Syria’s Hidden Chemical Weapons Spark Concerns

Assad regime reportedly continues to use chlorine against rebels, civilians

Bashar al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad / AP

Syria has revealed the existence of four chemical weapons facilities that were previously undisclosed, a top United Nations official said on Tuesday, raising new concerns about the government’s commitment to eliminating its chemical weapons under an agreement struck last year.

Sigrid Kaag, a special representative of the U.N. secretary-general, reportedly told diplomats on the U.N. Security Council about the newly declared facilities at a closed meeting. Three of the facilities are for research and development and the fourth for production, but no new chemical agents are contained at the sites, according to the Associated Press report on Kaag’s comments.

The disclosure of more facilities raises new questions about whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime might still be hiding parts of its chemical weapons program. Assad agreed to the removal and destruction of his chemical weapons as part of a deal brokered by the United States and Russia in September 2013, which followed the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical agents on civilians in a Damascus suburb. About 1,400 people died in the August 2013 attack, including hundreds of children.

"Must keep pressure on regime so it doesn't hide CW [chemical weapons] capability," U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power tweeted on Tuesday in reference to Assad’s government.

President Barack Obama decided not to order airstrikes on the Syrian regime last year after the announcement of the disarmament deal, despite his previous declaration that chemical weapons attacks in Syria would cross a "red line."

Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and a former Pentagon adviser on Iran and Iraq during the George W. Bush administration, said in an email that the revelation of previously undeclared chemical weapons facilities in Syria is a case of Assad flexing his muscles.

"[Assad] is leaking new details now for two reasons," Rubin said. "First, he wants to suggest to his allies that he deceived the West and second, he is implying that if anyone takes any action against him, he might actually use other undeclared sites to launch chemical weapons he had until this point hidden."

Power previously expressed concerns in early September about the Assad’s regime reliability with respect to the chemical disarmament agreement. The Syrian government missed the June 30 deadline for exporting and destroying all of its chemical arms.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the group tasked with extracting and eliminating all of Syria’s chemical weapons in coordination with the U.N., said in a September report that it had a "high degree of confidence" that chlorine was used "systematically and repeatedly" as a toxic chemical weapon in villages in northern Syria earlier this year. Witnesses told the OPCW that helicopters dropped poison-filled barrel bombs on their villages, leading to accusations that the Syrian government was still employing chemical weapons.

Rebels battling Assad’s government are not known to use aircraft.

Chlorine itself is not a banned substance, but the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria joined last year forbids its use as a chemical weapon.

Power warned in September that if the Assad regime is still concealing chemical weapons, they could eventually end up in the hands of the Islamic State (IS). The brutal jihadist group has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria and is now the target of U.S. and allied airstrikes.

"Certainly, if there are chemical weapons left in Syria, there will be a risk," Power said. "And we can only imagine what a group like that would do if in possession of such a weapon."

The OPCW says all 1,300 tons of Syria’s declared chemical weapons have been removed, and the demolition of the regime’s 12 facilities will begin this month. However, Assad’s government has still not clarified all of the discrepancies in its weapons declaration, the group says.

State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki defended the Syrian chemical weapons agreement on Tuesday at a press briefing despite the Assad’s regime failure to meet deadlines and disclose all of its facilities.

"Without this agreement, there would—all of those chemical weapons that were removed through a cooperative effort by many countries and the international community would still be there, and I don’t see how that’s a better option," she said.

When asked by a reporter whether Assad could be trusted to declare all of his chemical weapons—given U.S. officials’ frequent claim that he has "lost all legitimacy to lead Syria"—Psaki said it was more important to focus on U.S. efforts to train the Syrian opposition as an alternative to Assad.

"This has never been about trust," she said. "And certainly, that’s why we have to boost up the opposition and empower them and increase their strengths so that they can pose a viable alternative here."

Critics say the United States and international community are too willing to give Assad the benefit of the doubt on chemical weapons declaration. The authoritarian leader shows no signs of losing power despite a dual threat from the Islamic State and rebel groups.

"It’s almost as if Obama laid a red line at the 50 yard line, and Assad is juggling the ball while running back and forth across the line, just to prove how he can run circles around the president," Rubin said.