Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime continues to maintain a “residual” chemical weapons capacity, amounting to perhaps a few tons, according to Israel’s intelligence agencies. The capacity remains intact, even though the international effort to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons is officially complete.
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The process of disarming Syria of what, at the time, was considered the world’s second largest arsenal of chemical weapons, began almost a year ago, following the deaths of almost 1,400 Syrian civilians in a massive chemical weapons strike on a Damascus suburb in August 2013. The strike was attributed to Assad’s army, as were a series of smaller-scale chemical weapon incidents.
The early incidents were not taken seriously by the United States and other countries, with the U.S. administration even dismissing the Israeli intelligence community’s claim that chemical weapons had been used. But things changed after the massacre last August, leading Washington to threaten airstrikes on Syria. The attack was aborted at the last minute by an American-Russian agreement to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons, which Assad was forced to accept.
Almost 1,000 tons of various types of chemical weapons were removed from Syria during the ensuing disarmament process. Nevertheless, Israel maintains that the regime still has secret caches of chemical weapons in various places that remain under its control. The total amount of weaponry in these caches is estimated to be between several hundred kilograms and a few tons – or in other words, less than one percent of Syria’s original arsenal.
A senior Israeli defense official told Haaretz that the international effort to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was “a non-negligible achievement carried out without the use of force.” Nevertheless, he added, Israel has good reasons to believe that Syria still has small quantity of chemical weapons, and the American intelligence community doesn’t dispute this assessment.
Defense officials believe that Assad kept these weapons to deploy if faced with an immediate threat to the regime’s survival.
The regime also continues to use chemical weapons that weren’t covered by the disarmament agreement, first and foremost chlorine gas. Last month, the U.S. twice accused Assad of using chlorine against the Syrian rebels. Israel says that for the regime, employing chemical weapons is very advantageous, because they enable it to attack the rebels in tunnels and underground complexes without getting embroiled in close-range battles.