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7 December, 2012 - 14:28

Syrian chemical weapons: real threat or bargaining chip?

US President Barak Obama has issued a strongly worded statement, warning the Syrian authorities against the use of chemical weapons . The warning follows the publication of intelligence reports by the New York Times claiming that President Assad would deploy such weapons if  fighting reached the centre of the Syrian capital.
 
By Taleb Ibrahim
 
According to CNN, quoting an anonymous American source, the Syrian regime is preparing the chemical compounds needed to manufacture Sarin, an extremely potent nerve agent which is banned under international law.
 
But does Syria have these weapons?
In August, a spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Minister, Jihad al-Maqdisi, announced that Syria not only possesses chemical weapons, but is prepared to use them if necessary. In the wake of international condemnation, al-Maqdisi retracted the statement and a few days later even denied that Syria has  chemical weapons. Last week, Al-Maqdisi defected. 
 
In an exclusive interview with RNW, Naser Abu Dan, a chemical weapons expert familiar with his country’s biological warfare programme, stated that Syria no longer possesses these arms. But he added that in the past, the Syrian regime had attempted without success to obtain the technology needed to produce these weapons.
 
Storage and shelf life
Abu Dan said Syria developed a programme to produce small amounts of chemical weapons with the help of French and German companies. The project ultimately failed because Syrian experts were unable to find a location to store large quantities of gas.
 
According to Abu Dan, the chemical components have a shelf life of less than six months, after which they become ineffective. It is extremely complicated and highly expensive to dispose of them afterwards. Abu Dan believes that Syria’s main allies, Russia and Iran, are unwilling to supply the regime with chemical weapons because it is not in their current interests.
 
Penetrating the inner circle
One of the main figures in the Syrian chemical weapons programme was Adnan al-Hobel, the head of the Chemistry Depart of the Syrian Scientific Research Centre in Damascus. In the late 1990s, says Abu Dhan, the Syrian authorities accused al-Hobel of spying for Israel and executed him. This led Syria to close down its chemical weapons programme and look into developing other types of weapons.
 
But Abu Dan says this wasn’t the end of the story. The authorities recently arrested another chemical weapons expert, Saleh Najm. He underwent treatment for cancer in France, after being exposed to nerve gas. It’s believed that Najm contacted foreign intelligence officials during his stay in France and passed on information about Syria’s chemical weapons programme. This led to his recent arrest in Syria.
 
Negotiating tool?
According to Abu Dan, neither the Syrian regime nor the opposition possess chemical weapons. But he thinks that by revealing its past biological warfare programme, President Bashar al-Assad could improve his bargaining position if his regime comes under further threat. This could backfire however as the threat of chemical warfare could also provide Western nations with a justification to intervene in the conflict.