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Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Conflict

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 30, 2012

    From Ban Ki-moon to Barack Obama, every one is presently concerned about the chances of the Syrian government using chemical weapons—the weaponry belonging to the category of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)—in the ongoing conflict. The Syrian administration has announced that it would not use chemical weapons on its own people but may use them against the external aggressor.

    The threat from chemical weapons has been looming large over West Asia and adjoining regions since the January 2011 uprising in Egypt. Particularly, in the case of Libya, fears were raised about the possibility of the use of such weapons. Luckily, such weapons were not used but after the fall of the Gaddafi regime stockpiles of these weapons have been found in Libya. During January 2011, inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had discovered tonnes of mustard gas deposits and a secret stockpile of chemical shells in Libya

    There have been no noticeable instances of the actual use of chemical weapons in the post Cold War era. During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, these weapons were used by the then Iraqi Baath regime against Iran. Apart from a few states in West Asia, North Korea is another country known to posses such weapons and probably also believes that they are ‘usable’ weapons. It is important to note that the Western powers (particularity the US) which are presently the main critics of chemical weapons in Syria were actually the suppliers of these weapons to Iraq!

    It appears that in the current ‘fog of war’ the Syrian administration has made a tactical blunder of accepting that it possesses chemical weapons. All these years there was only speculation about Syria’s possession of such weapons, but now the state has officially accepted it. Syria failed to ‘learn’ from the recent history of the Iraq conflict. The US had invaded Iraq on the pretext of WMD threats. By accepting the presence of such weapons now, Syria has ended up compromising the ‘potency’ of chemical weapons and also let go of the ‘deniability’ option. It could have used them discreetly and subsequently could have kept the deniability option open or could have even blamed the opposing forces! Now, with Syria accepting that it is a chemical weapon state, the mere presence of such weapons could be used as a reason to invade the country. It is also important to note that any chemical weapon use by Syria would also make it difficult for China, Russia, and Iran to continue their support for the Bashar Assad regime.

    Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), one of the most successful disarmament conventions. The Israeli factor has always been in the forefront for states like Syria, Egypt, etc. with regard to their WMD policies. It is believed that Egypt was instrumental in proving the know how of chemical weapons to Syria during the early seventies. Syria initiated its chemical weapons programme in 1971 by developing a research facility in Damascus. Probably, at present, there are four chemical weapons sites in Syria, which produce agents like VX, Sarin and Tabun. Perhaps, there is also a separate site for the production of biological weapons. However, the mere presence of chemical weapons is insufficient to use them; what is of importance is the types of delivery systems available for this purpose.

    It is expected that the Syrian inventory could contain several thousand aerial bombs filled mostly with the chemical agent Sarin, and between 50 and 100 ballistic missile warheads. The Syrian regime could also modify some of its long range surface-to-air and naval cruise missiles for delivering chemical warheads. Theoretically, it could also use the air force to deliver a chemical bomb on target. Another factor in the employment of chemical weapons is how ready the arsenal is. It is suspected most of Syria’s chemical reserves could be available only in liquid form; converting them into gaseous form for use as ammunition would take some time.

    The Libyan case is indicative of the fact that Western powers are not keen to launch an all-out assault while meddling in the affairs in the West Asian region. If NATO/US opts for an overt military solution, then it is bound to use airpower (including unmanned combat aircraft). Naturally, under these circumstances, the prospects of chemical weapons retaliation by Syria are not feasible. A possible option for Syria to use chemical weapons could be in case of a ground battle. However, a ground invasion of Syria by the western powers or even by Turkey/Israel is a very distant option.

    Before starting the 2003 Iraq war, the US has developed an aerial weapon against WMDs known as Agent Defeat Weapon (ADW). This bomb could be dropped on chemical/biological weapons storage facilities. Such weapons act differently from conventional weapons. They would not create an explosion and allow the agent to spread but instead would generate huge temperatures and cause fires to burn off the agent on-site, thus causing negligible (!) environmental damage. Hence, in case of an aerial assault, the Western forces could use such an option. If the Assad regime were to fall, then the possibility exists that the Hezbollah could gain access to Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles. The world should be aware that such an eventuality during the endgame phase in Syria does exist.

    Presently, there are only two violators of the chemical weapons convention, namely, the United States and Russia. They have failed to keep their promise of destroying their own chemical weapons stockpiles and may take 10 to 12 years more to do so. It is an irony that one of them backs the present Syrian government while the other opposes it.

    Source:, accessed on July 25, 2012.