The Complex

What does Assad’s WMD arsenal look like?

Given all the news reports citing British, French, and Israeli officials saying that chemical weapons may have been used in Syria we thought we’d give you an updated version of what we know about Bashar al-Assad‘s stockpile of chemical agents and their delivery systems. The United States’ Intelligence Community’s 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment released last ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Given all the news reports citing British, French, and Israeli officials saying that chemical weapons may have been used in Syria we thought we'd give you an updated version of what we know about Bashar al-Assad's stockpile of chemical agents and their delivery systems.

The United States' Intelligence Community's 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment released last month states that Syria has a "highly active chemical weapons program" maintaining a stockpile of sarin, VX, and the longtime staple of chemical warfare, mustard gas. These weapons can be delivered a number of ways, via cluster bombs dropped from jets and helicopters to chemical warheads placed atop Scud ballistic missiles. They can even be fired via shorter-range artillery guns or missiles systems, like the Soviet-made BM-27 Uragan.

In addition to chemical weapons, the Intelligence Community's report states that it's likely the regime has biological weapons, albeit without dedicated delivery systems.

Given all the news reports citing British, French, and Israeli officials saying that chemical weapons may have been used in Syria we thought we’d give you an updated version of what we know about Bashar al-Assad‘s stockpile of chemical agents and their delivery systems.

The United States’ Intelligence Community’s 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment released last month states that Syria has a "highly active chemical weapons program" maintaining a stockpile of sarin, VX, and the longtime staple of chemical warfare, mustard gas. These weapons can be delivered a number of ways, via cluster bombs dropped from jets and helicopters to chemical warheads placed atop Scud ballistic missiles. They can even be fired via shorter-range artillery guns or missiles systems, like the Soviet-made BM-27 Uragan.

In addition to chemical weapons, the Intelligence Community’s report states that it’s likely the regime has biological weapons, albeit without dedicated delivery systems.

"Based on the duration of Syria’s longstanding biological warfare (BW) program, we judge that some elements of the program may have advanced beyond the research and development stage and may be capable of limited agent production," reads the threat assessment. "Syria is not known to have successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system, but it possesses conventional and chemical weapon systems that could be modified for biological agent delivery."

The Assad regime may well improvise with delivery systems as its weapons stockpiles are run down by the war. Remember, we’ve seen Syrian air force personnel pushing "barrel bombs" lit via cigarettes from the cargo doors of helicopters onto Syrian cities. 

The recent reports about the Assad regime’s possible use of chemical weapons do not provide information on the types of delivery systems used.

While we’ve reported that Western officials have stated that securing Syrian weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) would be an incredibly complicated operation, it’s worth noting that NATO has deployed counter-WMD teams in the region for months, in an attempt to figure out how to secure Syria’s stockpile in the event that the regime loses control of them.

Last week, it was revealed that the U.S. is sending about 100 soldiers to Jordan where they are establishing an Army headquarters unit there — a possibly precursor to a larger buildup of forces that may move to secure the WMD. FP’s Situation Report quoted a U.S. defense official as saying that the troops are "a well-trained, well-coordinated team that can be the nucleus of further mission planning and growth of the command and control element, should that be ordered."

But, as Charles Blair, a specialist on WMD proliferation with the Federation of American Scientists points out, there are no rock-solid public estimates of the size of Assad’s arsenal.

"Any open source assessments of a Syrian BW program — and its notional size and composition — are purely hypothetical," Blair told Killer Apps in an email.

Last year, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, told lawmakers that the size of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal was "100 times the magnitude we experienced in Libya." (The Libyan government voluntarily destroyed most of its chemical weapons well before Muammar al-Qaddafi was overthrown in 2011.)

"I’ve heard that Syria has 100 to 200 missiles with nerve agents loaded and ready to go, but that seems extreme," Blair told us last summer.

However, he did point out today that Assad may have doubled down on his bio-weapons program in the wake of the 2007 Israeli airstrike that leveled one of his main nuclear research facilities at al-Kibar.

"We know that when Libya finally concluded that sophisticated chemical agents (i.e., nerve agents) were a bridge too far, they abandoned their CW pursuits and doubled down on their nuclear program (until abandoning that too in 2003)," wrote Blair. "Does this portend anything for Syria’s BW program? Perhaps, if the 2007 Israeli destruction of Syria’s clandestine nuclear reactor in September 2007 precipitated Damascus to double down on its BW program."

In addition to traditional chemical weapons, Blair says there are unconfirmed reports of Iranian transfers of riot control agents (RCAs) or "incapacitating agents" that have been used against the Syrian rebels.

"The Syrians have undoubtedly used RCAs and/or incapacitants but there are no open source credible estimates of the quantities Damascus might possess of these non-lethal agents," said Blair today.

As for the possibility that the weapons have fallen into rebel hands, Blair said, "to my knowledge there are no credible open source reports of any chemical agents or weaponized chemical munitions transferring hands."

Still, "no one in the open sources knows anything for certain about Syria’s lethal CW arsenal and alleged offensive BW capabilities," he added. 

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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