U.S. Intensifying Surveillance of Syrian Chemical Arms

The United States and partner nations in the Middle East have stepped up monitoring of Syria’s chemical arms and suspected biological weapons against a backdrop of mounting violence and instability in the Arab nation, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday (see GSN, Feb. 7).

Washington is employing space-based orbiters and other monitoring technology to keep tabs on Syrian depots that hold weapons of mass destruction, military officials said.

Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon are cooperating with Washington to limit the chances of any Syrian unconventional weapons slipping across their borders, Arab and U.S. officials disclosed.

Syria’s WMD arsenals are understood to include ballistic missiles and a substantial stockpile of chemical arms that includes nerve and blister agents. Less is known about the nation’s biological weapons capabilities.

Syrians opposed to the continued rule of dictator Bashar Assad have been staging protests for more than a year and Damascus has not stinted in its use of deadly force against the opposition. The United Nations places the death toll from violence at in excess of 5,400 people. Some opposition members in recent months have begun launching attacks on regime forces and military outposts. They have been joined by a growing number of Syrian army deserters.

With no international solution in sight for resolving the crisis, Washington is concerned about the spillover effects of violence in the country, in particular the potential for terrorists to acquire the nation’s WMD materials.

U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said on Tuesday: “We are watching the trend lines on their military to make sure they are still under control of the regime”

To date, there have been no hints that any of Syria’s stores of unconventional arms are in imminent jeopardy of being captured by opposition fighters or religious extremists, officials said, adding that they do not believe such groups at present are prepared to launch the type of coordinated assaults likely needed to seize the WMD stockpiles.

Damascus had previously taken measures to protect its depots housing chemical warfare materials from outside attack, according to U.S. officials. Security personnel at those hardened sites are not seen as likely to turn against the government.

“Most countries that have (chemical weapons) stocks view it as a strategic, not tactical, tool — and strategic tools are usually pretty well protected,” a U.S. official told the Journal(Entous/Solomon, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 15).

“Syria is a country of significant proliferation concern, so we monitor its chemical weapons activities very closely,” an unidentified State Department official told the Associated Press.

“We believe Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile remains under Syrian government control, and we will continue to work closely with like-minded countries to impede proliferation (of) Syria’s chemical weapons program,” the official continued.

Syria’s chemical warfare materials are thought to be safe presently from proliferation as they are held at military bases in isolated parts of the country. The majority of regime and opposition attacks have thus far taken place in high population areas.

“So far at least I don’t think we’ve seen any examples among troops that are guarding these sites or any activities to suggest the chain of command is weakening. I think what people are worried about is that the situation could become increasingly chaotic and the chain of command breaks down,”  said Leonard Spector, deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (Douglas Birch, Associated Press/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Feb. 15).