BEIRUT: A recent posthumous quote from a leading Al-Qaeda ideologue advocating the use of biological and chemical weapons against the West serves as a grim and urgent reminder that Syria’s arsenal of nonconventional weapons could be up for grabs as the violence worsens and parts of the country slip out of the state’s control.
Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Al-Qaeda leader who was killed last September in a drone missile strike in Yemen, was posthumously quoted in a recent edition of Al-Qaeda’s English-language Inspire magazine as saying: “The use of poisons or chemical and biological weapons against population centers is allowed and strongly recommended due to its great effect on the enemy.”
The extent of Al-Qaeda penetration into Syria is unclear, although there are indications that elements of the armed opposition – Arab volunteers and Sunni Syrians alike – are becoming radicalized and adopting distinct religious and Islamist rhetoric, with many hailing the campaign to unseat the Assad regime as a “jihad.”
Al-Qaeda is believed to have been seeking weapons of mass destruction since at least the late 1990s. Documents seized by U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2001 pointed to Al-Qaeda efforts to weaponize biological agents.
In January 2009, it was reported that a training camp in Algeria run by the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb was abandoned after 40 militants died during experimentation with bubonic plague.
The convergence of Al-Qaeda’s ambition to acquire weapons of mass destruction and the presence in a strife-torn Syria of one of the largest chemical weapons stockpiles in the world has generated considerable international concern.
“Syria is a brand new type of event that is completely unprecedented in a number of critical ways ... It should be at the top of out list of concern right now,” said Charles Blair, senior fellow for State and Non-State Threats at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists.
Syria is believed to have begun developing a nonconventional arsenal in the 1980s with the assistance of the Soviet Union in a bid to achieve strategic parity with Israel. Syria is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention and has always denied pursuing a nonconventional weapons program.
But Western intelligence agencies believe Syria has amassed sizable quantities of blistering agents, such as mustard gas which was widely used in World War I and in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, as well as Sarin and VX. The chemical agents are designed to be fitted to an array of delivery systems, from Scud missiles to artillery shells.
According to a recent report by the U.S.-based James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies, there are five identifiable chemical agent manufacturing plants in Syria: at As-Safir, southeast of Aleppo; another near Latakia on the Mediterranean coast; a third near Dumayr, 25 kilometers northeast of Damascus; another at Khan Abu Shamat, 35 kilometers east of Damascus; and one at Al-Furqlus in the Homs province.
There are assessed to be several dozen additional storage sites scattered across the country, some of them in hardened underground bunkers, complicating efforts by Western intelligence agencies to identify the facilities and draw up plans to secure or destroy them.
The options facing the West in preventing chemical weapons falling into the hands of Al-Qaeda-linked groups are not good.
In February, CNN cited a Pentagon report as estimating that it could take 75,000 troops to secure Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, an undertaking that meets with little enthusiasm in the West. Assuming that all the storage facilities can be identified in the first place, an alternative option of pre-emptive airstrikes also carries dangers.
“Airstrikes against chemical weapons facilities means you first have to take out the Syrian air defense network,” said a senior European military officer.
It would require a full coalition for something of this scale and will be very difficult,” the officer added.
Syria boasts one of the densest anti-aircraft networks in the world which includes some recently acquired and effective Russian systems.
Ultimately, however, given Western reluctance to mount a full-scale invasion of Syria to prevent weapons proliferation, experts believe it is almost unavoidable that some chemical or biological agents will disappear. And how the West responds to the potential WMD proliferation crisis in Syria could dictate future responses elsewhere.