Syrian Rebel Leader to Haaretz: Assad's Opposition Will Secure Chemical Weapons

Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer

The Syrian opposition has plans to take control of the Assad regime's chemical weapons depots and secure them in the first hours after the regime collapses, a senior figure in the opposition told Haaretz.

The opposition leader, a former senior officer in the Syrian Army, spoke to Haaretz on conditions of anonymity. “I personally have no problem speaking to Israelis,” he said, “but our countries are still officially at war, and there are too many people who would try to use an interview to an Israeli paper to harm the opposition.”

The former officer fought in Syria’s wars against Israel and is still intimately connected with senior officers in the army, including many who have defected to the opposition Free Syrian Army.

“In addition to fighting the regime,” he said, “there are a group of us preparing for the chaos that we know will ensue on the day the regime is toppled. We have committees dealing with a new constitution and elections, justice and the restoration of security.”

One of the matters the security committee has discussed is the large arsenal of chemical weapons held by the regime. Israeli security officials are concerned that these weapons could find their way into the hands of Hezbollah or other terror organizations.

The opposition leader said, “We have divided the aftermath into four periods with different priorities for each day. The first period is the first day, the first hours after Assad’s control breaks down, and one of the priorities during those hours is taking control of the chemical weapons so they won’t fall into the hands of terrorists.”

The chemical weapons bases are controlled by the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, though the general in overall command of them is Abdel-Fatah Qudsiyeh, the former commander of Air Force Intelligence and the head of the country's secret police since 2009.

“We know the locations of the chemical weapon stores,” said the opposition officer, “and we will be ready to move and secure them quickly. I can’t promise that nothing will be removed but we have our information and it is not so simple to move around chemical weapons.”

The opposition figure says that around a third of the Syrian armed forces have defected so far. “There are two kinds of defectors,” he says, “the majority, around 60,000, have simply run away, back to their homes, while some 30,000 have actively joined the opposition, mostly the Free Syrian Army, and are fighting.”

He says these numbers are still not sufficient to topple the Assad regime as “they are not organized in one command structure, but commanded by separate committees in each of Syria’s fourteen provinces. They also lack advanced weapons and missiles. In addition, few new conscripts have joined up this past year and the army as a result is not discharging soldiers who have completed the 18-month compulsory service period."

Against the 30,000 soldiers fighting for the opposition, the government still has a number of loyal units, numbering around 70,000 soldiers.

The Fourth Armored Division, commanded by President Assad’s younger brother, Maher Assad is not only equipped with the most advanced Russian tanks that the Syrian army has in its possession, it also fields Mi-25 attack helicopters and is twice the size of a regular division, with around 25,000 men.

Their loyalty is ensured twice-over. About 80 percent of the division’s soldiers and officers are Alawites and nearly 90% of them are career soldiers, in contrast to the conscripts who comprise most of the army’s other units.

Other loyal formations are the ten Special Forces “commando” regiments, with around 1,500 men each and the Republican Guard division, which is also double the size of a normal division.

All told, Assad can currently count on the loyalty of some 70,000 well-equipped troops and, additionally, the forces operating under the four intelligence services and the irregular Shabiha militia, which have carried out many of the murders of civilians in Syria’s towns and villages. The Shabiha are often also used as enforcers of the regime’s orders in the army.

“Most of the units loyal to Assad are dominated by Alawite officers,” says the opposition leader, “but there are also Sunni officers and even generals. They have to work twice as hard at proving their fanatical loyalty. For example, the battalion commander who led the terrible attack on Baba Amr in Homs was a Sunni colonel. Assad has authorized even the most junior officer to shoot and kill senior officers on the slightest suspicion that they may be about to defect."

"Out of about 6,000 soldiers and officers who have been reported killed since the uprising began, at least half were shot by the regime loyalists. Afterwards, their deaths were blamed on ‘armed gangs’ and they were given full military funerals.”

In addition to the regime’s local forces, Assad is receiving increased assistance from Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and from Iraqi fighters loyal to Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. In addition to the advisors the Iranian Quds Force has sent, they also sent technological assistance, says the opposition leader.

“Among other things, they have brought aerial drones that assist Assad’s forces with surveillance. They also opened up a slush fund with millions of dollars to help Assad buy more arms from the Russians. In the past, the Soviet Union sold Syria arms on credit, now they are demanding cash up-front on all arms deals and the money is coming from Tehran. Iran knows that if Assad falls, their entire power structure all the way to Hezbollah in Lebanon will also fall. But there is a limit to how much Iran will do to help Syria. They won’t send in army units to save him because they know this will be a cause for Israel to attack them.”

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Residents shout as they gather around a vehicle carrying United Nations observers in Houla, near Homs on May 26, 2012.Credit: Reuters
A satellite image of al-Safir, Syria's main chemical weapons facility, near Aleppo.Credit: