The Specter of Syrian Chemical Weapons

The Specter of Syrian Chemical Weapons

August 2, 2012 | 0901 GMT


By Scott Stewart

The unraveling of the al Assad regime in Syria will produce many geopolitical consequences. One potential consequence has garnered a great deal of media attention in recent days: the possibility of the regime losing control of its chemical weapons stockpile. In an interview aired July 30 on CNN, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said it would be a “disaster to have those chemical weapons fall into the wrong hands — hands of Hezbollah or other extremists in that area.” When he mentioned other extremists, Panetta was referring to local and transnational jihadists, such as members of the group Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been fighting with other opposition forces against the Syrian regime. He was also referring to the many Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which have long had a presence in Syria and until recently have been supported by the al Assad regime.

The fear is that the jihadists will obtain chemical weapons to use in terrorist attacks against the West. Israel is also concerned that Palestinian groups could use them in terrorist attacks inside Israel or that Hezbollah could use such weapons against the Israelis in a conventional military battle. However, while the security of these weapons is a legitimate concern, it is important to recognize that there are a number of technical and practical considerations that will limit the impact of these weapons even if a militant group were able to obtain them.

Militant Use of Chemical Weapons

Militant groups have long had a fascination with chemical weapons. One of the largest non-state chemical and biological weapons programs in history belonged to the Aum Shinrikyo organization in Japan. The group had large production facilities located in an industrial park that it used to produce thousands of gallons of ineffective biological agents. After the failure of its biological program, it shifted its focus to chemical weapons production and conducted a number of attacks using chemical agents such as hydrogen cyanide gas, phosgene and VX and sarin nerve agents.

Jihadists have also demonstrated an interest in chemical weapons. The investigation of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing found that bombmaker Abdul Basit (aka Ramzi Yousef) had added sodium cyanide to the large vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated in the Trade Center’s basement parking garage. The cyanide was either consumed or so widely scattered by the huge blast that its effects were not noticed at the time of the attack. The presence of the

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There have been other examples as well. In February 2002, Italian authorities ar Moroccan men who were found with about 4 kilograms (9 pounds) of potassium allegedly were planning to attack the U.S. Embassy in Rome.

In June 2006, Time magazine broke the story of an alleged al Qaeda plot to atta the United States using improvised devices designed to generate hydrogen cyan was reportedly aborted because the al Qaeda leadership feared it would be ineff

In 2007, jihadist militants deployed a series of large vehicle-borne improvised ex augmented with chlorine gas against targets in Iraq. However, the explosives in inflicted far more casualties than the gas. This caused the militants to deem the chlorine to the devices as not worth the effort, and the Iraqi jihadists abandoned warfare experiment in favor of employing vehicle-borne improvised explosive de chemical kicker.

There have also been several credible reports in Iraq of militants using chemical in improvised explosive device attacks against coalition forces, but those attacks have been largely ineffective.

Difficult to Employ

Using chemical munitions on the battlefield presents a number of challenges. Th sufficiently concentrating the chemical agent to affect the targeted troops. In ord heavy concentrations of the agent, chemical weapon attacks were usually delive artillery bombardment using chemical weapons shells. Soviet military chemical w relied heavily on weapons systems such as batteries of BM-21 multiple rocket la can be used to deliver a massive amount of ordnance to a targeted area. Additio difficult to control the gas cloud created by the massive barrage. There were inst War I and in the Iran-Iraq War in which troops were affected by chemical weapon been created by their own artillery but had blown back upon them.

Delivering a lethal dose is also a problem in employing chemical weapons in terr seen by the attacks outlined above. For example, in the March 20, 1995, attack subway system, Aum Shinrikyo members punctured 11 plastic bags filled with sa

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But there are other difficulties besides delivering a lethal dose. Because of impro security measures and intelligence programs since 9/11, it has proved very diffic conduct attacks in the West, even when their attack plans have included using lo manufactured explosives. There have been numerous cases in which plots have the May 2010 Times Square attack involving Faisal Shahzad, or been detected a the September 2009 plot to attack the New York subway system involving Najibu

Because of the improved security, it would be very difficult for jihadists to smugg agents into the United States or Europe, even if they were able to obtain them. I mentioned above, the chemical artillery rounds used in improvised explosive dev employed in that country, not smuggled out of the region.

This means that jihadists not only face the tactical problem of effectively employ an attack but also the logistical problem of transporting it to the West. This difficu will increase further as awareness of the threat increases. One way around the l would be to use the agent against a soft target in the region. Such targets could tourist sites, airport arrival lounges or even Western airliners departing from airp than optimal security.

Another option for jihadists or Palestinian militants could be to attempt to smugg agent into Israel for use in an attack. However, in recent years, increased securi following past suicide bombing attacks in Israel have caused problems for militan smuggling weapons into Israel. The same problems would apply to chemical age since border security has already been stepped up again due to the increased fl from Libya to Gaza.

Militants could attempt to solve this logistical challenge by launching a warhead warheads into Israel using rockets, but such militant rocket fire tends to be very like conventional rocket warheads, these chemical warheads would be unlikely t value. Even if a rocket landed in a populated area, it would be unlikely to produc casualties due to the problem of creating a lethal concentration of the agent — al certainly cause a mass panic.

The use of chemical weapons would also undoubtedly spur Israel to retaliate he

has a great deal to lose by employing such munitions. First, it would have to face aforementioned massive retaliation from Israel. While Israel was somewhat cons attacks on Hezbollah’s leadership and infrastructure in the August 2006 war, it is nearly as constrained in responding to a chemical weapon attack on its armed fo population center. Because of the way chemical weapons are viewed, the Israeli internationally as having just cause for massive retaliation. Second, Hezbollah w international repercussions over any such attack. As an organization, Hezbollah working for many years to establish itself as a legitimate political party in Lebano being labeled as a terrorist organization in Europe and elsewhere. A chemical w would bring heavy international condemnation and would not be in the group’s b this time.

So, while securing Syrian chemical munitions is an imperative, there are tactical constraints that will prevent militants from creating the type of nightmare scenari the media, even if some chemical weapons fell into the wrong hands.

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