Assad’s ‘Nuclear Option’

Tom Hart examines the history of Syria’s chemical weapons program

Assad’s ‘Nuclear Option’ Assad’s ‘Nuclear Option’
a FSA fighter uses a mirror to see around corners in Aleppo./ Scott Bobb, Voice of America Assad’s ‘Nuclear Option’ Tom Hart examines the... Assad’s ‘Nuclear Option’
a FSA fighter uses a mirror to see around corners in Aleppo./ Scott Bobb, Voice of America

Assad’s ‘Nuclear Option’

Tom Hart examines the history of Syria’s chemical weapons program

Syria’s determination to build an offensive chemical weapons capacity began in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur war with Israel. Outclassed in conventional arms when faced with the Israeli military, Syria sought chemical weapons to even the battlefield.

This approach is reflected in the way the Syrian government talks about chemical weapons today. The government finally acknowledged possession of chemical weapons when foreign powers began serious talk about an intervention in the civil war. This doctrine remains in place, with Syrian officials stating that they would use the weapons to attack foreign forces attempting to invade Syria, should such an attack take place. External use was ruled out. Deterrence was the focus.

The principal means for deployment was older Soviet surface-to-surface missiles followed by a later move to Scud variants and artillery. Reported attacks earlier this year seem to have come from helicopter-dropped munitions.

Syria’s military may have used chemical weapons during the previous Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama during the early 1980s, but these reports — then as now — have been subject to considerable dispute.

Syria upgraded chemical weapons production in the late 1980s to provide a more formidable challenge to the threat from Israel. In response the United States introduced sanctions intended to limit production. Nevertheless Syria appears to have achieved self-sufficiency in sarin and mustard gas production at this time. Sources are divided on VX capabilities. Sarin and mustard gas are the country’s mainstays.

Syria is among only five countries in the world to have neither signed, ratified nor acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which obliges signatories to reduce and eventually disarm chemical stockpiles. In the region, Egypt also remains outside the treaty.

The Syrian government’s rationale for remaining outside the treaty has been the necessity of maintaining a counterbalance to Israel’s nuclear capability, the logic being that once Israel disarmed, so would Syria. Syria has signed, but not ratified the Biological Weapons Convention, which provides similar guarantees for biological weapons. Despite this the government has admitted to possessing some biological capacity.

The current alleged gas attacks in Ghouta remain tentative in terms of verification. Both France and Britain stated in June that, based on evidence collected from previous attacks, chemical weapons have been used. Both governments have made confident statements over the Ghouta attacks. Other governments have been more reluctant to comment.

Experts in chemical warfare have examined videos from the latest attacks different conclusions are drawn from the footage. The BBC’s experts seem fairly convinced that the footage shows a gas attack, but Haaretz provides a useful summary which offers some alternative explanations for the videos of the latest attacks. These include a riot control gas, a diluted chemical attack, or asphyxiation from a fuel-bomb.

Another option is that Syria’s sarin stocks are low quality. Sarin degrades rapidly if not produced to high specification, and the attack may have used older agents with reduced potency.

A U.N. team is already in Syria to investigate previous alleged attacks, and this seems to be the most likely source for new evidence.

A Syrian soldier aims an AK-47 assault rifle from his position in a foxhole during a firepower demonstration
/ Wikimedia Commons

Chemical weapons make for powerful propaganda. There can surely be few weapons so horrific and indiscriminate, so there is much political capital to be gained for the side who can prove weapons were used against them.

A popular line of thought, explored in the New Yorker, Haartez and the Telegraph, is that the Ghouta attack is implausible as a genuine chemical attack because, with U.N. inspectors in the country and government forces making progress, this action seems too convenient for the rebels and an irrational move from the Syrian government.

Of course, not all actions in war are rational.

It is also worth remembering that the Syrian rebels are also reported to have acquired chemical weapons. Russian sources indicate that rebels acquired chemical weapons, which were later recaptured by government forces. The Russians also allege that sarin was used by rebels in an attack at Khan Al Assal.

The Russian counter-claims offer a reminder that even if the deployment of chemical weapons is established it may still be difficult to determine who in fact used the weapons. Deniability is integral to Syria’s chemical weapons doctrine, which means weapons will be used in such a way as to leave the perpetrator ambiguous.

The Syrian government has made firm denials, but so did Iraqi officials after the gas attack on Halabja in 1988.

The great unknown factor is Syria’s biological weapons capacity, and extent to which Syria’s biological weapons programme has advanced remains unclear. Syria has admitted to biological stockpiles, and some commentators reckon foreign assistance would be required to adequately develop biological weapons for offensive purposes, and that this help has not been forthcoming. Others suggest that Syria’s biological capacity is purely defensive.

Biological weapons would add another conundrum to the mix, but so far no such accusations have been levelled.

Chemical weapons in Syria remain, for the moment, an ambiguous factor. Caution must be used as both further scientific evidence, and context for the Ghouta attacks are examined.

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