Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles are vulnerable to being taken and used by terrorist groups, according to a new report by an Israeli think tank.
In addition to the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar al-Assad regime, “there is a real and immediate threat that chemical weapons, agents, or precursors could fall in the hands of terrorist organizations, be it Hezbollah (in which case the regime itself could be willing to provide them to its staunch ally), pro-Syrian Palestinian organizations, the Free Syrian Army, and its local units or the various Islamist and jihadists factions like Jabha al-Nusra,” the report says.
The report warned that the Assad regime alliance with Hezbollah poses a danger that chemical arms will be transferred to the group.
“The Syrians have provided in the past long-range missiles and other heavy weapons to Hezbollah and Israel has bombed attempts to transfer to the organization advanced anti-aerial SA-17 missiles,” the report said.
“The possibility of transfer of chemical weapons to the Lebanese terrorist organization is therefore realistic and worries the neighboring countries and especially Israel.”
Hezbollah currently has over 50,000 rockets and missiles, including some capable of hitting Israel.
Assad also might provide chemical weapons to proxy Palestinian groups, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command, the faction led by Ahmed Jibril, a major terrorist group.
“Finally, the nightmarish scenario of chemical weapons falling in the hands of the Free Syrian Army’s many local ‘brigades,’ or worse in the hands of the various Islamist and jihadists factions, like Jabha al-Nusra, could materialize at any moment,” the report said.
“These groups have already captured in the past military camps, airports, and missile bases and possibly have already some chemical weapons or precursors in their possession and some professional defectors from the Syrian army. “
The report urged continued tracking of both Syrian government and rebel forces to watch who controls the chemical arsenal.
Publication of the report comes as the United States has delayed plans for a missile strike against Syria for its use of nerve agent near Damascus Aug. 21. The gas attack killed an estimated 1,429 people.
According to the report, “Syria’s Chemical Weapons—The Terrorism Threat,” Assad’s military forces have the will to continue fighting rebels but are “struggling” to reverse gains by rebels.
The 12-page report was produced by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and released Monday.
Rachel Schwartz, an analyst at the center, stated in a separate report that the civil war has placed the chemical weapons at risk of being taken by terrorists.
“The fear of terrorist organizations ability to gain such weapons also extends to the Free Syrian Army, who might supply such weapons to regional terrorist groups,” she stated. “While openly opposed to the Syrian regime, al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra also poses a serious security concern.”
Currently several al-Nusra factions are said to be within striking range of chemical weapons caches and “should they succeed in capturing them, Israeli security forces have publicly voiced concern over the possibility of them being utilized against Israeli targets,” she stated.
Schwartz said the official currently overseeing the chemical weapons security is special security adviser Ali Mamlouk. “Assad has lost overall command and control as the war has progressed according to a defector from the chemical weapons units,” she said.
Now chemical weapons stockpiles are in the hands of loyalists belonging to Assad’s Alawite clan.
The Assad regime appears desperate to stay in power and thus has used chemical weapons extensively between March and May of this year, the report said.
Israel has said it would take military action if Syria’s chemical arms fall into the hands of terrorist groups. The Assad regime has aligned itself with Iran and Hezbollah, a Lebanese-based terror group with a global reach.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday called on Syria to be stripped of its chemical arms.
“It must be ensured that the Syrian regime is stripped of its chemical weapons, and the world must make sure that whoever uses weapons of mass destruction pays a price for it,” Netanyahu said at a military ceremony, Reuters reported. “The message that is received in Syria will be received loudly in Iran.”
Syria’s chemical arms were developed after the country’s defeat in wars against Israel and Damascus was heavily dependent on foreign assistance for precursor chemical and equipment from Russia, Egypt, West Germany, France, Iran, North Korea, and other countries over the past 20 years.
Domestic production of chemical arms began in 1973, including the blistering agent mustard and nerve agent sarin and VX.
It is estimated that an arsenal of 1,000 tons of chemical arms are stored at some 50 different cities, mainly in the northern part of the country near the Turkish border.
“Since 2009 Syria has been amassing a larger chemical weapons arsenal and engineering more complex chemical compounds,” the ICT report said.
Delivery systems include aerial bombs, artillery shells and rockets, and ballistic missiles. Syria in 1993 pioneered the use of tube and rocket artillery rounds filled with mustard gas, the first weaponization of its kind, the report said.
Chemical weapons production of sarin and VX are carried out at five sites: al-Safira, Hama, Homs, Latakia, and Palmyra. Storage sites are located at al-Furqlus, Dumayr, Khan Abu Shamat, and the Scientific Studies and Research Center.
A secret research center is located at Jamraya, northwest of Damascus. “It is the most clandestine and highest profile research and development center in Syria,” the report said. “It is home to some of the most important strategic military bases in Syria and critical weapons are developed and stored there.”
According to the report, the Syrian military controls major urban cities and supply routes, but rebels are taking control of areas in the north and east.
The rebels “are continuously trying to overrun Syrian weapons depots, which they have not succeeded to do except for the suspected takeover of a factory outside of Aleppo by Jabha al-Nusra in August 2012,” the report said.
Official Syrian sources claimed that rebels were found to control two containers of sarin that were uncovered during a raid on rebels in al Faraich, the report said.
“From this we can infer that the chemical weapons stores located in the major cities as well as near Lattakia on the coast are held and controlled by Syrian government forces or related militias,” the report said.
“In areas near the major cities in flux however, it is unclear who holds these facilities.”
The report said the regime used chemical weapons at least four times between March and May.
A British intelligence report has said the regime used chemical arms on 12 occasions.