Borysfen Intel

Chemical Disarmament of Syria: Problems and Prospects. Part 1

October 1, 2013
<p>Chemical Disarmament of Syria: Problems and Prospects. Part 1</p>

The Independent Analytical Center for Geopolitical Studies “Borysfen Intel” affords ground to the analysts generation for expressing their point of view regarding the political, economic, security, information situation in Ukraine and in the world in general, according to their personal geopolitical studies and analyses.


Note that an authors’ point of view
can disagree with the editor’s one

Andrey Pospelov, Candidate of historical sciences, Professor of the Department of Modern and Contemporary History of Odessa I.Mechnikov National University.

Unusual Problem

The Civil War in the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR) lasts for more than two years (since March 11, 2011) and constantly is accompanied by information about this Arab country's having chemical weapons. At this, it is not so much the matter of a stockpile of chemical warfare agents (CWA), which, according to Western experts, is the largest in the Middle East, as of its real use, and only against the civilian population.

Currently, due to the pursuance on the 21st of August, 2013, in a suburb of Damascus - East Ghuta of chemical attack when up to 3,600 people were injured, there is no point to find out the initiator of this “information action” (at least at this stage of the development of the situation around SAR). However, almost from the beginning of the armed conflict in Syria, the leadership of the United States has been repeatedly making the global political establishment and public opinion understand that the one and only proven fact of use of the CWA by any side of the conflict, means stepping over the “red line”, that is, the beginning of military action against SAR. For the first time such a statement was voiced by the U.S. President on the 3rd of ​​December, 2012, while the question of possible use of chemical weapons in the SAR arose a little earlier — in June 2012. At the same time the leadership of SAR announced that the existing arsenal of chemical weapons in the country would be used only in case of a directed aggression against Syria.

The "ground-to-ground" missiles used in attacks at the suburb of  Damascus, contained sarin,- reports the UN inspection
The "ground-to-ground" missiles used in attacks at the suburb of  Damascus, contained sarin, — reports the UN inspection

Until August 21, 2013 there had been more than ten instances of the use of chemical weapons, but they are virtually unprovable, and therefore the “red line” has not been crossed. The matter is that the data on the use of chemical weapons in Syria are indirect. Apart from this, the USA and its allies were not really ready to militarily intervene in the Syrian conflict.

Another important factor was the organization of large-scale military trainings of the Armed Forces of Syria in July 2012 to repel foreign aggression, as well as SAR's receiving the latest Russian weapons systems — 6 anti-ship complexes “Bastion” (72 supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles “Yakhont”), advanced anti-aircraft missile systems “Buk-2ME”, “Tor-M1E”, “Pechora-2M” and “Pantsir-S1E”, against which the West did not have means for countermeasures.

But it was August 21 that the situation changed dramatically. The administration of the US President Barack Obama, without waiting for report of the UN experts on chemical weapons (who had been working in the SAR from 15 to 31 August 2013), categorically put the blame for this tragedy on the Syrian leadership and personally on President Bashar al-Assad. As a consequence, Damascus began being threatened with a military strike.

In this dangerous situation, theoretically the main military and political partner of SAR — the Russian Federation and personally its President, Vladimir Putin — tried to use the entire arsenal of diplomatic and information measures to prevent the internationalization of the conflict. And so (if somewhat less firmly) did the leadership of the People's Republic of China and the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. As for the Islamic Republic of Iran — in fact the only direct Syrian ally — it officially declared its readiness to provide assistance if SAR becomes subject to foreign aggression.

The escalation of the conflict had lasted until September 9, when the Government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation made ​​a proposal to take the chemical arsenal of Syria (ammunition, CWA and their storage) under international control with further destruction. Almost simultaneously, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Moscow would appeal to Damascus with a proposal to immediately develop a concrete plan for international control over the Syrian chemical weapons for its disposal later. On the same day about the same statement was made by U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, making it a point that the transfer of the Syrian chemical arsenal under international control should take place within the week, and only in this case, the SAR would avoid a military strike.

The terms, voiced by Kerry, by definition were not real. Moreover, the U.S. State Department immediately tried to disavow the statements of its head, calling them “a rhetorical remark”. Surprisingly, Moscow's proposal was positively accepted by the Syrian political leadership represented by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Muallem who said, “Syria welcomes Russia's initiative out of concern of the Syrian leadership on the lives of our citizens and the security of our country.” At this, earlier the military-political leadership of SAR had made ​​a clear choice in favor of the resistance to the aggressor.

Already on September 10 France promised to give to the UN Security Council a draft resolution with the terms of chemical disarmament of Syria and the responsibility for their violation.

Great Britain also announced that if this plan comes into force, it should be very tightly controlled, but not by Damascus. However, the French initiative, along with its Britain's support, did not get further development.

As for the Russian-American proposals, they have found concrete form. On the 14th of September in Geneva, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, signed an agreement. “The United States and Russia are determined to insist on the destruction of chemical weapons of the Syrian regime and to make the destruction as safe as possible. We agreed that Syria within one week should provide a comprehensive list of these weapons,”- said Kerry. According to him, the parties generally agree on the assessment of the amount and types of chemical weapons which B. Assad’s regime has.

The use of chemical weapons in Syria: UN inquiry
The use of chemical weapons in Syria: UN inquiry

According to the plan worked out in Geneva, by September 21, 2013 from Damascus to the UN has to come all the information about the Syrian chemical arsenal. Then, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is responsible for the elimination of chemical weapons in SAR, within a month, will work out a needed plan. To realize the plan, UN Security Council's resolution should be adopted. In November 2013 international inspectors on chemical weapons should arrive in Syria. The whole arsenal of Syrian CWA and means of their delivery are planned to have been destroyed by the middle of 2014.

Practical issues of destruction will be solved by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and financing of the process will involve international donors. At the same time, according to the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry, “the overwhelming majority of digital indicators of the time, duration, start and finish of the operation, have been proposed by Americans, but Moscow insists on engaging opposition groups in the process of destroying Syrian chemical weapons”. Moreover, S. Lavrov said that the process of OPCW inspectors' preparatory work for assuming control of chemical weapons storage sites must be organized in such a way that those funding and sponsoring opposition groups, including extremists, should find a way to demand and return the captured for its destruction. This way the Russian leadership has actually voiced the fact of the opposition's having chemical weapons, — the fact which the West (with the exception of Germany) denies.

Be that as it may, “the process has begun”. During September 12-16, the Syrian government had prepared all necessary documents, acceded to the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, given the UN the data on its chemical arsenal and agreed to implement the announced in Geneva conditions for its further destruction.

It would seem that the threat of all-out war in Syria with the participation of the armed forces of the international coalition led by the U.S., France and Turkey, is if not eliminated completely, then at least pushed back indefinitely. The author believes that if this political decision did play in all this an important role, all the same it was sooner the consequence of a rather disappointing rendering of the situation in which military action against the SAR, from the military point of view, was useless. Moreover, the United States, in case of this action, would have a lot of new problems in the Middle East. That is why Obama grabbed the “chemical disarmament” of Syria as a formal reason for the refusal, or at least a temporary abstinence from his ill-advised step. Nevertheless, it seems, Washington has not abandoned the idea of ​​overthrowing the regime of “B. Assad”. This process will just stretch over time and will result in considerable sacrifices of the Syrian people.

However, after the political handshakes of diplomats at the high-level and joys of ordinary people living in Syria or elsewhere, the world will face a real, connected not only with the Syrian chemical weapons, problem…

Syrian chemical arsenal: past and present

Syria began creating chemical weapons in the second half of 1970s, when had been formed a system of buying necessary equipment and technology abroad. Major efforts were made to create an industrial base for producing intermediates required for chemical warfare agents. The first results were already in 1978, and it was then that the leadership of Syria began forcedly to lead a deliberate policy of equipping its armed forces with CWA and means of their delivery.

The incentives were three foreign factors that arose that year. They are directly connected with the closest and most powerful enemies of the country.

Map showing the Blue Line demarcation line between Lebanon and Israel, established by the UN after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 1978
Map showing the Blue Line demarcation line between Lebanon and Israel, established by the UN after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 1978

Firstly, in the spring of 1978 once again got tense relations with Israel, but on an absolutely new strategic direction — Lebanese one. Carried out by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), March 12-24 operation “Litani”— the first invasion of Lebanon — albeit with limited objectives, exposed the Syrian Arab Army's serious quality lagging behind its main enemy.

Secondly, in the summer of 1978 Syria and Iraq's attempts to establish a unified Arab state finally failed. As a consequence, SAR faced a threat on the Iraqi direction, which could not be prevented by a full-fledged army group. It was due to both, purely military reasons (the main contingent of the Armed Forces of the SAR was in the Golan Heights and Lebanon, weakening it was not possible) and economic geography ones (desert, almost no developed system of communications). Although since 1975 the relationship between the two countries had been getting worse continuously, in Damascus they still did not believe in the possibility of an armed conflict with Iraq.

Thirdly, Syria's relations with its northern neighbor — the Republic of Turkey — got strained. Here, the main reason was that Damascus supported the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which at the time launched the fighting in the South-Eastern part of Turkey. Another factor that over the next 4 years had escalated sharply the relations between the two countries was the construction by Turks of hydroelectric station in the upper Euphrates. The leadership of Turkey until 1982 could not make a formal agreement on liquidation of this badly needed by Turkey, but extremely dangerous for Syria construction, and decided that the only way out of this situation was strengthening the military component on the Syria-Turkey border. And although for this the 3rd Army Corps was created in 1994, in fact up to the 1990s, its forces (several brigades and regiments of regular troops and two reserve divisions) were clearly not enough to neutralize the potential Turkish threat.

In view of the military and political circumstances, it is the presence in Syria of significant chemical potential was to serve as a very effective and relatively cheap “asymmetric response” to both, new and old military-political challenges. In fact, the creation and development of an arsenal of chemical weapons of SAR was fulfilling the following tasks:

1. The chemical potential of Syria was created in the first place, as a means of countering the Israeli nuclear threat in a particular period, and as a means of political and military-technical (strategic) containment of Iraq (until 1991) and Israel (for the whole period).

2. Based on the experience of the Fourth Arab-Israeli War of 1973, when for the first and only time in the fight against the external enemy Syrians used ballistic missiles (unguided Soviet tactical missiles of the “Luna–M” (FROG-7, according to NATO classification) type at air bases in the north Israel)), SAR's staff officers considered chemical weapons as a means of enhancing quality of their missile arsenal. Supplied from the USSR tactical missile R-17E/M (P-300E/M “Elbrus” (SCUD-B) — 190 units) had very low accuracy against targets (circular error probability — CEP — about 1 km), which allowed to fire them only for large area targets. But that did not meet the conditions of modern warfare exactly against the Israeli state.

Purchase in the DPRK in 1991 of 20 launchers and 150 short-range missiles (according to other sources 1000) “Hwasong-5/6” —SCUD-C (the development of the P-17, with a range of 325-550 km) did not fundamentally change the situation, and a larger CEP (3 km instead of 1) only worsened it. Purchased in 1998 in North Korea of short-range missiles, “Rodong-1” — 8 PU (about 60 missiles) and in Iran of “Shehab-2” — 8 (64, respectively), also had low CEP, since these weapons with a range of 700 to 1,300 km was a consequence of the development of the P-17.

At the same time, accurate enough for the firing range of 70 km, tactical missiles “Luna-M” (unguided — 90 units) and “Tochka” (SS-21— guided —210) were equipped with rather weak conventional warheads (Moscow did not supply Damascus with cluster warheads and warheads with other variants of equipment). Because of this, firing such weapons at the enemy, under which, first of all, were meant units of the IDF, did not really fit the criterion of “cost - effectiveness”. Chemical equipment with sulfur mustard and sarin made ​​tactical missile systems fully suitable to local conditions.

3. Taking into consideration the fact of relatively low-cost production of chemical warfare agents on technology of “dual use”, and the adopted by the SAR government headed by President Hafez al-Assad, general line of the industrialization of the country, the creation of the chemical industry in this aspect was one of the most urgent tasks. At this, the main military and strategic partner of Syria — the Soviet Union — could help (and really did help at early stages) with creation of the chemical industry of SAR, based exactly on “dual” technologies. However, Soviet specialists focused on the establishment of the Syrian chemical industry to meet the needs of the national economy. With many samples of special equipment capable to make chemical warfare agents from appropriate raw materials, the Soviet Union did not supply Syria.

In an effort to fill this gap, Damascus established cooperation with various Western European companies, especially with the West German and French ones, as well as with some U.S. firms. This was not only consistent with of Hafez al-Assad's conception of establishing a national independent and diversified chemical industry, but also took place against the background of a brief thaw in SAR's relations with the EEC. We should remember that it was in the late 1970's - early 1980's that SAR received from Germany and France anti-missile systems “Hot” and “Milan” (about 300), trainer aircrafts MBB-223 “Flamingo” (48 units) and helicopters for fire support SA-342L “Gazelle” (50 units) — weapons that in 1982-1984 were actively and successfully used in the Lebanon war with Israel.

Further cooperation with Western firms gradually phased out due to the weak solvency of the SAR and because of Moscow's political pressure on Damascus, and Washington's political pressure on the Federal Republic of Germany and France. Largely responsible for the collapse of Syrian-West European cooperation in military-chemical sphere was the fact that the firms of the EEC were helping Iraq in creation of its chemical weapons. However, the purchase of the necessary equipment in Western Europe (through front and fictitious companies) continued up to early 1990s. At the same time, due to the relative simplicity of the technological development of the military component of the chemical industry, Syrians had been acting on their own authority.

Supposed siting  of chemical weapons in Syria
Supposed siting of chemical weapons in Syria

As a result, by the early 2000s, the arsenal of chemical weapons of the Syrian Arab Republic, as stated above, according to Western experts, was the largest in the Middle East. Its total was more than 1000 tons of chemical warfare agents of various types of action: blister (mustard agent (mustard gas), had been produced since 1978, the reserves — a few hundred tons), choking (phosgene, since 1978, the reserves of up to 100 tons, mostly in the form of raw materials) and nerve-paralyzing (sarin, in the amount of several hundred tons, tabun, VX — both in the amount of some tens of tons produced since 1984). Production of CWA in Syria was created on the basis of its own raw materials and key components. Production of the CWA and its components were concentrated on 5 companies: near Damascus (Palmyra, sarin) at a petrochemical plant in Homs (gas VX), in Hama (sarin, tabun, VX), Latakia (mustard gas) and Aleppo (Halab) (district of Al-Safir, sarin). Besides, in Syria there were at least 5 different research institutions working in the field of military chemistry. In particular, were being developed various organophosphate CWA and CWA-blood agents, as well as nerve gases, toxicity of which is higher than that of sarin.

Production capacities of the Syrian military chemical industry allowed to get a few hundred tons of CWA annually and to equip with them spray tanks (100 and 300 liters), bombs (100-250 kg caliber), artillery shells caliber 122- and 152-mm, and fighting parts to all available nomenclature of ballistic missiles of the Syrian Arab Army, including 122-mm MRLALR for BM-21 “Grad”. According to Western estimates, in 2002 (with confirmation in 2011), in the arsenal of chemical weapons of SAR there were 300 to 5,000 artillery shells and warheads for 122 mm ALR, 1000 bombs and up to 100 warheads for ballistic missiles, especially of the R-17E/F type, their Iranian and North Korean derivatives (about 2 chemical munitions per launcher), as well as delivered from the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s —“Tochka” (SS-21). The basis of the Syrian chemical arsenal was sarin.

Almost all Syrian chemical weapons were concentrated approximately at 50 special storage facilities, located in northern and central parts of the country (the areas of responsibility of the 3rd and 2nd Army Corps, respectively). Armed Forces of SAR were actively preparing to fight in the situation of the enemy’s using weapons of mass destruction and above all — the chemical ones. To protect the troops and civilians from the effects of its use, in the Chemical College and the Military Engineering Academy of the Armed Forces of SAR named after Hafez al-Assad in Aleppo, were being trained relevant professionals (mostly by Soviet methods).

It is characteristic that Syria did not consider available to its army service CWA as a weapon of mass destruction. According to the military doctrine of Syria, the CWA, along with ballistic missiles, are considered a strategic weapon and are a component of military parity with Israel alone and will be used only in case of a large-scale Israeli aggression against Syria.

The government of Syria for a long time had neither confirmed nor denied the fact of the country having the chemical arsenal. Moreover, in 2003, Syria sent a proposal to the UN on the destruction of all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, including Israel's nuclear stockpile. However, in January 2004, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that his country would not destroy stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, until Israel has done it. Assad explained the need to have chemical weapons as a deterrent, because Syria is a partially occupied country and from time to time becomes subject to aggression by Israel. Then the president noted that “most of these weapons are not hard to get anywhere, and they can be accessed at any time.” It was the first official recognition by the leadership of SAR of presence of chemical weapons and their production capacities, — already well developed. Between the lines one could understand that the chemical weapons were being created by dual-use institutions, and were stored in warehouses across all over the country and in different amounts. Then, in 2003, the statement of the Syrian president was not considered important.

It was remembered 9 years later. With the outbreak of civil war, the scattered across the country Syrian chemical arsenal, apparently, became a concern for the Syrian leadership, as part of its storage sites were in a combat zone and, most of all, were not adequately protected. In the spring of 2012 a number of chemical munitions or components of the CWA got into the hands of the rebels, in whose ranks there were no professional chemists of high level. Information about this spread beyond the SAR, and gave rise to the concept of the “red line”.

However, the government of Syria, as before, was constantly emphasizing that it intended to use its chemical weapons only against a foreign enemy, in case of direct aggression against the country, and in the context of the internal armed conflict it will not let the CWA in the hands of opponents of the regime. Proof of this is the spread in western media facts (referring to intelligence services) of a permanent move by a special unit of the armed forces number 450 of SAR of the stockpiles of chemical weapons about the country and construction of new stores in the Eastern part of Syria. Moreover, according to one version, the tragedy of August 21 was a direct result of a mistake made by the Syrian military during their work with loaded CWA ammunition.

As a result, by the end of the summer of 2013, further physical existence of an arsenal of chemical weapons in SAR in the situation of the ongoing civil war, had just become dangerous. That is why natural was the agreement at the beginning of September of the Syrian leadership to transfer the chemical arsenal under control of the international community with further complete destruction. After all, that's when the arsenal of chemical weapons of SAR became not only the key to eliminating the threat of external attack on the country, but also an unexpected factor in internal threats to Syria itself.

Page URL: