SD Asks: What is Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile?
Greg Thielmann, former director of the Office of Strategic Proliferation and Military Affairs at the U.S. State Department Intelligence Bureau and analyst at the Washington-based Arms Control Association:
The Syrians have one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals in the world. Not many countries have chemical weapons these days, as most countries have agreed to never apply, or to eliminate their stocks. Syria has relied on chemical weapons as its main deterrent against Israel’s conventional superiority and as a means of its own defense. They possess large stockpiles of World War I–era technology like mustard agent, and also nerve agents like VX and Sarin, a specific kind of nerve gas that the White House said it believes Syria used.
The U.S. statement says that we assess with varying degrees of confidence that there has been a small-scale use of chemical weapons. Nothing like what the Iraqis did during their eight-year war with Iran when they deployed it against Iranian forces, but it was at least enough to create what rebels say were fatalities.
A small-scale use raises questions. Was this a deliberate government use, or the action of a rogue commander? We know that the Syrian government has an arsenal that gives it a number of options, not only in terms of the kind of weapons, but how they can be delivered – whether with bombs, aircraft or warheads for missiles. In this case, the suspicion is that chemical warheads for missiles were used
The U.S. government assesses that chemical weapons could be used massively in various parts of the country. The Syrian government previously didn’t acknowledge it had chemical weapons, and now it says it would only use them against foreign intervention (if it has them). So Syria is implicitly acknowledging it possesses chemical weapons … but has also said it would never use them against its own people. They are intended to be a threat to keep countries like the U.S. from intervening. It’s a credible threat if the Syrian government believes its survival is at stake.
Wayne White, former senior U.S. State Department intelligence official and expert at the Washington- based Middle East Institute:
Syria has had the most dangerous and advanced chemical weapons capability in the greater Middle East ever since Iraq was defanged after the 1991 Gulf War. They potentially could deploy and use what they have with devastating effectiveness. The reason that they have such a robust capability is that it was meant as a major deterrent to Israel’s far more potent conventional (and nuclear) capabilities. They worked hard to acquire the equivalent of what has been termed “the poor man’s nuclear weapon.”
Andrew Bowen, Middle East scholar at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University:
Syria has an extensive stockpile of biological and chemical weapons. But the use of chemical weapons is clearly not a comprehensive military strategy at the moment. One, two or three reported incidents are concerning, but they have not made the regime more effective on the battlefield.
There have been FSA [Free Syrian Army] units cooperating with the international community to monitor where those stockpiles are, but every single chemical and biological weapons site is under the control of the regime. There are credible reports that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are playing a role in supporting this effort.
If Assad wanted, he could deploy those weapons more extensively. The Syrian military has greatly invested in these weapons, and they clearly have thought through how to deploy them. It wouldn’t be very difficult for them to escalate the use of chemical weapons if they want to. Assad may be in his testing stage now … playing a psychological game to see how much he can test the resolve of the international community and Obama’s red line.