Desperate, frustrated and running out of options, the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad appears to be entering its twilight. However, the U.S. fears that in a last-ditch bid to hold on to power the dictator may resort to chemical weapons.
Now in its eleventh hour and with time rapidly dwindling down towards what appears to be an inevitable total meltdown of the regime, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons finally emerge from the dark shadows of storage in Syria’s laboratories and weapons depots.
These dreadful instruments of malice and death have now taken center stage, commanding the world’s attention while looming large over the current conflict that has left the Syrian nation in tatters and in the throes of anarchy.
With opposition rebels closing in on the Syrian capital of Damascus, Al-Assad is increasingly becoming a desperate man and as such may be given to desperate measures. He is facing long odds on not just staying in power but also on possibly remaining alive should he choose to stay in that country.
As the Syrian government continues to fail in its efforts to put down the nearly 21 month-long insurgency being waged by opposition rebels through conventional means, fears have increased that the regime may turn to its chemical weapon stockpiles in a last-ditch effort to preserve the regime.
Elizabeth Arrott - Voice of America
Anti-riot police in central Damascus, Jan. 16, 2012.
The United States in particular is “deeply concerned” that al-Assad may unleash chemical warfare in a desperate bid to put down the rebellion.
The Obama administration has issued several stern warnings to the al-Assad regime this past week, warning of “consequences” if chemical weapons are utilized during the ongoing civil war.
At a briefing in Washington this past week, White House press secretary, Jay Carney refused to divulge to reporters what measures the U.S. may be considering though he reiterated that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that would trigger a U.S. military response.
There are also fears that the regime's chemical weapons arsenal may fall into the hands of such terrorist organizations as al-Qaida, Hezbollah, or Hamas, should the regime fall. The chief concern remains the deployment of chemical weapons by the regime.
Confronting the Conundrum of Syria's chemical weapons
This past summer the Syrian foreign ministry released an official statement in which it said that it would never consider the use of chemical warfare against its own civilians and would only deploy such weapons if that nation were attacked by foreign powers during the Syrian civil war.
However, that past statement has done little to allay the chemical weapons concerns of western nations, especially in light of recent developments that the Syrian regime has been prepping those dreaded weapons for action.
This past Monday, a high-level Defense Department official in Washington told the Associated Press that U.S. intelligence had detected movement of chemical weapon components at one site.
This past Wednesday, U.S. officials revealed to NBC News that Syria's military has loaded nerve-gas chemicals into bombs and are awaiting final orders from al-Assad. Meanwhile, Fox News cited a senior U.S. official as saying the bombs must be used within 60 days or the chemical expires and must be destroyed.
The West displayed a united front as they issued a series of reminders to Syrian leader al-Assad throughout this past week that chemical warfare would not be tolerated. Washington in particular issued a rather ominous warning to the regime foretelling of “consequences” if it crossed the “red line” through the deployment of chemical weapons.
"The world is watching," Obama said this past Monday at a symposium on nuclear non-proliferation in Washington. "If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences, and you will be held accountable."
"We simply cannot allow the 21st century to be darkened by the worst weapons of the 20th century," he added.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last Wednesday also warned Assad to not use such weapons.
"Our concerns are that an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons, or might lose control of them to one of the many groups that are now operating within Syria," Clinton said in Brussels during a meeting this past week with NATO officials. "And so, as part of the absolute unity that we all have on this issue, we have sent an unmistakable message that this would cross a red line and those responsible would be held to account."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also joined the chorus of stern warnings to the al-Assad regime when he referred to its stockpile of chemical weapons as "a matter of great concern” and "completely unacceptable." He went on to say that the use of such weapons would result in "an immediate reaction."
Meanwhile, NATO approved a request this week by Turkey to deploy American designed Patriot missile batteries along its borders.
Turkey, which has engaged in some low-level but fierce border skirmishes with al-Assad regime troops over the past few months, has expressed deep fears over a chemical-based military assault from Syria
The primary purpose of the missile batteries are defensive in nature and would involve the firing of rockets designed to intercept and destroy any Syrian missiles or aircraft carrying chemical weapons. However, the missile batteries could also potentially be used offensively to fire rockets at targets in Syria in a retaliatory attack.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague also chimed in with his concerns on the regime's threatened use of chemical weapons when he told reporters that there was great concern towards the use of those weapons and that the UK and its allies had "contingency plans concerning chemical weapons" which he declined to disclose.
A USA Today report released this past week cites official statements from both the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in which they said the use of chemical weapons by Syria was “unacceptable” and would constitute a war crime. The UN and OPCW have both urged Syria to sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).
"As a party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, Syria is obligated by international law not to use chemical weapons under any circumstances," the joint UN-OPCW statement said. "The Syrian Government must also ensure the safety and security of any stocks of chemical weapons it may possess."
While the use of chemical weapons by Syria would be an instant international event and almost certainly prompt a humanitarian crisis, the U.S. would also prefer to not see these weapons utilized by the regime because of the obvious and significant tactical advantage they would give al-Assad.
Though currently on the ropes and close to final defeat, the use of chemical weapons could crush the opposition movement and save the regime from being overthrown. They are al-Assad’s ultimate weapon and could permanently change the tide of battle within just hours.
However, any effort to beat the opposition rebels through chemical warfare would constitute the crossing of the Obama administration’s “red line” which will likely trigger a massive U.S. response that could very well include “boots on the ground” or an all-out military invasion of the Syrian state.
Al-Assad knows this and is likely still weighing benefits against the consequences before making a final decision on whether or not to commence with chemical warfare, a decision that is perhaps the most important of his life as well as one that may very well determine the ultimate fate of his regime.
Controversial Chemical Weapons Test in the Desert
This past August, amidst the backdrop of the raging civil war that has torn that nation apart, Syria conducted a very special and controversial testing of its chemical weapons at a remote desert location
According to the German publication, DER SPIEGEL, witnesses observed the tests take place at a site called Diraiham in the desert near the village of Khanasir. The location is near Safira or al-Safira, which is the main depot, research center and heart of Syria’s chemical weapons program.
Witnesses revealed that they observed tanks and military aircraft fire five or six shells containing chemical weapons at the desert testing site.
The types of chemical weapons employed in the testing remain unknown.
What made this unique event all the more controversial was the revelation that some special guests in the form of scientists and military officers from Iran and North Korea were on hand during the tests. Scientists and military officers from both nations were flown into Syria to observe the tests.
Western intelligence officials are aware of the Iranian and North Korean presence at the August testing and have noted that scientists from those two nations have long worked in Syria’s laboratories and military bases to assist that nation with the development and use of chemical weapons.
North Korea is believed to currently have the largest and most advanced chemical weapons program in the world while Iran itself is suspected by U.S. and British intelligence of having a clandestine chemical weapons program despite being a signatory party to the CWC, a document barring the stockpiling and use of chemical weapons as well as the exportation to other nations any equipment and scientific expertise that could be used to develop such weapons.
Opposition rebels informed DER SPIEGEL that they do not intend to attack or attempt to seize any of Syria’s chemical weapons depots or research facilities. One former military officer who deserted and joined the Free Syrian Army said:
We hope American troops will secure the plant
He further said,
We don't want the regime to be able to use the weapons, but neither do we want them to fall into the hands of radicals after the downfall (of the regime).Dark Science: The Syrian Chemical Weapons Program
Syria’s chemical weapons program dates back to 1973 and arose out of a need to protect itself from chemical warfare from rival Arab nation, Egypt (which still maintains massive stockpiles of chemical weapons), as well as to serve as a counter to the highly advanced military capabilities of Israel.
A Syrian soldier aims an AK-47 assault rifle from his position in a foxhole during a firepower demonstration, part of Operation Desert Shield. The soldier is wearing a Soviet-made Model ShMS nuclear-biological-chemical warfare masks.
Syria is one of six nations that has not signed and of eight that has not ratified the CWC.
According to Global Intelligence, western counter-proliferation experts have identified five Syrian cities which contain the depots housing that nation’s chemical weapons arsenal, including: al-Safira, Hama, Homs, Latakia, Palmyra. Each of these locations are closely monitored by western intelligence agencies.
Syria currently has the largest and most advanced chemical weapons program of any Arab nation. Though it depends greatly on other nations, particularly Iran and North Korea, for the precursor chemicals needed to manufacture most of its chemical weapons.
It is believed that since its inception in the early 70’s, the Syrian chemical weapons program has produced several hundred tons of each chemical weapon listed here:
Satellite imagery of the al-Safira military facility in Syria. The al-Safira military base is the headquarters of the Syrian chemical weapons program and contains both a depot for storing chemical weapons as well as a massive laboratory for manufacturing them
Hydrogen Cyanide: this highly lethal substance has long been popular with terrorist organizations of various religious and political causes and a staple of many chemical weapon programs globally, including those of former Cold War rivals the United States and Soviet-era Russia, both stockpiled hydrogen cyanide (among other toxic weapons) during the 60’s in preparation for an Armageddon-like military conflict that never materialized.
Hydrogen cyanide belongs to a grouping of chemical warfare agents known as the blood class. Hydrogen cyanide, as well as other blood agents, cause harm to an individual by being absorbed into the blood stream and interfering with the ability of the body’s cells to obtain life sustaining oxygen. The body’s billions of cells are literally suffocated by hydrogen cyanide. As the cells die off, the internal organs begin to shut down.
The common causes of death from hydrogen cyanide poisoning are either respiratory failure or cardiac arrest.
Symptoms of hydrogen cyanide toxicity typically include vomiting, convulsions, seizures, respiratory failure, critically low blood pressure, shock and unconsciousness progressing rapidly to coma. However, according to the OPCW, if an individual is affected by a rather large amount of hydrogen cyanide gas there may be no symptoms and the exposed person may collapse suddenly and die.
Persons who do beat the odds and survive cyanide poisoning may suffer permanent blindness as well as very severe and disabling brain damage.
There are actually several different types of cyanides, all of which are very toxic. However, of all the members of the cyanide family, hydrogen cyanide is by far the most lethal.
During World War Two, Nazi-era Germany used Zyklon-B, a pesticide containing hydrogen cyanide as its main ingredient, to kill many of the millions of Jews held captive in its concentration camps. This mass murder on a genocidal scale is now known as The Holocaust.
On March 16, 1988, hydrogen cyanide is believed to be one of the chemical weapons unleashed upon the Kurds, an ethnic group, in the Iraqi city of Halabja by the Iraqi Air Force under the direct orders of tyrant Saddam Hussein during the Iraq–Iran War. At least 5,000 people were killed in that attack and many thousands more suffered permanent physical, emotional and mental disabilities. It is widely believed that Hussein ordered the attack as punishment against the Kurds for their sympathies towards Iran during the conflict.
In 2004, al-Qaida dispatched a team of Middle Eastern and African operatives to the U.S. in a plot to unleash hydrogen cyanide in the New York City subway system during rush hour. Rather than being uncovered by officials and the operatives arrested, the plot was mysteriously aborted by none other than the al-Qaida leadership itself less than 45 days before it was to actually commence, a move which left authorities surprised and stunned. The attack would have easily killed hundreds of commuters if carried out. While American law enforcement never discovered the actual reason as to why the plot was aborted, some have speculated it was because the terror group wanted something even worse for New York.
Pacific Coast Highway
New York City Subway System with passengers.
There are unsubstantiated reports that the al-Assad regime had utilized hydrogen cyanide during the February 1982 Hama massacre, an event in which 10,000 to 40,000 lives were lost (most of them civilian) when the Syrian government waged an all-out, no-holds barred war to uproot and ultimately defeat an insurgency by the Muslim Brotherhood and other militant Sunni Muslim fighters.
Besides having an infamous reputation as a chemical weapon, hydrogen cyanide and the rest of the cyanide family is a popular method of suicide in many industrialized nations.
Mustard Gas: belongs to the chemical warfare class known as the blister agents or vesicants which are known and feared for their ability to cause horrific and disfiguring blisters on the skin.
Blister agents cause severe skin, eye and mucosal pain and irritation. They are named for their ability to cause severe chemical burns, resulting in large, painful water blisters on the bodies of those affected.
United States Army
Soldier with extensive mustard gas burns to his back and arms circa 1918 (First World War). These burns are severe enough to be life-threatening.
There are actually two types of mustard gas - sulfur and nitrogen. However, sulfur mustard gas has historically been more frequently used for the purposes of chemical warfare and stockpiled by various nations globally.
The mustard gas being stored by the Syrian regime is likely that of the sulfur variety.
Medical information from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that sulfur mustard can cause skin burns and blisters, especially around sweaty parts of the body (armpits, groin). Sulfur mustard makes the eyes burn, eyelids swell, and causes you to blink a lot. If sulfur mustard is inhaled, it can cause coughing, bronchitis, and long-term respiratory disease. Exposure to a large amount of sulfur mustard can cause death.
Sulfur mustard was used by both the German and Allied sides during World War One. Of at least two dozen chemical weapons used during that conflict (including hydrogen cyanide), it is credited with having caused the most casualties.
Sulfur mustard is also believed to have been employed in the infamous March 16, 1988, chemical-based massacre of 5,000 Kurds in Halabja and the maiming of several thousands by the Iraqi Air Force under the direct orders of dictator Saddam Hussein. During the Iraq-Iran war, sulfur mustard was widely used by both of those nations.
On March 16, 1988, at the height of the Iraq-Iran war, at the direction of dictator Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi Air Force unleashed chemical warfare upon the Kurds, an ethnic group, in the Iraqi city of Halabja. At least 5,000 people were killed in that attack and many thousands more suffered permanent physical, emotional and mental disabilities
Tabun, Sarin and VX: are all exceedingly toxic substance belonging to the nerve agent class of chemical warfare agents. The nerve agents belong to an even bigger family of chemicals known as organophosphates. All organophosphates are extremely toxic and many are used as pesticides by technicians with very specialized training.
Of all the various classes of chemical warfare agents, the nerve agents are certainly the most toxic.
The nerve agents function by attacking and seizing control of the Central Nervous System which happens to be responsible for all functions of the body.
The nerve agents cause the body to literally go haywire by exciting and overstimulating all nerves and muscles to the point of eventual exhaustion. At the point of absolute exhaustion the body is simply too tired to work and may go into paralysis as it begins to rapidly shutdown with death following very quickly.
The OPCW informs that the symptoms of nerve agent toxicity include: running nose, a sensation of a feeling of pressure on the chest, coughing, vomiting, involuntary discharge of urine and defecation, profuse tearing from the eyes and sweating, tremors and convulsions before finally losing consciousness with death following in minutes.
The OPCW reports that the poisoning process may be so rapid that symptoms may never have time to develop and the exposed person may go into sudden convulsions and die.
The nerve agent sarin is said to be six to eight times more deadly than tabun and as much as 26 times deadlier than hydrogen cyanide.
On March 20, 1995, in an attack on the nation of Japan, an obscure Japanese cult group turned terrorist organization known as Aum Shinrkyo, unleashed sarin in the Tokyo subway system during the morning rush hour. At least a dozen were killed and as many as 1,600 were injured. The death toll would have certainly been far higher if the sarin used in the attack were of a higher quality.
According to officials, the batch of sarin that was manufactured by Aum was sloppy and filled with impurities which significantly reduced its killing power and amounted for the rather light death toll. Some officials revealed that the purity of the sarin used in the attack was at 60% while others said it was as low as 40%. Nonetheless, even at such a low percentage of purity it was still able to achieve a remarkable level harm, hospitalized hundreds and throwing Tokyo into unbridled panic and chaos while causing a week-long state of national mourning in Japan.
Chemical weapons experts have noted that thousands could have easily died if the purity level of the sarin used in the attack was at 90% or better.
Of all the chemical warfare agents in the nerve agent class, VX is the most lethal. Of all the toxic chemicals to have ever been weaponized, VX is the deadliest chemical weapon in existence.
Just a single drop of VX on exposed skin is enough to kill a healthy adult male in as little as 15 minutes.
Tabun, sarin and VX are all believed to have been utilized in the infamous March 16, 1988 chemical-based massacre that left 5,000 Kurds dead and as many as 10,000 more horribly maimed in Halabja. The attack is widely believed to have been carried out by the Iraqi Air Force under the direction of the dictator Saddam Hussein.
The delivery systems (means of transport and distribution) for Syria’s chemical weapons are entirely based on Soviet-era Russian military hardware, much of which includes: the MiG 23 fighter jet (the Syrian Air Force utilizes several variants of the MiG class of fighter aircraft), the SU-22 fighter-bomber aircraft (another Soviet-era military aircraft) and several variants of the Scud missile class – a Soviet-era missile battery system.
In July 2007, an accident at a Syrian weapons depot involving a Scud missile resulted in a massive explosion that killed 15 Syrians. According to Jane's Defense Weekly, a U.S. magazine reporting on military and corporate affairs, the mishap that lead to the blast was believed to have occurred as Syrian and Iranian military personnel attempted to fit a Scud missile with a mustard gas warhead.
An air-to-air right side view of a Soviet MiG-23 Flogger aircraft. The aging piece of military hardware is currently the premier fighter aircraft of the Syrian Air Force.
A Scud missile in the launch position attached to a Scud missile transporter. The Scud (as well as the transporter) is a piece of military hardware from the Russia's Soviet-era. The Scud missile and its transporter in this image are at the National Museum of Military History in Bulgaria.
Biological and Nuclear Weapons Too?
While it is popular knowledge that Syria maintains a very robust chemical warfare arsenal, some counter-proliferation experts suspect that the Assad regime may have sought to round out the dark trinity of weapons of mass destruction by also experimenting with and pursuing biological and even nuclear weapons.
The Syrian regime is said to have conducted extensive research into several biological weapons, including: anthrax, plague, tularemia, botulinium, aflotoxin, cholera, ricin and camelpox. It is not clear how many of these biological agents have been successful weaponized by the regime, though according to NATO Consultant Dr. Jill Dekker, Russian helped al-Assad’s military with installing anthrax in missile warheads.
In September 2007, a possible project to clandestinely acquire a nuclear warfare capability was dashed when the Israeli Air Force bombed what was suspected to be a nuclear reactor under construction in a remote area of eastern Syria's Deir ez-Zor Governorate province.
Israeli and U.S. officials became concerned that Syria was attempting to acquire nuclear weapons after intelligence agencies observed a shipment delivery to that nation by a North Korean freighter. Intelligence officials suspected that North Korea was supplying a nuclear reactor to Syria. Israel carried out its airstrike against the site shortly after Syria received the special shipment.
United States Government / unspecified intelligence agency
Syrian nuclear reactor under construction, fuel tubes and reactor room floor prior to concrete pour.
Despite the fact that al-Assad regime flirted with the possibility of acquisition of biological and nuclear weapons neither poses the threat of its chemical weapons program which is far more robust.
Opposition Rebels Testing Chemical Weapons?
Not one to be left unarmed in a conflict that may soon take a dreadful turn from the convention to the unconventional through the use of chemical weapons by the al-Assad regime, opposition rebels may now themselves have toxic weapon capabilities.
If a recently released video that has been making the rounds on the internet is to be believed, Syrian opposition fighters now possess chemical warfare capabilities – though of a rudimentary nature.
Prior to the release of the video, opposition rebels - whose ranks are known to harbor militant jihadists that may possibly include al-Qaida - were not believed to have a chemical warfare or WMD capability.
In the video, which is deeply disturbing, a militant wearing a lab mask stands near a glass box with two rabbits inside before mixing chemicals in a beaker inside that box. Upon the mixing of the chemicals a gas is emitted from the beaker. A minute later, the rabbits begin to suffer violent convulsions and then die as the drone of Jihadist chats can be heard in the background.
According to The Syria Tribune, the militant is a member of a previously unheard of group called The Almighty Wind Brigade. The Tribune also reports that the numerous chemicals and their containers that appear at the beginning of the video are manufactured by Tekkim, a chemical company in Turkey.
After the rabbits die the militant with the lab mask says: “You saw what happened? This will be your fate, you infidel Alawites, I swear by Allah to make you die like these rabbits, one minute only after you inhale the gas.”
Though The Tribune makes the conclusion that the toxic chemical used against the rabbits is a nerve agent based on their convulsions before death, this could be inaccurate as hydrogen cyanide gas is also known to cause violent convulsions to its victims before death.
Though the speaker in the video and his militant group, The Almighty Wind Brigade, make the claim of being allied with the opposition rebels currently fighting against the al-Assad regime, this claim has yet to be independently verified.