Experts doubt Syria will deploy its chemical weapons
Syria has denied it plans to deploy chemical weapons, likening such a move to suicide.
By Matt Schofield and Hannah Allam
WASHINGTON — With concern over the Syrian government's chemical-weapons stockpile reaching a fever pitch this week, international experts are cautioning against alarmism, saying there's no confirmation that the Syrians are mixing weapons components or loading them into delivery systems, as some U.S. news organizations have reported.
Experts in the United States and Europe who monitor unconventional weapons said President Bashar Assad's government has moved parts of his nation's vast, acknowledged chemical arsenal.
But that movement could be interpreted as reassuring rather than alarming, the experts said, if the intention is to keep the weapons from extremists in the anti-Assad movement who are at the forefront of recent rebel advances.
Syria has denied it plans to deploy chemical weapons, likening such a move to "suicide" because of U.S.-led warnings that doing so would invite Western intervention in the nearly 2-year-old conflict.
"I'm skeptical about sarin being prepared or artillery shells being filled. I've just seen too much in the past with satellite photography making assumptions about chemical weapons, most infamously in Iraq," said Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association in Washington and an early skeptic of U.S. claims that Iraq had built up a chemical-weapons arsenal before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. At the time, Thielmann was acting director for the State Department office responsible for analyzing the Iraqi weapons threat. No such weapons were found.
There's no dispute that Syria has amassed a chemical arsenal. Assad admitted in January 2009 that his government had chemical weapons. Even before then, those who studied the issue believed Syria had a strategic capacity — including VX, mustard and sarin gases — which the government billed as a counter to Israel's suspected nuclear arsenal.
Syria is known to have short- and midrange missiles, bombs that can be dropped from jets and artillery shells, all of which could be used to deploy the gases.
When asked about "growing concerns" surrounding Syria's chemical weapons, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said: "Without commenting on the specific intelligence that we have with regards to these chemical weapons, I think there is no question that we remain very concerned, very concerned."
But many who study the topic worry that the hysteria has gone well beyond what the facts warrant, and there are concerns that the intelligence hasn't shown much change in recent months.
Jean Pascal Zanders, a senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies and one of the world's top experts on chemical weapons, wrote in an email from Brussels, that he has "concern that the Syrian chemical-weapons threat is being ratcheted up to justify military intervention in a not too distant future."
One top international chemical-weapons official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he feared news reports on Syria's chemical weapons are based on a few pieces of reliable information that have been repeated again and again, amplifying the threat each time.
"The evidence that exists of chemical weapons in Syria is very widespread and very authoritative, but there is a circularity about how this information moves around in the media sphere," the official said.
So far, the official said, evidence suggests that the Syrian government is storing sarin in "binary form," meaning the components are being kept separately and therefore safely.
If credible evidence surfaces that shows the government mixing the components, "That's an entirely different story," the official said, quickly adding that, "It's very difficult to envision a reason they'd do this."
Gregory Koblentz, an expert on chemical terrorism for the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, noted there are tactical reasons not to use chemical weapons in a civil war.
With battle lines fluid and supporters and enemies occupying almost the same space, using chemical weapons runs the risk of a disastrous backfire if, say, the wind shifts or an engine misfires.
When Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran, the weapons were used before an offensive, to weaken the resolve of Iranian fighters. And when Iraq used the weapons against the Kurds, they were dropped into northern regions where there was no Iraqi military presence.
Barring clearly defined battle lines, such as a national border, a military commander would have reservations about using chemical weapons.
"They have a limited utility," Koblentz said. "And they can mess up your own operations."
Experts agreed that the greatest threat regarding Syria's nuclear weapons comes not from the Assad government but from the Islamist radicals, including some with suspected links to al-Qaida, who are at the forefront of the rebel fighting force.