Tuesday 24 July 2012

“Chemical Assad” evokes Iraq’s “Chemical Ali”

View interactive map of Syrian chemical weapons and production sites

Ali Hassan Abdelmajid al-Tikriti was Iraq’s one-time defense minister and a first cousin of Saddam Hussein.
He was dubbed “Chemical Ali” for using chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in the 1987-1988 Anfal offensive culminating in the infamous attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja, which killed more than 5,000 people.
He was captured after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, tried, sentenced to death and hanged in 2010.
The Syrian regime yesterday started to lay claim to a new title for its president – namely, “Chemical Assad.”
It threatened to unleash its chemical and biological weapons if the country faced a foreign attack.
During a televised news conference, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi stressed the weapons are secure and would only be used in the case of an external attack.
“No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria,” he said. “All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.”
It was the regime’s first acknowledgment that it possesses weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
“Given the regime's stockpiles of chemical weapons,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a foreign policy speech to veterans in Reno, Nevada, “we will continue to make it clear to Assad and those around him that the world is watching and that they will be held accountable by the international community and the United States should they make the tragic mistake of using those weapons.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington was “working with allies to monitor the situation” and to send the message to both Syria’s government and opposition about the importance of protecting unconventional weapons.
A “Reuters Factbox” on Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal says, “Syria appears to have acquired the ability to develop and produce chemical weapons agents including mustard gas and Sarin, and possibly also VX nerve agent…
“According to Global Security, there are four suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria - one just north of Damascus; the second near the industrial city of Homs; the third in Hama, believed to be producing VX agents in addition to Sarin and Tabun; and a fourth near the Mediterranean port of Latakia.
“Analysts have also identified the town of Cerin, on the coast, as a possible producer of biological weapons. Several other sites are monitored by foreign intelligence agencies and are listed only as suspect…”
The most senior Syrian politician to defect to the opposition told the BBC last week the regime will not hesitate to use chemical weapons if it is cornered.
Asked if he thought the Syrian president might use chemical weapons against the opposition, Nawaf Faris, ex-ambassador to Iraq, told BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner in an interview in Qatar that he would not rule it out, describing Assad as "a wounded wolf and cornered.”
The opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) yesterday said the chemical arsenal had been moved in a bid to pressure the international community.
“We in the joint command of the Free Syrian Army inside the country know very well the locations and positions of these weapons,” the statement said.
“We also reveal that Assad has transferred some of these weapons and equipment for mixing chemical components to airports on the border.
“According to our information, the regime began moving its stocks of weapons of mass destruction several months ago ... to put pressure on the region and the international community.”
Maj. Gen. Adnan Nawras Salou, a Syrian Kurd who defected to the FSA and was chief of staff of the chemical warfare authority for five years until 2008, will no doubt have vital intelligence to share about the regime’s WMD. (See my July 15 post, “Syria’s ex-chemical war chief to head military opposition”).
Minimizing the dangers posed by Syria’s chemical weapons is a challenge of considerable complexity, Leonard S. Spector, deputy director of James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at the Monterey Institute in Washington, told a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee last week.
You can press here to read the full text of his testimony before the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade. But following are some salient snippets from Spector’s testimony:
# Outside Syria, I believe our core objective is to ensure that Syria's various assets do not find their way to parties, such as Hezbollah, anti-government insurgents in Iraq, the Taliban, or al-Qaeda… Assad has been warned not to take this step, which would certainly lead to calls for military intervention against him that even Moscow would find hard to oppose.
# [Within Syria] our most urgent goal is to ensure, for humanitarian reasons, that these weapons are not used in the current conflict.
# Timing is another key parameter to bear in mind as we develop strategies to reduce the risks from Syria's arsenals. Broadly speaking, we need to think in terms of three time frames: the current period of increasingly violent hostilities; the period of transition to a post-Assad government of one type or another; and the period after the authority of that government has been established within Syria.
# It is my understanding that CW storage facilities were deliberately built outside major population centers, probably to enhance secrecy and as a safety precaution. Production facilities are likely outside city centers. Thus it is possible that as the current phase of the conflict unfolds, such facilities may fall within insurgent-controlled territory. Although it has been reported that Syria has recently moved some of its chemical weapons, possibly to more secure locations, some chemical assets, such as large stocks of bulk agent may be difficult to relocate and may remain in situ and at risk of diversion.
# One measure that should be implemented immediately is to make clear that chemical weapon custodians who find themselves behind insurgent lines and who peacefully relinquish formal control over these stockpiles and then stay in place to protect them from misadventure, will be protected, and even rewarded, by the post-Assad government.
# Syria is one of a handful of states that have not joined the 1997 Chemical Weapon Convention, which prohibits parties from possessing these weapons and requires parties to destroy existing stocks. A key goal for the United States, which would be widely supported by other nations, would be to orchestrate Syria's commitment to eliminating its chemical arsenal and joining the Convention.
# The Syrian government that replaces Assad must be pressed to take similar steps as a condition for recognition and sustained support.
# To avoid such a relapse to the status quo, as the Free Syrian Army seizes territory where chemical facilities are situated (see map attached to this testimony) in coming weeks and, thereafter, as the Assad regime approaches collapse, with neither the regime nor the insurgents fully controlling the state apparatus, Washington and its allies must take steps to negotiate international monitoring and security arrangements for these sites. It may be best for us to do this with another country taking the lead, such as Turkey, the Netherlands, or Sweden. Access to sites would be negotiated with the Free Syrian Army for facilities within territory it controlled and, clandestinely, with site managers for facilities nominally remaining within Assad's chain of command.