SYRIA: AL-QAEDA’S BATTLE FOR CONTROL OF ASSAD’S CHEMICAL WEAPONS PLANT

Daily Telegraph, London, on April 27, 2013, reported that a battle near a factory believed to be one of the Syrian regime’s main chemical weapons plants shows just how close such weapons could be to falling into al-Qaeda’s hands…Excerpts below:

The town of al-Safira,…is a vicious battleground in Syria’s civil war. On one side are lightly-armed rebels, on the other are government troops, and in between is a hotly-contested no-man’s land of bombed-out homes and burned-out military vehicles.

The fight for al-Safira is no ordinary turf war, however, and the prize can be found behind the perimeter walls of the heavily-guarded military base on the edge of town. Inside what looks like a drab industrial estate is one of Syria’s main facilities for producing chemical weapons – and among its products is sarin, the lethal nerve gas that the regime is now feared to be deploying in its bid to cling to power.

Last week, Washington said for the first time that it had evidence of Sarin being used in “small” amounts during combat operations in Syria…

But as the West now ponders its response, the fear is not just that President Assad might start using his chemical arsenal in much greater quantities. Of equal concern is the prospect of it falling into even less benign hands – a risk that the stand-off at al Safira illustrates clearly.

For among the rebel lines in al-Safira flutters the black flag of the al-Nusra Brigade, the jihadist group that recently declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda. Known for their fighting prowess honed in Iraq, they are now taking the lead in nearly every frontline in the Syrian war, and earlier this month, pushed to within just over a mile of al-Safira, only to for the Syrian troops to regain the ground last week.

Should the tide of battle turn in al-Nusra’s favour again, though, there is the possibility of the West’s worst-case scenario unfolding – Syria’s weapons of mass destruction falling into al-Qaeda’s control. More than 500 times as toxic as cyanide and deadly in milligram-sized doses, a single canister of sarin could unleash carnage if released on a Tube network in London or New York.

Yet it is not just at al-Safira that the danger lies. As the Syrian uprising has intensified in the past year, the regime has been secretly moving its stockpiles to weapons dumps all over the country, much of which it barely controls anymore. Nobody knows, therefore, when or where a cache might be captured by the opposition’s more militant factions.

“The West may be saying: ‘A red line has been crossed, let’s do something’. But the question is what exactly can they do?” said Dina Esfandiary, an expert on Syria’s WMD programme with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the London-based defence and security think-tank. “Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons are huge, and President Assad has done a very good job of hiding them all over the country.”

The Syrian regime’s chemical warchest is indeed vast – the biggest in the Middle East, and the fourth largest in the world. Started in the 1970s ranks with help from Syria’s Cold War sponsor, Russia, today its programme includes facilities for making mustard gas, sarin and another nerve agent, VX, which stays lethal for much longer after dispersal.

In charge of the programme is the innocuous-sounding Scientific Studies and Research Centre outside Damascus, a body officially tasked with academic research. In practice, it reports directly to President Assad and operates a string of chemical production facilities, some allegedly developed with help from Iran and North Korea.

As Syria has not signed the international Chemical Weapons Convention, it has never declared details of its stockpiles to the outside world. But outside intelligence estimates reckon that Damascus has between 100 and 200 warheads filled with sarin for its Scud missiles, and thousands of chemical artillery bombs filled with sarin and VX.

Nobody outside the Assad regime now knows for certain where the stockpiles are now: the contents of the plant at Safira, for example, may have been moved to other, more secret storage spaces for safekeeping. But that uncertainty adds to the challenge. With such a vast arsenal scattered nationwide, the West would face a formidable task were it to attempt to secure it by force.

…many analysts believe that the “red line” is now simply being blurred rather than crossed. With only limited evidence of Sarin use so far, they suspect Damascus is deliberately using such weapons just occasionally to test – and gradually undermine – Washington’s resolve. President Assad, they reason, knows all too well that a major chemical attack would leave the US no option but to take action. But successive, smaller ones are a harder call, while still having the desired effect of spreading terror among Damascus’s foes.

Outside of Syria, it also has another desired effect – underlining the differences between Mr Assad’s opponents in the West. Last week,..US Republican senator, John McCain…called on America to send in troops to secure factories such as al Safira. But Mr Obama shows no enthusiasm for doing so, and this weekend he even appeared to adjust his language slightly, saying that America would not permit the “systematic” use of chemical weapons.

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