Rebel Groups, Syrian Army Fight Near Chemical Weapons Facility

Administration official: ‘The real danger is if the regime loses control of these chemical materials’

Barrel bomb attack by regime forces on "Jasr al-Haj" neighbourhood of Aleppo caused the deaths of 60 people on May 12, 2015
Barrel bomb attack by regime forces on "Jasr al-Haj" neighbourhood of Aleppo caused the deaths of 60 people on May 12, 2015 / AP

Fighting between the Syrian army and rebels in recent days has raised concerns that chemical weapons at a facility near Damascus could fall into the hands of terrorist groups, according to reports.

Opposition groups have recently launched attacks on military facilities in Barzeh, a district north of Damascus. Barzeh hosts the Scientific Studies and Research Center, a facility where it is believed that the Syrian government developed biological and chemical weapons. Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, is a prominent member of some of the rebel groups.

Reuters reported that Syrian government forces have attempted to dislodge the rebels from areas near Damascus, though the opposition still has a presence not far from the capital:

Speaking form Barzeh, opposition activist Abu Ammar said the research center was the only military facility in Barzeh that the rebels have not managed to hit. He added that a chemical weapons storage facility is located near the center.

"It is very heavily fortified and there are heavy caliber anti-aircraft guns deployed in the complex and in large tracts of land that are part of it," he said.

He said opposition fighters in Barzeh repulsed an attack on their strongholds in the district from the adjacent Ush al-Warwar area, part of several hilltop enclaves inhabited by Assad's minority Alawite sect.

International investigators found traces of two banned chemical weapons at the research center earlier this year, Bloomberg View’s Josh Rogin and Eli Lake reported. The presence of the chemical agents appears to violate a 2013 disarmament deal for Syria’s arsenal and raises concerns about proliferation:

The discovery set off a months-long debate inside the administration about how to respond. President Obama is said to have not yet decided. Meanwhile, a coalition of rebel groups on the ground has been attacking the area around the facility, raising the danger that the chemical weapons could fall into the hands of the rebels, many of whom are linked to Islamic extremists.

"The real danger is if the regime loses control of these chemical materials," one administration official who works on the Middle East told us.