Rising concern over Syria’s chemical weapons

Visit to NATO by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at NATO

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Anticipating that Iran nuclear questions would feature prominently at the IISS Manama Dialogue, I set to work yesterday updating my briefing papers on the status and options. No sooner had I begun, however, than the phone began ringing, with calls from journalists asking about different kinds of weapons in two other countries in the region. Could we trust reports that Syria was mixing chemical-weapons components, and what were the implications of NATO deploying Patriot missiles to Turkey? Similar questions are likely to come up at the Manama Dialogue.

It is clear to me that there is good reason to worry on the first point, even if there is no guarantee that Syria really is readying sarin nerve-gas weapons by mixing the two main chemical precursors. The media reports of this are all sourced to unnamed US officials, and many simply echo articles on Wired’s Danger Room and CNN from 3 December.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stressed that the reports had not been confirmed. There are ample signs, however. The forceful, pointed warnings from President Barack Obama and other Western leaders reflect the alarming nature of the intelligence information being collected last week.

The Syrian government has vowed not to use chemical weapons against its own people. But if the Assad regime sees itself on the edge of overthrow, it might be tempted to turn to its most potent weapons, especially if it believes its own propaganda that rebel forces are foreign-backed. Damascus clearly possesses the aircraft and artillery needed to effectively deliver these weapons. Syria is also suspected to have 100–200 CW warheads for its Scud missiles.

Those missiles would serve no purpose in the kind of internal war raging in Syria. If border hostilities flared, however, Turkey could not be certain that Syria would refrain from using CW-armed missiles – hence Ankara’s urgent request for NATO Patriot batteries as a defensive measure.

As I told Al Jazeera, Turkey’s own systems are not sophisticated enough to defend against ballistic missiles. It has borrowed NATO Patriot batteries before, during the 1991 and 2003 invasions of Iraq, and will now do so again. By the time the batteries are in place in several weeks’ time, the immediate danger may be over. However, NATO’s decision to deploy the systems reinforces the warnings to Syria and reassures Turkey that it is not alone in time of trouble.

As defensive systems, the Patriot batteries will be configured primarily to engage ballistic missiles. Western officials stress that the batteries’ deployment is not the first step towards a no-fly zone in Syria. Depending on where they are deployed, however, their 26 kilometre range will provide some reach into Syrian airspace. As the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus reports, the batteries may also be intended to dissuade Syria from operating its aircraft too close to the Turkish frontier.

Turkey is far from the only nation in the region to field Patriot batteries. Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have all bought the system. If Manama Dialogue discussion turns to this topic, there will be plenty of participants who know what they are talking about.

2 Comments on “Rising concern over Syria’s chemical weapons”

  1. […] the past week, concerns have spiked over Syria’s chemical weapons, as US officials say Syria is preparing chemical weapons for […]

  2. […] the past week, concerns have spiked over Syria’s chemical weapons, as US officials say Syria is preparing chemical weapons for […]


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