Syrian Chemical Weapons: The Potential Threat It Could Pose Across The Middle East

Damascas, Syria

As Syria descends into deeper levels of violence and chaos while the central control of President Assad and his Alawite minority sect loses its grip on the stability of war torn country, there are growing concerns that Syria’s chemical and biological weapons arsenal, air defense systems, and ballistic missiles could be at risk of falling into the hands of hostile militias that may seek to overturn the power structure within the Middle East.

Given Syria’s geo-political location in the central Middle East and its history of enduring past invasions from Romans, the Ottoman Empire, and French the Syrian people are experienced surviving political instability and social upheaval.

During the past four decades, the Assad family has managed to wield control power of Syria through the tactical  combination of political skill, brutal force, and close alliances with larger protector countries such as Iran, Russia, and China.

Historical Perspective

The Alawites are a small mystical sect within Shia Islam whose minority followers have well documented history of being skillful fighters, resisting Ottoman’s efforts of forced Sunni conversion and later sabotaging the well equipped French military when Syria and Lebanon were under the French Mandate following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Syria finally became independent on April 17, 1946.

Following World War II and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Syria remained opposed to the statehood of Israel and today is one of its enemies in the Middle East. 

In 1970, then an Air Force General, Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, managed to take over power from the dominant Ba’ath Party.

One year later, Hafez al-Assad declared himself president of Syria, a position the Syrian constitution reserved exclusively for Sunni Muslims.

In 1973, a new constitution was adopted that eliminated the older requirement that the religion of the state be Islam, replacing it with a statement that the religion of the republic’s president is Islam.

The difference between the requirements is poignant and held wider implications for the political framework of Syria.

After the new constitution was created and implemented, protests emerged across Sunni majority Syria.

Under the authoritarian but secular led Assad government which extended from the early 1970’s until Hafez al-Assad passed away in 2000, religious minorities were tolerated more than in the past, but political dissidents were not.

Hafez’s son Bashar al-Assad took over in 2000 and continued the established system of his father’s authoritarian yet tolerant government.

Arab Spring and Syria’s Response

In 2011 the “Arab Spring” emerged across Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya with new calls for democratic freedoms.

The BBC reported that the latest unrest in Syria began in the southern city of Deraa in March “when locals gathered to demand the release of 14 school children who were arrested and reportedly tortured after writing on a wall the well-known slogan of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt: ‘The people want the downfall of the regime'”. 

According to the BBC, the protesters also called for democracy and greater freedom, though not President Assad’s resignation.

“When people marched though the city after Friday prayers on 18 March, security forces opened fire, killing four people. The following day, they shot at mourners at the victims’ funerals, killing another person” BBC reported.

Following the acts of violence committed by security forces loyal to President Assad, the resistance movement gained traction and culminated in a full scale armed conflict which many are calling a “civil war”.

Biological and Chemical Weapons

As Syria descends into further destabilization and President Assad’s military leaders are under increasing pressure, concerns have grown about the safety of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons arsenal, air defense systems, and ballistic missiles.

Syria has been acquiring chemical weapons since the 1980’s and is believed to hold a larger stockpile than any other country that has faced an ethnic civil war.

The rebel based Free Syrian Army is made up of army defectors and civilian volunteers. Unorganized and outgunned compared to the Russian equipped security forces, the Free Syrian Army’s volunteers hold diverging ideologies beyond the unifying common goal of overthrowing President Assad and his aggressive military.

The rebel army is being supported by Turkey and equipped by Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Yesterday Reuters reported that  “A senior Syrian military defector said President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were moving chemical weapons across the country for possible use in a military retaliation for the killing of four top security officials” but his comments could not be independently verified and Syria denied any such move.

General Sheikh, the reported defector, said “momentum gained by the rebels was prompting faster high-level defections and at least 100,000 soldiers have deserted out of the 320,000-strong military, almost double the numbers of only a few months.”

Israeli and western military commanders are concerned about what could potentially happen to Syria’s vast weapons arsenal if President Assad is overthrown and Syria descends into further chaos and instability. 

The AP reports, ” Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli Defence Ministry official, told Israel’s Army Radio  that ‘right now, they (the Syrian regime) are maintaining control of these  arsenals as best they can’ “. On Sunday, he told reporters, “the state of Israel cannot accept a situation where advanced weapons systems are transferred from Syria to Lebanon.”

One of Israel’s primary enemies is Hezbollah which receives a wide base of support in Lebanon.

Over the weekend, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Channel 2 TV,  “I’ve ordered the Israeli military to prepare for a situation where we would have to weigh the possibility of carrying out an attack” against Syrian weapons arsenals, the AP reported.

One of the future risks is that Syria’s close ally, Iran, a country that is currently mired in international sanctions and feeling cornered by the international community, could decide to support Syria in the future if Israel was willing to engage in a full  scale an air assault operation on Syria’s weapons arsenal.

An attack on Syria could provide the pretext for Iran to turn its animosity towards Israel in a direct confrontation.

A future Israeli air attack on Syrian targets also has the potential to embolden President Assad’s standing and inflame Arab anger directed at Israel and it western supporters.

This older Assad family photo shows former Syrian President Hafez Assad seated with his wife, Anisa. Behind them from left to right are children Maher, Bashar, Basel, Majd and Bushra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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