Recent reports from Syria of military defectors attacking an Air Force intelligence building in Hasrata highlight the growing likelihood that Syrian military sites will become a target in the country’s ongoing conflict. While no other similar attacks have been reported since then, the Hasrata incident illustrates the possibility of escalating instability within Syria’s military command, which could in turn lead to difficulties in controlling and securing Syrian military assets. In such a climate, Syria’s alleged chemical weapons program is cause for particular concern.
The international community suspects Syria of having a comprehensive chemical weapons program that includes production and delivery capabilities, and there is unease among U.S. officials and weapons experts over how control of chemical agents and weapons may factor into the current conflict. Should the violence escalate, shifts in power could jeopardize the security and control of Syria’s chemical weapons, particularly since many of its suspected facilities are located near current or recent sites of unrest.
Syria has never explicitly confirmed its possession of chemical weapons, and public information on the program’s details is neither specific nor thoroughly documented. Damascus also has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which prohibits the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. Since Syria does not adhere to the treaty, makes no declarations and allows no inspections, the international community has no easy way of determining what capabilities the country may have. Initial press and intelligence reports in the 1970s and 1980s indicated that Syria was acquiring a chemical weapons stockpile with help from the USSR, Egypt and Czechoslovakia. This approach appears to have shifted in the 1990s to a focus on domestic production. Syria is thought to have either stockpiles of -- or the current capability to produce -- mustard gas and more-lethal nerve agents such as sarin and possibly VX.