Could US remove Syria chemical weapons?

US soldiers in biochemical warfare suits

President Barack Obama's warning about Syria's unconventional weapons arsenal is one of those "sit up and take notice" moments. He warned, "we cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people".

The US president added, "we have put together a range of contingency plans".

These are thought to range from air strikes on key depots to special operations to seizing key stockpiles.

Is the idea of American Hercules transports landing in the middle of Syria, while special forces bring trucks full of nerve gas shells to load on board credible? Certainly, the White House want us to believe it is.

For many years the Syrian regime regarded the possession of a powerful arsenal of ballistic missiles armed with chemical warheads (including nerve agents) as its strategic counter-weight to the Israeli nuclear bomb.

At one point, it would appear, they decided a Syrian nuclear capability would be handy too, but Israel put paid to that in 2007 with an air raid against the suspected secret atomic research facility.

That unilateral Israeli strike demonstrated the critical value of good intelligence in countering any threat of this kind. The West's unhappy experience with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq showed the pitfalls of acting on a flawed picture.

Syria's long term investment in missiles and chemical weapons means that the world's intelligence agencies do know a good deal about its capabilities in these areas. There are stockpiles of thousands of munitions (bombs for aircraft, artillery shells or missile warheads) as well as hundreds of missiles.

Fearing a first strike to disarm them, Syria positioned much of the infrastructure far away from its Zionist enemy. Thus the 63rd and 72nd Missile Brigades of the Syrian army - holders of the Scud and SS-23s that could carry chemical warheads - are centred south-west of Aleppo in the far north of the country.

For similar reasons the main chemical weapons production facility is also close to the city.

It is a bitter irony of the current crisis that far from being safe, Aleppo is now at the centre of fighting between government and opposition forces.

There are fears among Western intelligence analysts either that militant groups might obtain them, or that they might be passed to organisations like Hezbollah in Lebanon or even used to defend the regime.

Israeli reports have already suggested that some Scud missiles may have been sent to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

So how able would the United States be to put into effect the "contingency plans" that Mr Obama referred to?

Intelligence about some kinds of weapons, notably the biological agents that Syria is believed to have developed, is patchy.

On chemical weapons, the key would be to isolate the storage sites and take over the stocks, or, in an emergency, destroy them in situ.

While the Israelis have talked about a centralised system for holding these munitions with six main locations (manageable), UK/US analysis suggests a distributed network of 30-40 chemical weapons dumps (much more of a challenge).

During the Cold War and events of 1991-2003 in Iraq the problem of gaining sound intelligence on chemical weapons was encountered over and over again.

A satellite may pinpoint storage tanks or bunkers for storing artillery shells, and accompanying indicators like special security fences or guard posts may suggest a WMD role. But when it comes to working out whether such facilities are empty or full, whether the agents are stable or what type they are, analysts are often guessing.

Human intelligence, old fashioned spying, has proven all too fallible too. Many of Saddam Hussein's generals earnestly believed that Iraq had large stockpiles of chemical weapons until the end.

Indeed there is some evidence that even the Iraqi leader may have thought that more of his WMD infrastructure may have survived years of UN inspections than was actually the case.

If the intelligence is sound, then the practical side of seizing these weapons stockpiles, and destroying the long range missiles, might not be insurmountable.

Among Syria's neighbours, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel would both have a strong interest in allowing access to US forces to mount such raids.

However, if the information about dozens of storage sites is right, then there is a distinct possibility that significant quantities of these weapons could go missing, even if the US plans were 95% effective.

Mark Urban, Diplomatic and defence editor, Newsnight Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

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  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    A strike on Syrian chemical sites could engulf the whole region and take it on a very dangerous trajectory. Israel would surely be involved. Syria would call on Russia in its hour of need. President Obama would not risk his election prospects by authorising a strike at this juncture. He would rather wait for the elections to be out of the way before launching a strike on Syria's chemical sites.,

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    The same Barak Obama who was so critical of President Bush for going after chemical WMDs in Iraq is now talking about the U.S. going after WMDs in Syria.

    Election year politics make for some strange policy "evolutions", don't they?

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    It's amazing that a meaningless article about non-facts would produce such strong reactions. If Mr. Obama or any other world leader has contingency plans, they would have very good reasons to keep them secret. If they don't have contingency plans, then certainly they would want to keep THAT a secret. Why would we get so worked up over something that hasn't happened yet? What good does that do?

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    You underestimate the size of the task if you think removal would be easy. These munitions are preloaded meaning that you have to remove the arty shells or warheads; we're talking multiple train cars or semi-trailers...a major logistical challenge even with cooperation of syrains...which is unlikely. On site decommmissioning is the only option if you don't want to risk environmental disaster.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    If I lived in Southern Lebanon I would be very worried indeed.

    No doubt Mr. Nasrallah will remain in his bunker for the forseeable future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Its really ironic how West/Saudi Leaders act hypocritically, giving arms and ammunition to the Rebels and sitting idle n let them fight with Syrian government, all along killing innocent civilians...

    Is death by bullets and mortar any different in resolve than death by poison gas or a chemical agent?

    Obama I thought you were a game-changer but you just immersed yourself into the status-quo

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Its not a matter of if they could remove syria's chemical weapons. They could easily do it if they really wanted wanted. Its a matter of when they would do it and why they would do it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Russia, China and the US should keep their noses out of other countries business. Plain and simple.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Complete clowns........ imagine arming the "rebels" and then finding ourselves in this situation where we are worried about these same people we are arming..... will get their hands on these grossly obcene weapons. Complete madness and shows how using weapons to solve the worlds problems is an impossible dream. Our world leaders are idiots.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Given threat of external attack it would be unimaginable that Syrians have not taken action to protect. Second, weapons while stored separately would be located in dumps alongside conventional weapons complicating attack or removal. In Iraq, attack of dumps resulted in loss of control of munitions as security was destoyed and militants had access before secuirty was restored..

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Can the US remove all of the chemicals weapons in Syria? No, of course not. 40 storage sites, 21,000 tonnes of chemical weapons sold or given to Syria by certain EU nations, Iraq, the UAE and India makes for a logistical nightmare not to mention the hazardous environment one wrong slip would create. If everyone knew what's at stake, they might stop shooting and sit down and discuss a settlement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Mr Travers, I don't believe Russia is so deep into Syria's camp they would cross swords with the US over any step the US might take. And who do you think would "obliterate" the UK because of this.

    I don't know who Allllahhhhhhh is, but where is your proof the chemical weapons come from Iraq. No one believes it but the Bush camp. It is reflexive self protection seeking freedom from past actions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Not if Russia and China were making an effort to keep them there.
    Sterling Greenwood/Aspen

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.


    Here is what is gonna happen. Syria is gonna move all their WMD's BACK to Iraq, notice I said BACK

    Then you are gonna go in there, raid Syria, then there won't be any WMD's left... cause they moved them BACK (yep back) to Iraq.

    Then the whole international community is gonna be like..


  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Oh brother. Let the anti-American postings begin. Yet another crisis for the US. If we were to be proactive and confiscate these weapons, it would be seen as yet another breach of sovereignty. If we were to stay put and the chemicals put to use, we'll be blamed for inaction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Everyone is rattling sabres, but is the US really prepared to cross the Russians and risk a war over Syria? The sudden hike in the price of gold suggests serious world concern. I don't want to be obliterated here in the UK because Obama thinks he might lose an election campaign.


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