WASHINGTON -- With concern over the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons stockpile reaching a fever pitch this week, international experts are cautioning against alarmism, saying there’s no confirmation that the Syrians are mixing weapons components or loading them into delivery systems, as some U.S. news organizations have reported.
Experts in the United States and Europe who monitor unconventional weapons said that President Bashar Assad’s embattled regime certainly has moved parts of his nation’s vast, acknowledged chemical arsenal. But that movement could be interpreted as reassuring rather than alarming, the experts said, if the intention is to keep the weapons from extremists in the anti-Assad movement who are at the forefront of recent rebel advances.
Syria has denied that it plans to deploy chemical weapons, likening such a move to “suicide” because of U.S.-led warnings that doing so would invite Western intervention in the nearly 2-year-old conflict.
“I’m skeptical about sarin being prepared or artillery shells being filled. I’ve just seen too much in the past with satellite photography making assumptions about chemical weapons, most infamously in Iraq,” said Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association in Washington and an early skeptic of U.S. claims that Iraq had built up a chemical weapons arsenal prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003. At the time, Thielmann was acting director for the State Department office responsible for analyzing the Iraqi weapons threat. No such weapons were found once U.S. troops had vanquished Iraqi forces.
“Even if we could see them being filled, how do we know how they intend to use them?” Thielmann added. “There’s no threat made by Assad of using them, and we’ve made our threats to a sufficient level that he could expect something pretty nasty if he did.”
Unlike the debate over whether or not Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, there’s no dispute that Syria has amassed a chemical arsenal. Assad admitted as long ago as January 2009 that his government had chemical weapons. Even before then, those who studied the issue had believed for years that Syria had a strategic capacity – including VX, mustard and sarin gases – which the regime billed as a counter to Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal.
Syria is known to have short- and mid-range missiles, bombs that can be dropped from jets and artillery shells, all of which could be used to deploy the gases. When asked about “growing concerns” surrounding Syria’s chemical weapons, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, “Without commenting on the specific intelligence that we have with regards to these chemical weapons, I think there is no question that we remain very concerned, very concerned. That, as the opposition advances, in particular in Damascus, that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons.”
But many who study the topic worry that the hysteria has gone well beyond what the facts warrant, and there are concerns that the intelligence hasn’t really shown much change in recent months.
Jean Pascal Zanders, a senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies and one of the world’s leading experts on chemical weapons, wrote in an email from Brussels that he has “concern that the Syrian chemical weapons threat is being ratcheted up to justify military intervention in a not too distant future.”