Lenny Ben-David

Syria’s arsenal of unconventional weapons must be destroyed

Syria's arsenal of unconventional weapons must be destroyed before they fall into the wrong hands

When I was in the Israeli army’s basic training and medics courses we had to endure a simulated chemical weapons attack. We entered a room that suddenly came under (tear) gas attack and we had to quickly don our gas masks and sit for a set period. Later, as medics during Iraq’s Scud attacks on Israel, we ran to our ambulances prepared for a gas attack, dressing ourselves in our chemical suits whenever the sirens wailed. Basically, this was our assignment: If it’s bleeding, tie a tourniquet; if it’s breathing stick it with an atropine injector. 

An Iraqi attack was not the main threat we learned about in basic training. Instead, Syria’s unconventional weapons were the doomsday weapons every new Israeli soldier was warned about. A very ominous percent of Syrian artillery shells, bombs, and missile warheads were armed with Sarin, mustard gas, or VX, we were told.

Conventional weapons reduction

Several years ago, in a private capacity, I was invited into a country of the former Soviet Union to survey the vast arsenals left behind when the Soviets departed. The armories were supermarkets of destruction: missiles, bombs, MANPADS (shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles), grenades, explosives, mines — you name it. There was little security around the bases and plenty of evidence that weapons had been stolen. At several bases the commanders warned us, “We don’t go near that section.” It turned out that those sections were the storage areas of radioactive material, and there were cases of smugglers trying to take radioactive material out of the country.

We presented our findings to the US State Department, Pentagon and the Department of Energy’s nuclear experts. In some cases base security was improved; in other cases there was intervention to get rid of the stocks.

I met with one international firm that had undertaken the removal and destruction of Libya’s radioactive and chemical weapons almost a decade ago -– with the agreement and cooperation of the Libyan government. Through the Pakistani AQ Kahn smuggling syndicate and cooperating with North Korea, Libya had secured centrifuges for enriching uranium. It had amassed tons of mustard gas and had acquired long-range Scud missiles, probably intended for delivery of chemical weapons.

In 2003, Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi renounced the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and invited western nations to destroy his country’s stockpiles. Long-range missiles were destroyed, and chemical and nuclear programs were dismantled. It still took several years before Qaddafi finally shipped his highly enriched uranium out of his country for destruction.

But despite Qaddafi’s shedding of WMD, mustard gas stocks were reportedly found after the tyrant’s fall. And his armories were ransacked, resulting in MANPADS being smuggled into Gaza in recent months.

What motivated Qaddafi to destroy his WMD? Some analysts believe that he came to the prudent decision when he saw the crushing of Saddam Hussein after Western countries (only) suspected him of developing WMD.

In Syria, however, no such flash of temporary sanity is likely to dawn on Syrian President Bashar Assad. He is fighting for his survival, and those weapons are his ace in the hole, his “Samson complex” –- “if you take me out, I’ll take you all down with me.”

Public reports claim that Syria has hundreds of long-range Scud B, C and D (the Korean No-Dong) missiles, and dozens of launchers –- one of the largest ballistic missile forces in the Middle East, according to the CIA. Some of the missiles are equipped with cluster-bomb warheads suitable for dispersion of chemical weapons. The reports list the bases where the missiles are stored as well as those bases where chemical and biological weaponization is carried out. Indeed, some of the chemical warfare activity is done in cooperation with Iran, which provides training and the equipment.

CIA study released in 2010 stated, “Syria has had a CW [chemical weapons] program for many years and already has a stockpile of CW agents, which can be delivered by aircraft, ballistic missiles and artillery rockets.”

Persistent reports over the last decade suggest that Saddam Hussein smuggled elements of his WMD programs to Syria before he fell.

And, of course, Syria was well-along in building the secret al-Kibar nuclear facility in Deir el Zour when it was destroyed in 2007, by Israeli planes, according to non-Israeli press accounts.

Deir el Zour is a familiar name to anyone keeping tabs on the fighting in Syria. Three weeks ago an oil pipeline was blown up in the province. Rebel forces are constantly skirmishing with Syrian army units in the area.

The fact that heavy fighting has been taking place precisely in the Syrian province of Deir el Zour, home of the secret reactor, underscores the possibility of WMD falling into the hands of terrorists or radicals, be they members of Hizbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood or al Qaeda.

A recent Wall Street Journal analysis by Jay Solomon shows that WMD and missiles are produced and stored in the battle-scarred area around Homs. Satellite pictures of Scud missiles at the Syrian Adra base were published in Ha’aretz and AOL News two years ago. The base is also a Hizbullah training base.

The United States is beginning to pay attention, the Associated Press reported last week: “The U.S. and its allies are closely monitoring Syria’s large stockpiles of chemical arms and portable anti-aircraft missiles, a State Department official said Wednesday, amid concerns that the country’s unconventional weapons could fall into the hands of terrorist or militant groups.”

In Libya, the controlled destruction of WMD and missiles was conducted with Qaddafi’s reluctant cooperation. In Syria, the destruction of the stockpiles will only occur if they are obliterated and incinerated by Western missiles, warplanes, and cruise missiles. The blowing up of mustard and nerve gas stocks may result in local “collateral damage,” but the outcome would be far less than a container of Sarin being sprayed in the Washington Metro, VX dropped from a London office building, or an Igla shoulder-fired missile bringing down a passenger plane near Heathrow.

More importantly, the destruction of Assad’s WMD and missile arsenal, which today threaten Turkey, Israel and ships in the eastern Mediterranean, would be a powerful signal to the ayatollah regime in Iran to “cease and desist” its nuclear weaponization program. It would be proof that indeed “all options are on the table” — including wiping Syria’s table clean.

About the Author
Lenny Ben-David served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. He is a public affairs consultant, writer, researcher, editor, and historian of early photographs. Ben-David is the author of "American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs." He worked for AIPAC for 25 years in Washington and Jerusalem.