Syria's Chemical Weapons Warning Sparks International Concern
A warning by Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi yesterday (23 July) that Syria would use chemical weapons against foreign aggression has heightened international concerns about the security of the country's stockpile of non-conventional weapons.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
Makdissi's announcement that the Syrian government would not use chemical weapons against its own citizens and would only use them if attacked by a foreign power does not mark a significant departure from previously stated policy.
However, in the context of the increasingly bitter civil conflict in the country, the comments have attracted increased international criticism and concern about the Syrian government's motives in actions regarding the potential use of non-conventional weapons.
Syria is unlikely to ever contemplate the employment of chemical weapons unless threatened with destruction by a foreign aggressor such as Israel. However, this is unlikely to completely allay Western fears that parts of Syria's chemical and biological weapons stockpile could fall into the hands of terrorist organisations.
"Any stocks of WMD or any unconventional weapons that the Syrian Arab Republic possesses would never, would never be used against civilians or against the Syrian people during this crisis in any circumstances, no matter how the crisis would evolve, no matter how," Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told a press conference in Damascus yesterday (23 July) in an attempt to calm and refute widespread opposition fears that, faced with defeat and destruction, the regime might use non-conventional weapons to preserve its hold on power. Makdissi then went on to say: "All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression."
Makdissi's comments drew immediate and stinging international criticism. "It would be reprehensible if anyone in Syria would use weapons of mass destruction," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Serbia; United States President Barack Obama warned Syria against the "tragic mistake" of using chemical weapons; British foreign secretary William Hague told reporters in London: "It is unacceptable to say they would use chemical weapons under any circumstances"; and in a statement, German Chancellor Guido Westerwelle said "threatening to use chemical weapons is monstrous."
Warning or Threat?
However, apart from perhaps being the first overt acknowledgement by a senior regime figure that Syria actually possesses stocks of non-conventional weapons, it is debatable whether Makdissi's comments amount to anything other than a public statement of what has long-been believed by observers to be Syrian weapons of mass destruction policy: that they are weapons of last resort. However, in the fevered atmosphere that has accompanied the descent into civil conflict and the opprobrium with which the Syrian regime is currently regarded by the international community, a heated, if perhaps misguided, reaction was perhaps unavoidable.
This position appeared to be supported by the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA), which said in a statement yesterday: "The regime that has not fired a single bullet against Israel during the course of three decades is certainly not going to use chemical weapons against that country." Senior Israeli officials cited by the Israeli press on the same day also confirmed that they thought Damascus was taking appropriate measures to secure its chemical and biological weapons stockpiles. Reports reaching IHS Jane's from Western intelligence and diplomatic officials in July also suggest that the Syrian army has increased security at suspected storage sites in and around the Syrian capital.
Nevertheless, the FSA also said in statement yesterday: "We reveal that [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad has transferred some of these weapons and equipment for mixing chemical components to airports on the border. We in the joint command of the FSA inside the country know very well the locations and positions of these weapons." The FSA claims that the movement of these weapons began several months ago with the aim of pressuring the international community to stay out of the conflict. If this was the intention though, it cannot be said to have been effective.
UN observers on the Golan Heights peer into
Of greater concern than the Syrian government employing chemical or biological weapons itself is the risk of such munitions falling into the hands of terrorist groups allegedly now operating in Syria. Part of this concern stems from persistent Western doubts about the makeup of the armed opposition to the Syrian regime. While Western intelligence agencies probably have a good understanding of the element of FSA headquartered in southern Turkey, it knows much less about the armed groups that have spontaneously formed at a local level in response to the Syrian regime's repression.
They may know even less and harbour greater fears about the reported influx into Syria of (Al-Qaeda-inspired) Islamist extremists from Iraq and other countries in the region. The risk of Syrian weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of such groups is clearly a question vexing Western and Israeli intelligence officials and almost certainly constitutes a more serious threat than a scenario in which the Syrian government itself uses chemical and biological weapons.
Outlook and Implications
Makdissi's comments may have led to international alarm but it is arguable they should not have done so. Apart from admitting that Syria actually possesses weapons of mass destruction, his statement did not amount to an alteration to what has been presumed Syrian government policy. Meanwhile, as the admittance yesterday of discussions between senior US and Israeli officials about managing the fallout from a collapse of the Assad regime highlights, of greater international concern is not what will happen to Syrian chemical weapons while the current regime is in place, but what might happen to them in the event that the regime is swept away.
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