Syria and Chemical Weapon: Has Aleppo Blast Said It All?

Ajey Lele

Syria's state news agency, Sana reported that a explosion in Aleppo on July 26, killed around 15 soldiers and wounded 50 others. The Syrian officials had claimed that highly explosive products blew up due to an accidental fire at the facility and no sabotage was involved. They had reasoned that the increase in ambient temperatures up to 50 degrees Celsius caused an ammunition dump to explode, killing and wounding the soldiers.

Jane’s Defence Weekly (JDW), a respected British magazine, has maintained that the Aleppo explosion has ‘chemical weapon’ linkages. JDW’s September 26 edition stated “the explosion happened during tests to weaponize a Scud-C missile with mustard gas, which is banned under international law. The blast dispersed chemical agents across the storage facility and outside. The chemicals included VX and Sarin nerve agents and mustard blister agent.” As per the Jane's report apart from the Syrian troops, many Iranian engineers died and many sustained grave injuries.

This Syrian chemical weapons programme could be the part of a strategic cooperation accord between Syria and Iran that was signed in November 2005. Under this agreement probably Iran has agreed to supply Syria with weapons of mass destruction, train their technical and military personnel, and carryout transfer of technology. It is also said that this agreement, had led to the establishment of five pilot facilities in Syria aimed at producing chemical weapon precursors. These facilities are supposed to be on a larger industrial scale.

Syria is not only restricting itself towards the development of chemical weapons for future use, but additionally it is using the same facility to prepare the vehicles fated for car-bomb attacks in Iraq. The ‘lethality’ element in such vehicles is added at this facility under the supervision of Syrian intelligence and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The Jane’s report brings the issue to the fore which unfortunately many security observers have been constantly trying to ignore and that is the threat from chemical and biological weapons. This is not the first incidence depicting the interests of various ‘states of concern’ or terrorist organizations, in such lethal weapons. However, the futuristic threats form such weapons are not taken seriously. This could be mainly because, 1) the failure of the Americans to find such weapons in Iraq; 2) these weapons do not have the so called ‘appeal’ of nuclear weapons so the armed chaired analysts try to ignore them; and 3) our society is more of a reactive society-since no chem-bio attacks have taken place in the recent past hence we tend to ignore the presence of such threat.

Now, this proof of cooperation between Iran and Syria in the proliferation and development of chemical weapons needs to be taken seriously. Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). It began developing chemical weapons way back in 1973, just before the Yom Kippur War. Syria is also alleged to have a biological warfare research and development programme.

It has also been speculated that just few days back North Korea has shipped some nuclear weapons related material-possibly a nuclear warhead to Syria. Maybe North Korea is trying to earn some ‘quick buck’ before surrendering their nuclear infrastructure or is trying to preserve its material for another day.

However, it looks more logical for Syria to invest into chemical weapons, at least for the time being. This is because any ad hoc investments in nuclear technology may not give them any advantages. In fact it could create more problems for them. They definitely would not like to get into situation in which today North Korea and Iran are. It looks more appropriate from their point of view to invest into chemical weapons. They come cheap, technology is available and has some deterrence value. Most importantly, Syria lacks territorial depth. Israeli forces are hardly thirty miles away from them. So, they need a weapon which could deter Israeli forces or even could be used against them.

This accident has luckily brought into fore the chemical plans of Syria. Silently for last two to three decades this country is working on mastering chemical weapons technology. Now, it appears that they are getting good support from Iran in this venture. The global community needs to take this threat seriously. It should not be assumed that these weapons are only against Israel. Tomorrow they may even reach Iraq. And, subsequently, it could become tricky to stop their proliferation. It’s better to react now than suffer later.

Author Note
Ajey Lele is a New Delhi based defense and security analyst.