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Syria’s chemical weapons shrouded in secrecy

A woman receives a gas mask kit at a distribution point in a shopping mall in Mevasseret Zion, near Jerusalem July 24, 2012.  The Syrian government is still in full control of its chemical weapons stockpiles, Israeli defence officials said on Tuesday, in an apparent bid to calm fears that a non-conventional conflict could be looming. But concern that the stockpiles could fall into the hands of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamist group, stoked demand in Israel for state-funded gas masks, which have been distributed over the past few years as part of the country's wider preparations for a possible showdown over arch-foe Iran's disputed nuclear programme. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (ISRAEL - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT)
A woman receives a gas mask kit at a distribution point in a shopping mall in Mevasseret Zion, near Jerusalem July 24, 2012. The Syrian government is still in full control of its chemical weapons stockpiles, Israeli defence officials said on Tuesday, in an apparent bid to calm fears that a non-conventional conflict could be looming. — Photo by Reuters

WASHINGTON: Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, which Damascus has acknowledged for the first time, is decades old and among the biggest in the Middle East, but experts are divided over its exact nature.

President Bashar al-Assad's regime caused a global uproar Monday when it vowed to use its chemical weapons if attacked by outsiders, although not against its own people.

But public data about the stockpile is scarce, as Syria is one of the few countries that has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Damascus has however signed the Geneva protocol, which bars the first use of chemical and biological weapons, though it does not make stipulations about production, storage and transfer.

Rebels in Syria accused strongman Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday of moving chemical weapons to country's borders.

Turkey's military has sent teams specially trained in dealing with chemical weapons attacks to the Syrian border region after the Syrian warning.

Dogan News Agency said the chemical weapons battalion, previously based in western Turkey, had been transferred to Konya in central Turkey two months ago and one group of the personnel had now gone to the Syrian border area.

The agency did not specify a source for the report and officials were not immediately available to comment on it. Other news outlets were also carrying the report.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi acknowledged on Monday that the country had chemical weapons, saying it would not use them to crush rebels but could use them against forces from outside the country.

“We are closely following information about Syria... but we can't say more without sending inspectors on the ground,” Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, told AFP.

Intelligence services also have little to say on the subject.

“Syria's well-established chemical warfare program includes a stockpile of nerve agent, which can be delivered by aircraft or ballistic missiles,” Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lieutenant General Ronald Lee Burgess said in March 2011 testimony before a Senate panel.

“Syria continues to seek chemical warfare-related precursors and expertise from foreign sources.”Syria is stockpiling “hundreds of tons” of various chemical agents, according to Leonard Spector of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

“Their panoply of chemical agents is quite robust,” said Olivier Lepick of the Foundation for Strategic Research think tank in Paris.

“They have successfully mastered the synthesis of organophosphorus compounds -- the latest, most efficient and most toxic generation of chemical weapons.”

This family of compounds includes sarin and VX nerve agents, as well as older agents such as mustard gas, a mix of sulfur dioxide and ethylene.

Syria's program was launched in the 1970s with help from Egypt and later from the former Soviet Union. In the 1990s, Russia lent a hand, followed by Iran since at least 2005, according to the independent Nuclear Threat Initiative.

The Scientific Research Council in Damascus appears to be directing the Syrian chemical weapons program, the NTI said.

The US Congressional Research Service pointed to accessible information suggesting that the production and storage of nerve gas and mustard gas is concentrated in and around the cities of Al-Safira (southeast of Aleppo), Damascus, Hama, Homs and Latakia.

Delivery vehicles include Scud ballistic missiles and launch systems, along with aerial bombs and shells, according to publicly-available information.

However, “there is not sufficient information in open sources to draw any conclusions about the security of Syria's CW arsenal,” the NTI warned.


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