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Syrian unrest raises chemical weapons fears

Security of stockpile may be threatened

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post / August 29, 2011

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WASHINGTON - In 2008, a secret State Department cable warned of a growing chemical weapons threat from a Middle Eastern country whose autocratic leader had a long history of stirring up trouble in the region. The leader, noted for his “support for terrorist organizations,’’ was attempting to buy technology from other countries to upgrade an already fearsome stockpile of deadly poisons, the department warned.

The Middle Eastern state with the dangerous chemicals was not Libya, whose modest stockpile was thrust into the spotlight last week because of fighting there. It was Syria, another violence-torn Arab state whose advanced weapons are drawing new concern as the country drifts toward an uncertain future.

A sudden collapse of the government of President Bashar Assad could mean a breakdown in controls over Syria’s weapons, US officials and weapons specialists said in interviews. And while Libya’s chemical arsenal consists of unwieldy canisters filled mostly with mustard gas, the World War I-era blistering agent, Syria possesses some of the deadliest chemicals ever to be weaponized, dispersed in thousands of artillery shells and warheads that are easy to transport.

Syria’s preferred poison is sarin, the nerve agent that killed 13 people and sickened about 1,000 during a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. Sarin, which is lethal if inhaled even in minute quantities, can also be used to contaminate water and food supplies.

Although many analysts doubt that Assad would deliberately share chemical bombs with terrorists, it is conceivable that weapons could vanish amid the chaos of an uprising that destroys Syria’s vaunted security services, which safeguard the munitions.

“A lot of people are watching this closely, ’’ said a US security official who monitors events in Syria.

Syria first developed chemical weapons in the 1970s and slowly amassed a sophisticated arsenal under the close supervision of then-President Hafez Assad and, later, his son Bashar, the current president. Using technology obtained in part from Russian scientists, the Assads sought to create a strategic deterrent against Israel, its vastly more powerful southern neighbor, whose forces humiliated Syrian troops in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and captured the strategic Syrian plateau known as the Golan Heights.

Many countries, including the United States and Russia, gradually eliminated their chemical-weapons arsenals, but Syria refused to sign the UN Chemical Weapons convention and proceeded to develop a larger and deadlier stockpile. The CIA has concluded that Syria possesses a large stockpile of sarin-based warheads and was working on developing VX, a deadlier nerve agent that resists breaking down in the environment.

By early in the last decade, some weapons specialists ranked Syria’s chemical stockpile as probably the largest in the world, consisting of tens of tons of highly lethal chemical agents and hundreds of Scud missiles as well as lesser rockets, artillery rockets, and bomblets for delivering the poisons.

Jeffrey Feltman, the State Department’s chief diplomat for the Middle East, last year cited Syria’s chemical weapons program as a primary reason for continuing US economic sanctions against the Assad regime.

The 2008 State Department cable, obtained and made public by the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks, was prompted by a Syrian attempt to obtain glass-lined reactors and other high-tech equipment from a private Indian firm. US diplomats pressed the Indian government to block the sale. “We are concerned that the equipment in question is intended for, or could be diverted to, Syria’s chemical weapons program,’’ the cable stated.

It was unclear whether the sale, which at the time was in its final stages, was allowed to proceed.

Several Middle Eastern countries possess large numbers of conventional weapons as well as nuclear research reactors whose fuel rods could be used in a dirty bomb. There is no evidence that advanced munitions have been stolen. But US officials acknowledge increasing uncertainty about the control of weapons depots in countries undergoing prolonged periods of unrest.

Western officials have been less concerned about Libya’s chemical stockpile, which was all but dismantled after Moammar Khadafy agreed about eight years ago to renounce weapons of mass destruction. In reality, it was never especially impressive, having barely advanced beyond early 20th-century technology, weapons specialists say.

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