17 May 2013

Growing fears of chemical Armageddon in Syria

On Wednesday the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and praising the opposition. It comes amid rising alarm over the fate of the regime’s chemical weapons (CW) stockpiles.

Ahead of the vote, a senior government security source told Channel 4 News of Britain’s fears over proliferation and the difficulties in working out contingency plans owing to the lack of viable options available.

“The risk of proliferation is not something anyone should consider lightly,” the source said, “and none of the options are easy. We have to keep all the contingencies on the table. The use of chemical weapons is absolutely abhorrent. It is an extremely serious situation.”

Proliferation fears include concerns over the deployment of CW by the regime against its own people as well as the threat of regional conflagration. One such scenario might involve some of the hundreds of warheads or shells thought to have been armed with CW being transferred to the Hezbollah Shia militia in Lebanon for possible use against Israel.

Among the scenarios that have fuelled anxiety among western leaders, the possibility of weapons of mass destruction getting into the hands of other “non-state actors” – namely jihadi groups such as the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front, whose Islamist fighters have made steady gains in recent months. Toxic agents could be used to construct dirty bomb chemicial IEDs or as bargaining chips for demands such as the release of prisoners, experts say.

Al-Nusra is among several jihadi brigades currently laying siege to the largest CW production plant in the Middle East, at as-Safirah, 15 miles south east of Aleppo. The James Bond-villain-style complex is known to manufacture Sarin and possibly VX nerve agents; storage areas are understood to be contained in a multi-storey bunker inside a mountain, which is guarded by around 4,000 regime troops.

The source also restated the UK’s assertion that following tests on “physiological” evidence, CW have already been deployed in Syria – although by whom and in what form remains unclear. It is, however, understood that Britain has no evidence suggesting that the alleged CW attacks in recent weeks were perpetrated by rebel forces.

Leading members of the coalition which invaded Iraq remain haunted by the ghosts of what happened a decade ago. This has injected greater caution into their approach to the Syrian CW conundrum and has virtually ruled out western “boots on the ground”.

The United States has said that securing known CW research, production and storage sites would require around 75,000 troops. This would be tantamount to another invasion – and the Obama administration cannot afford to become embroiled in another long, costly and complex war in the Middle East.

Although an Israeli airstrike targeted a known chemical research and development centre at Jamraya, near Damascus, earlier this month, it is not thought to have used bunker-buster bombs, which might have blown up CW stocks. The option of bombing storage or production facilities is not a good one, experts say, because of the inherent dangers of releasing a poison gas cloud and killing large numbers of civilians.

Channel 4 News has been told by the former head of al-Assad’s Chemical Weapons Authority that the rebel Free Syrian Army – in which he is now a senior commander – has tasked battalions in the vicinity of CW facilities with their protection. The US has deployed troops from the 1st Armoured Division to Jordan to train what have become known as “FSA friendlies” in how to secure these sites in the event of sudden regime collapse.

In considering the range of contingencies, Britain – in common with most other western countries – favours a political or diplomatic resolution to the entire Syrian crisis, the CW issue included. It is understood that the deterioration of the security situation on the ground in Syria has galvanised Russia, in particular.

This month, President Vladimir Putin has met David Cameron, the US Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A diplomatic way out, however, looks unlikely, with all the protagonists in Syria engaged in a fight to the death, the UN Security Council locked in paralysis, and the world crossing its fingers and hoping that the Syrian civil war does not become a chemical Armageddon.

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