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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 37.



    President Obama is trying to impress 2·1% of the U.S. electorate?

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    What has Washington promised to keep its allies lined up & obedient, particularly Govt of Turkey as well as GCC. Washington has simply lost its credibility as well as its power. Could US remove chemical weapons; of course,, they could SAY THAT THEY HAVE REMOVED CHEMICAL WEAPONS, & some of the world would believe it, but most would not. Somewhat like the belief in the Bin Laden Saga.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    US is over stretched - economically, & militarily - at brink of historical collapse. Nations, in particular GCC members (Cooperation Council for Arab States of the Gulf) are realizing supporting US' agenda will threaten their own preservation. US has undermined itself: "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine, legitimacy of UN, so-called commitment to "human rights," & "War on Terror" narrative...

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Obama claims US "fears" Syria's unconventional weapons "falling into the hands of the wrong people." Since US is arming, funding, & threatening to back militarily, listed Al Qaeda terrorist organizations, then whose hands is the US talking about? US seems to have stretched its support for terrorism all the way to Russia's Caucasus Mountains, reigniting violence there, linked to Al Qaeda as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Obama says Syrian biochemical weapons mustn't fall into the wrong hands. That is a direct admission that he, the USA, is backing the 'wrong hands' and I am amazed that n one in the BBC has picked up on this. I am sure the Russians would be glad to give the UN help in securing the biochemical weapons in Syria - but that would mean Syria keeping its new found coastal oil rights alongside Lebanon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Scott0962 @ 16

    You say that Obama, who was critical of Bush's stance re WMDs in Iraq, is now talking the same about Syria.

    Agreed, but he has no choice because he needs the Jewish vote to stay in power

    The U.S. electorate will be brainwashed by a $6bn onslaught of (miss)information, some of which will be about Middle East policy

    This policy will be orchestrated mainly by Israeli lobby groups

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    As always issues of WMDs are US election rhetoric -- imaginary threats (thousands of miles away and separated by vast oceans) are extinguished by hook or crook (largely crook) -- and elections are won by swaying the poor American electorates who have lesser and lesser food on their tables -- and their lives are dictated not by what is good for them but by what is good for Israel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Say the US does go in to take chemical weapons, presumably defeating Assadist guards, how would it affect the war? Would nationalist regime loyalists be energised by nationalist indignation or further demoralised. Secularist FSA might welcome or even assist or take advantage of the attack, but how would salafist rebels and the non-combatant majority take it? Is this part of US calculations?

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Obama is not going to do anything until the presidential election is over with. Any action against Syria will just draw Israel,and other Middle Eastern nations into the action. Iran is now Israel's main objective. Soon Israel's back will be up against the wall with the civil unrest taking place in Syria & the growing nuclear threat from Iran. Obama knows full well that the risks are too high.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Weapons of mass destruction would be extremely difficult to find in Syria. If it is true that Syria has such weapons they should be removed. This is a game for intelligence, and no matter how hard one looks at the data there will still be hidden stockpiles of chemical weapons somewhere in Syria. Chemical weapons are easy to move, and if the regime in Syria feels threatened it will just move them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    24. Randomdude

    I guess I'm going to have to remind you of the context. It was WWII. The Allies needed to pacify Japan, requiring a full-scale invasion of the country. Historians have estimated such an action would have cost MILLIONS of lives on both sides. Using the bomb saved those lives. So yes, in this scenario, it was PREFERABLE, NOT "OK", to use the bomb.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    23. Bork

    Would you rather have had millions more die fighting to pacify Japan?

    The US gave a warning well in advance. Japan did not heed it.

    Oh, and guess what. Despite the bombing, Japan is now a close ally of the US.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Yeah, sure the US can try to remove them, that wouldn't prevent the Syrians (of whatever flavor) from dirtying the situation by intentionally setting some of them off and making the removal a non-idea. If someone is thinking about it, the opposite side will guess and escalate the problem. Both Muslims and Americans have ample history of killing their own for dubious religious/political ends.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    to 22. (SoothSayer21)

    Your logic is flawless.
    First, you say that just because "the US has done it" they shouldn't be prevented from preventing another country to use atom/chemical bomb.
    Next, you say that, well, actually, bombing was OK, because it was US atom/chemical bomb.

    Try again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    22. SS21

    You mean killing 250,000 people in one instance and causing enormous suffering to millings of others in years to come was a good & right thing? Quite American point of view.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    21. Randomdude

    Who said its okay? I'm not sure what you are trying to imply? That because the US has done it (and pretty much every country in regards to chemical weapons), they shouldn't prevent another country? What idiocy. I bet your one of those people that thinks that the atom bomb didn't save millions of lives. And yes, the US warned Japan beforehand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    But surely it's OK for USA to use nuclear and chemical weapons against civilians

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    action is only slightly better. ot would take 6 months or more to create a base to launch the first attack.
    of course its not the first time white christians have launched stupid attacks in the area under the delusion 'God wills it, everything will work".

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I think other people are right - I think that we Americans should stop interfering with other countries and their governments.
    We should bring back all our troops-and all our money.
    We should become more of a isolationist country.-American tax money should help Americans.
    I see Americans going hungry while we're feeding people in other countries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    re. 11.Kojo: "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..."

    The irony is how quickly people who criticize the West for intervening in other countries' affairs turn right around and criticize the West for not doing it when they want them to.


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