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Syria: Fears of chemical arms nightmare

Aug. 2, 2012 at 1:08 PM   |   Comments

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BEIRUT, Lebanon, Aug. 2 (UPI) -- The embattled Syrian regime claims it has control of its arsenal of chemical and biological weapons but outsiders fear these could fall into the hands of extremists, including al-Qaida, with horrific consequences.

On the face of it, the Americans, Israelis and others seem to have become obsessive about these weapons that have the potential to kill thousands of people. But military analysts say the jihadists and Palestinian extremists would find it difficult to utilize the weapons.

That leads to the possibility that those issuing the dire warnings of what could happen if President Bashar Assad's regime loses control of the weapons could use this as a justification for outside military intervention aimed at ending the 18-month-old Syrian bloodbath.

"It is important to recognize that there are a number of technical and practical considerations that will limit the impact of these weapons even if a militant group were able to obtain them," cautioned analyst Scott Stewart of the intelligence consultancy Stratfor.

More than al-Qaida or the more skilled of the Palestinian factions, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite organization based in Lebanon, is seen as the most dangerous when it comes to effectively employing chemical weapons.

The group, armed and funded by the Iranian and Syrian regimes, has a formidable arsenal of missiles and rockets, hundreds of which could reach all of Israel if fired from Lebanon.

These could be fitted with chemical or biological warheads. The Syrian army has reportedly trained special Hezbollah units in their use, although it's far from clear whether the group actually possesses such warheads.

Hezbollah drove Israeli forces out of south Lebanon in May 2000 after a 16-year guerrilla war, ending 22 years of occupation.

In the summer of 2006 it fought the Israeli military to a standstill in a 34-day conflict, in which the group fired nearly 4,000 rockets into the Jewish state in an unprecedented bombardment of its northern population centers.

Now Hezbollah's reported to have some 45,000 missiles and rockets. Israeli military chiefs say that's enough to unleash 300-400 projectiles a day into Israeli cities over two or three months.

However, Stewart noted that "even if Hezbollah were to receive a stockpile of chemical munitions from Syria, or Libya, it has a great deal to lose by employing such munitions.

"It would have to face ... massive retaliation from Israel. While Israel was somewhat constrained in its attacks on Hezbollah's leadership and infrastructure in the 2006 war, it's unlikely to be nearly as constrained in responding to a chemical attack on its armed forces or a population center.

"Because of the way chemical weapons are viewed, the Israelis would be seen internationally as having just cause for massive retaliation.

"Second, Hezbollah would face international repercussions over such an attack," Stewart observed.

"As an organization, Hezbollah has been working for many years to establish itself as a legitimate political party in Lebanon and avoid being labeled as a terrorist organization in Europe and elsewhere.

"A chemical weapon attack would bring heavy international condemnation and would not be in the group's best interest at this time."

Another danger is that Assad, or hard-liners in his beleaguered regime, could use chemical or biological weapons against rebel forces if the fall of his family's 42-year-old minority regime seems imminent.

The slaughter of anti-government protesters, rebel fighters and civilians by regime forces since the uprising began March 15, 2011, indicate that Assad's security chiefs would have no qualms about using chemical agents against their own people.

U.N. officials estimate the death toll at around 19,000, the overwhelming majority of them opponents of one of the Middle East's most brutal regimes.

"If we believe the Assad regime and their closest allies view this as an existential struggle, we have to assume they could use chemical weapons against their population," warned Joseph Halliday, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer now an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War.

Syria's believed to have one of the largest chemical/biological arsenals in the Middle East. This includes substantial stocks of the nerve agent sarin, mustard gas and cyanide, and possibly the VX and tabun nerve agents.

Some of these were produced in secret Syrian laboratories with components and equipment largely purchased in Europe. Damascus has never signed the 1992 convention banning chemical weapons.

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