massive and diverse and can be used in combat operations and delivered through various means.