By Michael Elleman, Senior Fellow for Regional Security Operation, IISS–Middle East

US intelligence has determined with ‘high certainty’ that troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have ‘used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year’, killing an estimated 100–150 people. The alleged use of sarin serves as an alarming reminder of the dangers posed by the regime’s chemical-weapons (CW) programme.

Since the Obama administration concluded CW were used in Syria, the debate has focused on how to tip the balance of forces away from Assad and towards the rebels by arming elements of the opposition or implementing a no-fly zone. Surprisingly, there has been little discussion about how to secure Syria’s CW stockpile to prevent use by the regime or theft by rebel forces and terrorist groups should Assad lose control of these weapons. There has been almost no talk of how to contain and eliminate Syria’s CW programme, including its research, development and production infrastructure, and technical know-how.

What we know

The precise location of Syria’s five largest CW storage sites is certainly known to US intelligence, as are the major production plants and the main research and development facility outside Damascus – the Centre of Scientific Studies and Research – which was recently attacked by Israeli jets. If Washington were to decide to secure these sites, most of Syria’s CW stockpile would presumably be safeguarded and eventually eliminated. The US Army created an expert force, the 20th Support Command, to perform such tasks. The specialised unit has reportedly trained with the 82nd Airborne Division, in preparation for operations in the highly volatile environment of Syria. The Pentagon has also trained Jordanian troops to assist US forces in any attempt to secure Syria’s CW. The overall effort is likely to involve at least 75,000 soldiers.

But Syria has neither signed nor acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and has not officially detailed the content of its CW programme; nor has it declared the location of its CW support and storage facilities. US intelligence has identified 40 possible CW sites in Syria.  The uncertainty in the number and approximate location of critical sites raises serious questions about the US military’s ability to secure and account for Assad’s entire CW stockpile, or know how many weapons or how much bulk chemical agent has been looted, used or deployed by the regime and supporting forces, such as Hizbullah.

It is highly unlikely that anyone outside of Assad’s immediate security circle knows exactly how much and what types of chemical agent were produced, where they were produced and by what processes; nor would they know who was responsible for managing the programme, supervising weapons production, administering the manufacturing records or maintaining the dispersed stockpile. High-level defectors, such as Major-General Adnan Silu, the former head of Assad’s CW programme, can offer considerable insight and valuable – though possibly dated – information. But the infamous intelligence failures during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion offer a cautionary reminder that defector information can be flawed, and there is much about the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programmes of foreign countries that cannot be known.

Creating capacity

If the White House tasks the US military to safeguard and eliminate Syria’s CW stockpile, shutter the programme that produced the arsenal and ensure that parts or all of the programme cannot be reconstituted, the army will have to expand its capabilities. It will have to integrate ‘information exploitation teams’ into the 20th Support Command, the 82nd Airborne Division and other units deployed to Syria. These teams should be composed of interrogators, linguists, forensics experts, criminal investigators, chemists and engineers familiar with industrial processes and the manufacture of CW, disposal specialists and intelligence personnel. They must be capable of securing perishable data and artefacts; identifying, capturing and interviewing key personnel; acting on newly acquired intelligence; and accompanying troops to critical sites.   

Information exploitation is also essential to ensure that components of the programme do not leak to terrorist organisations, rebel forces or other militant groups.

Absent a rigorous investigative approach to the search for CW in Syria, the United States cannot contain the full spectrum of threats posed by Assad’s arsenal. The Pentagon must identify the needed expertise, assemble the specialists, and train them to operate as a cohesive unit in a potentially hostile environment. The instability in Syria, the size of the Syrian CW arsenal and the scope of the programme demand the immediate formation of information exploitation teams trained to dismantle WMD programmes. 

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