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Syria possesses the region’s largest known supply of chemical weapons, reportedly producing a few hundred tons of deadly chemical agent per year.
Syrian President Bashar Assad is facing intense domestic and international pressure to step down amid his brutal crackdown on anti-government protestors.
Loose Syrian Weapons Could Pose a
In a sign that Syria may be on the brink of civil war, defectors from the military were reportedly responsible for recent attacks on an intelligence base near Damascus and a ruling Baath party office in the northwest of the country. There is a growing boldness among deserters in confronting President Bashar Assad’s regime, which the U.N. estimates has killed more than 3,500 people in a brutal crackdown.
The United States, European Union and Turkey all agree that Assad has lost the legitimacy to lead. But what will happen to Syrian weapons stockpiles if and when Assad’s rule collapses?
The experience of Libya’s rebellion revealed that hidden weapons caches can be vast and quickly transferred to regional buyers. Earlier this month, the U.N.’s top envoy in Libya confirmed that thousands of highly sophisticated missiles and others weapons have disappeared or been looted from unguarded compounds in Tripoli. Some of these weapons have already ended up in the hands of terrorist organizations in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Syria possesses the region’s largest known supply of chemical weapons, including missile warheads, aerial bombs, artillery shells and containers of pre-weaponized poison agent. Such items would command huge profits from terrorist organizations that have sought to acquire them for years.
In addition to the chemical and biological weapons themselves, Syria’s arsenal includes sophisticated delivery systems. Damascus is believed to have as many as 1,000 Scud ballistic missiles, with a range of up to 435 miles, as well as tens of thousands of locally made rockets covering all of northern and central Israel. It has also reportedly transferred Scud and even more advanced M-600 surface-to-surface missiles to Hizballah in Lebanon, providing the terrorist organization’s missile arsenal with a range and accuracy it did not previously have.
In the chaos of a Syrian civil war or regime collapse, the most difficult weapons to protect would be “small arms,” weapons for one or two people, as they are the easiest to move. Syria has more than 4,000 man-portable air defense systems known as MANPADS, which have proven deadly even to advanced American aircraft and can also be used to target civilian airplanes. Yiftah Shapir, an Israeli strategic analyst, says MANPADS may now be in Gaza for the first time, smuggled into the territory from Libya through tunnels under the border between Egypt and Gaza.
“[MANPADS] can shoot down a plane, from about five kilometers [3.1 miles] give or take, and altitude of usually up to 10,000 feet, 12,000 feet,” he said.
Syria also has the Kornet—a heavy anti-tank missile—in its arsenal. This missile has been used to deadly effect against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Israeli civilian targets. A loss of centralized Syrian control could lead to the region being flooded with Kornet missiles.
U.S. officials have recently expressed the belief that Assad’s days are numbered amid growing international censure and internal pressure. The regime faces a rapidly deteriorating economic situation under tough sanctions, desertions within the security forces and deepening isolation even among the Arab states and its traditional allies. Assad is seen to be in an inescapable decline of power, but of unknown duration.
Assad has proven willing to transfer advanced missiles and weapons technology to Hizballah in the past, and individual Syrian commanders on either side of a civil war could see the benefit of quick cash sales. In a total collapse of civil authority, chemical, biological and other advanced weapons systems could easily find their way to neighboring countries and into the hands of terrorist groups, threatening regional stability and adding to the complex security challenges that Israel faces.
As in the case of Libya, outside powers are unlikely to be able to fully prevent the realization of these potential threats should they materialize. The U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) could tighten the implementation on the Syrian border and along the Lebanese coast of its mandate to “assist the Government of Lebanon in securing its borders and other entry points to prevent the entry in Lebanon without its consent of arms or related materiel.” Yet this would be a partial answer at best, and given UNIFIL’s poor security performance to date, it’s unlikely that Israel would find it possible to rely on the U.N. force for its security. BACK TO TOP