Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Syria's Chemical Weapons - The Terrorism Threat

International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) Report September 8, 2013
Since the uprising began in Syria in March 2011, more than 100,000 people have been killed, 2 million people have fled the country becoming refugees, and 4.25 million people are internally displaced.
The will of Assad’s forces to fight is still there, but they are struggling to combat the Syrian rebel’s gains until recently. It is believed that the al-Assad regime is desperate enough to use anything in its power to stay the ruling government, including use of any of its poisonous gases, as was the case this past March through May.
Besides the use of chemical warfare by the Syrian government there is a real and immediate threat that chemical weapons, agents or precursors could fall in the hands of terrorist organizations, be it Hezbollah (in which case the regime itself could be willing to provide them to its staunch ally), pro-Syrian Palestinian organizations, the Free Syrian Army and its local units or the various Islamist and jihadists factions like Jabha al-Nusra.
This report is the first part of an ICT project intended to evaluate the threat of proliferation of Syrian chemical weapons to local and regional terrorist organizations and beyond. The report includes information on the status of chemical weapons in Syria and their use updated to mid-June 2013 and an addendum presenting the main points of the United States and French intelligence communities' evaluation concerning the August 21, 2013 chemical attacks in the suburbs of Damascus.1
The Syrian chemical arsenal
After its defeats in its wars against Israel, Syria began to develop a chemical weapons program as a way to deter the Israeli military might.
Syria was heavily dependent on outside help in procuring important precursor chemicals and equipment from Russia, Egypt, West Germany, France, Iran, North Korea, and possibly other countries over a period of 20 years. However Syria, which refused to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and after 1973 began to produce its own chemical weapons, further intensified its program after the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty in 1979. It is believed Syria started producing locally mustard gas as well as sarin in the 1980s.

Syria has one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals, including traditional chemical agents, such as mustard, and more modern agents, such as sarin, and persistent
1 The report is based in great part on the paper by Rachel Schwartz (ICT intern), "Case Study: Syria’s Chemical and Biological Weapons Program and the Use of These Weapons in the Syrian Civil War Today," The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism Website, August 2013, at http://www.ict.org.il/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=Dc-lfZow0Fc%3d&tabid=66.
nerve agents, such as VX. Syria has accumulated since the 1980s a stockpile of approximately 1,000 tons of chemical weapons, stored in some 50 different cities, mostly located in the northern part of the country close to the Turkish border. Since 2009 Syria has been amassing a larger chemical weapons arsenal and engineering more complex chemical compounds.
Syria has a variety of platforms it can use to deliver its chemical weapons including aerial bombs, artillery shells and rockets, and ballistic missiles. In 1993 Syria was even the first to produce tube and rocket artillery rounds filled with mustard-gas-type blistering agents...the first weaponization of its kind.2
Much of Syria’s chemical weapons designed for large-scale military use are binary, or stored as two separate ingredients that must be combined before lethal use, making it hard for its detonation by non-professional elements.
Until July 23, 2012 when the Syrian government implicitly acknowledged possessing stocks of chemical weapons reserved only for national defense against foreign countries, there had been no admittance from Syria that it had chemical weapons.3
Not much is known about the location of the chemical weapons. Are they stored in mass quantities? Are they stored in heavy artillery shells or missile heads? Are they located in close proximity to each other? General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced in April 2013 that the Syrian government keeps moving the chemical weapons,4 specifically its stocks of sarin and mustard gas from storage sites to trucks.5 It seems that the Syrian government is consolidating its chemical arsenal into fewer locations because in December 2012 American intelligence agencies indicated that there had been significant movement of chemical weapons stores as well as indications that the Syrian government had been mixing chemicals.6 According to one information the Russians advised the regime to consolidate their weapons depots into two to four main storage facilities.7
Chemical weapons facilities
Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal can be divided into four types of facilities: production, research and development, dual-infrastructure, and storage.
2 “Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and human impact.” BBC News. 26 April 2013. Web. http://www.bbc.co.uk.wp.test.ebaytoday.ru/news/world-middle-east-22307705
3 MacFarquhar, Neil. "Syria Says Chemical Arms Reserved for Attack From Abroad". New York Times. 23 July 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/24/world/middleeast/chemical-weapons-wont-be-used-in- rebellion-syria-says.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
4 Vandiver, John. “Troops needed to secure Syria’s chemical weapons, some experts say.” Stars and Stripes. 29 May 2013. Web. http://www.stripes.com/news/troops-needed-to-secure-syria-s-chemical- weapons-some-experts-say-1.223510
5 The Tower Staff. “Israeli Air Strikes Reported as Both Rebels and Hezbollah Close In on Syria’s Chemical Weapons.” The Tower. 3 May 2013. Web. http://www.thetower.org/israeli-air-strikes-reported- as-both-rebels-and-hezbollah-close-in-on-syrias-chemical-weapons/
6 Baker, Peter; Mark Landler and David E. Sanger. “Obama’s Vow on Chemical Weapons Puts Him in Tough Spot.” NYTimes. 11 June 2013. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/05/world/middleeast/obamas-vow-on-chemical-weapons-puts-him-in- tough-spot.html?pagewanted=all
7 "Syria 'secures chemical weapons stockpile'". Aljazeera. 23 Dec 2012. Web. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/12/201212221532021654.html
Western specialists have indicated that chemical weapons production facilities of sarin and VX are located at 5 sites: al-Safira, Hama, Homs, Latakia, and Palmyra.8 Storage facilities are located at least at al-Furqlus, Dumayr, Khan Abu Shamat, and the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Scientifiques - CERS).9
Hama - The site is located 47 kilometers north of Homs and 140 kilometers south of Aleppo. The facility was established and began producing missiles in 1993 and today is under the direct control of CERS.
Homs - Located outside the perimeter of the Homs Refinery and is subordinate to CERS. Lattakia - Located on the Syrian northern coast and is subordinated to CERS.
Al-Safira (As Safirah, Al Safir, Safiyah, Aleppo) is located in the northwest of the country on a ridge 1 kilometer south of Al-Safira and 20 kilometers southeast of Aleppo and is four by eight kilometers big. It was established in 2005, and is one of the premier chemical weapons facilities for production, storage, and weaponization including sarin.
Research and Development
Centre d’Etude et Recherche Scientifique - CERS, located in Damascus, is the principal facility for both chemical and biological research, development, testing, production, and storage. The research center concentrates on upgrading chemical and biological war agents and dispersal and delivery systems for those agents. It also works on research for a variety of different weapons. CERS has worked closely with the Syrian military and reports directly to president Bashar al-Assad. It is in charge of operating several other chemical production facilities that have been listed above. For over a decade CERS has been the focus of western sanctions.
Jamraya - Located northwest of Damascus, was established in the 1980s with help from the Soviet Union. It is the most clandestine and highest profile research and development center in Syria. It is home to some of the most important strategic military bases in Syria and critical weapons are developed and stored there.10
8 Pike, John. "Special Weapons Facilities". Global Security. 5 June 2011. Web. http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/syria/facility.htm
9 Pita, Rene. “Analysis of Syria’s Chemical and Biological Threat.” Instituto Espanol de Estadios Estrategicos. 14 April 2012. Web. http://www.ieee.es/en/Galerias/fichero/docs_opinion/2012/DIEEEO33- 2012_AnalisisAmenazaQuimicaBiologicaSiria_RenePita_ENGLISH.pdf
10 “Profile: Syria’s top-secret Jamraya research centre.” BBC. 5 May 2013. Web. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22421732
Image 1- The Syrian military research center at Jamraya [Aljazeera]
Khan Abu Shamat Depot located some 20 kilometers east of Dumayr.
Furqlus Depot- Located approximately 40 kilometers southeast of Homs and 4 kilometers northeast of al-Furlqlus. It is subordinate to the Syrian government.
Masyaf, 7 kilometers northeast of Masyaf, is subordinated to CERS. Palmrya, northeast of Damascus: its status is questionable.
Dumayr, 40 kilometers northeast of Damascus: its status is questionable.
Dual-use infrastructure
Setma Ltd. is located in the Damascus area.
Homs General Fertilizer Company is located on the shore of Lake Katina, a district of Homs, southwest of the city’s center. It is composed of three separate facilities for fertilizer production, two sulfuric acid plants, and an anhydrous ammonia plant.
Homs Oil Refinery (Syrian State Petrol Company) located approximately 5 kilometers west of the center of Homs inside ring road.
Banias Oil Refinery in the city of Banias is subordinate to Sytrol, General Corporation for Refining and Distribution of Petroleum Products, and the Ministry of Petroleum.
The use of chemical warfare in the Syrian civil war
The chemical weapons stores are “in the hands of chemical weapons-trained loyalists of Assad’s Alawite clan...[and] most of the chemical weapons have been transported to Alawite areas in Latakia and near the coast”, so as to fire them using medium range surface-to-surface missiles. This means that irregular militias, who have the possibility to defect from the regime’s control, will have the knowledge to use these chemical ammunitions. Other chemical weapons remain in bases around Damascus and the chief research center CERS “and have been deployed with artillery shells.”11
The Syrian government military has strategically focused on solidifying control of major urban cities and main supply routes and lines of communications between the most strategic areas. The government forces have been able to hold all major cities, except Al- Raqqah, despite facing serious challenges in Aleppo, Dara’a and Dayr Al-Zawr. In Aleppo, Assad forces control the western half of the city, while in Homs Assad officials reported by the beginning of July that they have overhauled the Khaldiveh district as opposition spokesmen deny this declaration.12
However, opposition forces have cemented control over northern and eastern governorates and are continuously trying to overrun Syrian weapons depots, which they have not succeeded to do except for the suspected takeover of a factory outside of Aleppo by Jabha al-Nusra in August 2012.13 According to official Syrian sources, opposition rebels were found to control two containers of sarin in a raid by Syrian government forces on a militant hideout in al-Faraich, Hama.14
From this we can infer that the chemical weapons stores located in the major cities as well as near Lattakia on the coast are held and controlled by Syrian government forces or related militias. In areas near the major cities in flux however, it is unclear who holds these facilities.
Until recently it was difficult to evaluate the accuracy of the information published by France, Britain, the United States, Turkey and Israel, concerning the actual use of chemical weapons by the Syrian army due to its uncertain origin, time and way of delivery, and accessibility to the region.
In December 2012 Assad tested the waters by using limited chemical weapons allegedly against the town of Baba Amr and threatened to use them in al-Zabadani where gas masks were provided to government troops.15
The Assad regime then used chemical weapons at least in four instances between March and May. According to the June 13, 2013 White House statement use of chemical
11 Deutsch, Anthony and Khaled Yacoub Oweis. “Syria’s Chemical weapons program was built to counter Israel”. Reuters. 5 June, 2013. Web. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/04/us-syria-crisis-chemical- idUSBRE9530QC20130604
12 “Arab World.” Foreign Policy. 15 July 2013. Web. http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/category/region/arab_world
13 Baker, Aryn. “Syria’s Civil. War: Mystery Behind a Deadly Chemical Attack.” CNN. 1 April 2013. Web. http://world.time.com/2013/04/01/syrias-civil-war-the-mystery-behind-a-deadly-chemical-attack/
  1. 14  “Syrian Army seizes Sarin gas from rebels.” ZeeNews. 3 June 2013. Web.
  2. 15  "Assad regime distributed gas masks and radiation suits to troops." Asharq-Alawsat. 6 December 2012.
Web. http://www.aawsat.net/2012/12/article55239621.
weapons resulted in an estimated 100-150 deaths in Syria.16
There are also claims, mainly by the regime and Russian officials, that the rebels

have also used chemical weapons against Syrian citizens since the beginning of this year.17
Known chemical attacks by the Syrian army
There are reasonable grounds to believe that limited quantities of toxic chemicals were used since December 2012 in four attacks between March 9 to April 2013. It has not been possible, on the available evidence, to determine the precise chemical agents used, the delivery systems or the perpetrator, although most serious sources have evaluated that the Syrian army or elements of the regime where behind these attacks. See below map prepared by the ICT team: Syria’s chemical weapons and attacks (Map was modified from: http://global-atlas.jrc.it/maps/PUBLIC/2148_Syria_political_A1.jpg).
December 23, 2012 - Homs
On Dec. 23, 2012, an attack in Homs province killed seven and wounded more than 50. The inhalation of poisonous gases was determined as the source of deaths though this has yet to be confirmed. According to one IDF official, this was a “test of the world’s reaction.”18
The symptoms of those affected suggest that the Syrian regime utilized the BZ nerve gas, also known as Agent 15. According to Dr. Nashwan Abu-Abdo, symptoms included asphyxiation, mental confusion including hallucinations and behavior changes, and general or partial seizures.19
March 19, 2013, Khan al-Assal
The alleged attack in the northern town killed a reported 31 people and caused symptoms in roughly 300 others. Both sides called for an inquiry and blamed each other for the attacks.
“consistent with cholinergic syndrome”. This syndrome is a common effect of “exposure to nerve gas.” He noted that
the patients had respiratory - including shortness of breath, bronchospasm, a lot of secretion and respiratory failure requiring mechanical ventilation, large concentration
16 Feickert, Andrew, Paul K Kerr, and Mary Beth Nikitin. “Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress.” Congressional Research Service. 1 July 2013, at http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R42848.pdf. See also Julian Perry Robinson, "Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria," Harvard Sussex Program Occasional Paper, Issue 4 (26 June 2013).
17 “Russia Criticizes UN Report on Syrian Human Rights Abuses.” RiaNovosti. 4 June 2013. Web. http://en.rian.ru/russia/20130604/181503953.html
  1. 18  Baker, Landler and Sanger. “Obama’s Vow on Chemical Weapons Puts Him in Tough Spot.”
  2. 19  Spencer, Richard. “Syria Homs Attack Might Have Included Use of Chemical Weapons”. The Telegraph
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9806675/Syria-Homs-attack-may-have- included-use-of-chemical-weapons.html
Dr. Zaher Sahloul, president of the Syrian-American Medical Association, stated
that the patients he saw in Khan al-Assal had symptoms
oxygen; and also neurologic symptoms - confusion, convulsions, and some of them went into comas; and also eye symptoms.”20
Syrian doctors in Aleppo transferred blood samples to Reyhanli, Turkey. The White House noted that in this case there were strong signs and “some degree of varying confidence” that Syrian government forces had utilized sarin gas in combat.21
Allegations over the perpetrators of the attack continue. On July 9, 2013, the Russian government accused the Bashair al-Nasr brigade, an affiliate of the Free Syrian Army, of firing a sarin-filled “Bashair-3 unguided projectile” into the town. These allegations followed a UN declaration that “limited quantities of toxic chemicals” had indeed been utilized in Khan al-Assal, but that it had been impossible to identify the perpetrators of the attack.22
March 19, 2013, Al-Otaybeh
On the same days as the Khan al-Assal attack, Syrian activists uploaded video clips of victims of an alleged chemical bombardment of Al-Otaybeh, shown struggling to breathe. One of the videos features an interview with a local doctor, who suggested his patients have suffered from exposure to an organophosphate chemical. He noted that he treated one of the men with atropine, a remedy for exposure to nerve agents. Douma officials, a neighboring town, have stated that they have conserved six corpses linked to chemical weapons attacks, with some having died in Al-Otaybeh.23
March 24, 2013, Adra
The Local Co-ordination Committees, a group of Syrian activists, stated that dozens had been wounded and at least 2 killed when Adra was attacked by Syrian army rocket launchers with “chemical phosphorous bombs.” The injured were reported suffering from muscular cramping and respiratory problems. A video that featured on The Shaam News Network showed further symptoms including “convulsions, excess saliva, narrow pupils and vomiting.”24
April 13, Sheikh Maqsoud, Aleppo
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that two women and two children had been killed due to exposure to "gases from bombs dropped by an
20 Hilleary, Cecily. “What We Know About Chemical Weapons in Syria.” Voice of America. 2 May 2013. Web. http://www.voanews.com/content/what-we-know-about-chemical-weapons-in-syria/1653286.html 21 Fahim, Kharim. “Still More Questions Than Answers on Nerve Gas in Syria.” NYTimes. 11 June 2013. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/11/world/middleeast/still-more-questions-than-answers-on-nerve- gas-in-syria.html?pagewanted=all
22 BBC. “Russia Claims Syria Rebels Used Sarin at Khan al-Assal” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world- middle-east-23249104
23 “Syria chemical weapons allegations.” BBC News. 17 May 2013. Web. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22557347
24 Ibid.
aircraft on the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood.” Online footage allegedly showed victims “frothing at the mouth and twitching, both symptoms of exposure to nerve gas.”25 Twelve more people were injured, a majority of them succumbing to illness following exposure to the original victims of the attack.26
The final death toll of the attack states that 31 people were killed, including 10 soldiers, and wounded scores more.27 United Nations investigators in Geneva reported on the same day that they had found “reasonable grounds to believe limited quantities of toxic chemicals were used” in Aleppo, Damascus, and Idlib.28

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