“Who’s going to volunteer? Who’s going to cough up the funds? There aren’t a lot of countries that have this kind of expertise,” said Michael Eisenstadt, a retired Army officer who directs the military and security studies program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Everything has to be done very deliberately. Securing the sites will be a big deal. We don’t know how many sites there might be.”
Although the basic contours of Syria’s chemical weapons program have been described for years in congressional testimony and independent reports, analysts cautioned that the extent and precise nature of the stockpile remain a mystery.
Analysts estimated that the country has several hundred tons of mustard gas and highly toxic nerve agents, predominantly sarin. But there is also evidence that Syria has sought to develop a more lethal and persistent nerve gas known as VX, as well as the nerve agent soman.
Most of the chemical munitions are stored at two sites: a warehouse complex in Furqlus, outside the battle-stricken central city of Homs at the western edge of the Syrian desert, and an installation known as Khan Abu Shamat, about 50 miles east of Damascus, the capital. A third site is near Masyaf, west of Homs. Smaller stockpiles are thought to be scattered among dozens of other military installations nationwide.
The arsenal is so vast that it could take 1,000 outside inspectors and specialists just to monitor the condition of each site and take an inventory, said Leonard Spector, deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
That’s assuming there would be no need to provide security at the installations, much less engage hostile forces. In a worst-case scenario, under which the Syrian military would gas its own people, the Pentagon has projected that it could take up to 75,000 troops to intervene.
“It’s a manageable number in an environment where everybody’s cooperating,” Spector said. “Some of these other contingencies, the numbers add up fairly quickly.”
As the Syrian opposition steadily makes territorial gains, U.S. officials and analysts said the odds are increasing that insurgents will seize control of a chemical weapons site or that Syrian troops guarding the installations will simply abandon their posts.
“It’s almost inevitable,” Eisenstadt said. “It may have already happened, for what we know.”
Silou, the retired general who defected to the opposition, said Syria’s chemical weapons supply is capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people if deployed in heavily populated cities.
Gases and nerve agents could be packed onto 600 warheads, including mid-range, Russian-made Scud missiles, Silou said. Syria also has thousands of artillery shells capable of being fitted with chemicals, he added, or the poisons could simply be sprayed over populated areas or rebel outposts.
Silou said it was unlikely that insurgents would know how to successfully detonate chemical munitions on their own, but he worried that the weapons could be moved easily to Iran, to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon or to the al-Qaeda group in Iraq.
“After the regime falls, anyone could take them,” Silou said.
Only Assad has the authority to order the deployment of chemical weapons, Silou said. Ali Mamluk, director of Syria’s intelligence service, and Jamil Hassan, head of air force intelligence, also are authorized to issue the order — but only if Assad is dead.
The defector said he has proposed forming a 2,000-strong unit called the Mountain Heroes that could be deployed to guard the two largest chemical weapons depots if Assad is toppled.
The unit would be composed of officers who have defected and who specialize in the handling and use of chemical weapons. He said the unit would be pulled together from 200 defected officers now in Turkey, 1,200 in Jordan and the rest still inside Syria. But he said they lack money for rifles, uniforms, communication equipment and food.
Assad’s government has warned that rebels affiliated with al-Qaeda may be on the cusp of acquiring chemical weapons.
Last week, the Syrian Foreign Ministry said the al-Nusra Front — an anti-Assad group that has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and is also known as Jabhat al-Nusra — had seized a chlorine factory near the town of Safirah, east of Aleppo. “Terrorist groups may resort to using chemical weapons against the Syrian people,” the ministry cautioned.
The chlorine factory, known as the Syrian-Saudi Chemicals Co., is near the same town as a major chemical weapons production and research complex, also known as Safirah, analysts said. It is unclear whether munitions are stored there as well.
Morello reported from Antakya, Turkey.