The spectre is looming larger of a desperate Syrian regime resorting to chemical weapons in order to survive the growing armed assault against it.
In a statement read out Monday on Syrian state television, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi attempted to reassure people that “no chemical or biological weapons will ever be used … during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria.”
However, addressing Syrian journalists, Mr. Makdissi added: “All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.”
Not only was this the first time Syria ever had publicly acknowledged it possesses such weapons of mass destruction, but the statement also made clear the regime of Bashar al-Assad is willing to use them if “exposed to external aggression.”
Such a threat wouldn’t necessarily come from another country invading Syria, says Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel. Rather, “external aggression is exactly how the regime describes the current uprising” being carried out by “terrorists” and “foreign interests.”
“The good news,” says Mr. Rubin, author of The Truth About Syria, “is that the regime still is in control of the stockpiles and has been doing a good job of securing them.”
The chemical weapons, such as Sarin, a nerve gas developed in Nazi Germany and used in the 1995 terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway, and VX, an even more deadly nerve agent, as well as mustard gas of the sort employed in the First World War, are believed to be secured in two or three well-guarded compounds in the centre of the country.
They are believed to amount to more than 1,000 tons, not including the missiles, bombs and rocket-propelled grenades that would carry them.
“The supplies are probably twice as large as most people think,” said Mr. Rubin, whose research centre is closely monitoring developments in Syria. “Besides the chemicals Syria produced, there also is a great deal of material that was smuggled to Syria from Iraq in 2003 [when the United States and allied forces invaded Iraq].”
If they haven’t already been moved, the stockpiles will be taken to the northwest of the country in the Latakia area, the Alawite heartland, where an independent Alawite state once existed, Mr. Rubin said. “This is where the regime and its followers will make their last stand.”
The chemical weapons are their ultimate deterrent.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a U.S. television network Sunday he was concerned that Syria’s chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, a frightening prospect, he said.
This is unlikely to happen, Mr. Rubin said. “These chemicals are their weapon of last resort. They’re not likely to part with any of them.”
Border hot spots
While 120,000 refugees from the conflict in Syria have been officially registered, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees believes the real number to be much larger. ‘One million people may have been forced to flee the country since the conflict began,’ the UN agency said last week. Neighbouring countries are becoming overwhelmed.
After rebels briefly claimed to have taken control of Syria’s crossing points with Iraq, the government closed the border last week. But on Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered them opened to allow Syrian refugees into the county. The UN says 7,500 Syrians are now registered with the refugee agency, but Iraqis returning from Syria (where many fled to escape sectarian warfare in the past decade) account for most of the border traffic. The main crossing points are Al-Waleed, especially for Iraqis fleeing the violence; Abu Kamal-Qaim, which Syrian rebels say they hold; and Rabia, near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which passed briefly to rebel hands but is now under Syrian government command.
Some 34,000 displaced Syrians are registered with the UN refugee agency in Jordan, with 75 per cent of them women and children under 18 and one-quarter of the households headed by women. It is estimated that tens of thousands of other Syrians fled to Jordan but did not register as refugees. Jordan only agreed to let the UN build a camp with proper facilities for the Syrians at Zataari last month. It is projected to open this month and could accommodate up to 130,000 people. King Abdullah on Sunday said Jordan had to protect its border from what the government called infiltrators, “but at the same time, we have to open our doors to our Syrian brothers.”
The UN says more than 42,000 displaced Syrians who have registered as refugees are living in camps on the border and elsewhere in southeast Turkey. But the population of camps set up by the Turkish government is far more than that: 12,000 in Ceylanpinar camp, for example, and 40,000 in Domiz camp. From May 24 to July 4, the number of Syrians provided temporary protection by the Turkish government increased by 51 per cent. According to recent reports, rebels control the Jarabulus, Bab al-Hawa and Al-Salama posts along Syria’s nearly 900-kilometre frontier with Turkey.
In the space of 48 hours last week, more than 30,000 Syrians fled to Lebanon via the Masnaa border and hundreds more are pouring across at other crossing points. The army has reinforced its presence along the border, but some of the fighting in Syria has spilled over into Lebanon. Most of the displaced people are in private accommodation, or living hand-to-mouth in makeshift shelters. Lebanon, where sectarian divisions mirror those in Syria, is under intense pressure from the international community to provide more for people fleeing Syria but fears they would destabilize the country.