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CRS — Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress

August 23, 2013

Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

The use or loss of control of chemical weapons stocks in Syria could have unpredictable consequences for the Syrian population and neighboring countries as well as U.S. allies and forces in the region. Congress may wish to assess the Administration’s plans to respond to possible scenarios involving the use, change of hands, or loss of control of Syrian chemical weapons.

Syria has produced, stored, and weaponized chemical weapons, but it remains dependent on foreign suppliers for chemical precursors. The regime of President Bashar al Asad reportedly has stocks of nerve (sarin, VX) and blister (mustard gas) agents, possibly weaponized into bombs, shells, and missiles, and associated production facilities. Chemical weapons and their agents can deteriorate depending on age and quality. Little is known from open sources about the current size and condition of the stockpile. Syria continues to attempt to procure new supplies of chemical weapons precursors, which are dual-use, through front companies in third countries. Most countries that have had chemical weapons arsenals in the past have destroyed these weapons under the Chemical Weapons Convention, or are in the process of destroying them. The U.S. intelligence community cites Iran, North Korea, and Syria as having active chemical weapons programs.

While the United States and other governments have said they believe the Asad regime has kept its chemical weapons stocks secure, policymakers are concerned about what could happen to these weapons in the course of the civil war, such as diversion to terrorist groups or loss of control during a regime collapse.

Reports in early December 2012 quoted unnamed officials as saying intelligence showed possible preparations for use, but this was denied by the Syrian government. Since then, press reports have discussed several alleged incidents of chemical weapons use in Syria by both the government and opposition forces. A United Nations chemical weapons inspection team is negotiating with Syria on access to the sites to investigate. On June 13, 2013, the White House released a statement saying that following its investigation, “our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year. Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information.” The June 13 statement said that chemical weapons use had resulted in an estimated 100-150 deaths in Syria.

President Obama and other world leaders have said that the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population would be met with consequences, which could include the use of military force. There is also concern that Syria could transfer its chemical weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Administration officials have stated that the United States has been working with regional allies to detect the movement of chemical weapons, prepare interdiction scenarios, and mitigate possible use against military or civilian populations. The June 13 White House statement said that in response to the Asad regime’s use of chemical weapons, the President has authorized the expansion of military assistance to the opposition forces in Syria.

During conflict, the intelligence community and Special Forces units would likely play a major role in locating and securing such weapons in a combat environment. The nature and recent course of the conflict in Syria suggests that rapid changes in control over critical military facilities may occur. U.S. government programs established to secure or remove chemical or other weapons of mass destruction through threat reduction or nonproliferation programs have focused on destruction or scientist redirection in an atmosphere of cooperation. At present, such programs are providing border security assistance to neighboring states. U.S. policymakers and Congress may wish to review and discuss authorities, funding, forces, and scenarios in advance.

For additional information on chemical weapons agents, see CRS Report R42862, Chemical Weapons: A Summary Report of Characteristics and Effects, by Dana A. Shea. For a broader discussion of U.S. policy options, see CRS Report RL33487, Armed Conflict in Syria: U.S. and International Response, by Jeremy M. Sharp and Christopher M. Blanchard.

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