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Exclusive: Assad Asks The U.N. to Equip His Troops, Give Him Armored Trucks

President Bashar al-Assad’s government has presented the United Nation’s chemical weapons watchdog with a detailed plan for the transfer of chemical materials abroad for destruction. And according to a confidential account of the plan reviewed by Foreign Policy, it includes 120 Syrian security forces, dozens of heavy, armored trucks, and an advanced communications network linking ...

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government has presented the United Nation’s chemical weapons watchdog with a detailed plan for the transfer of chemical materials abroad for destruction. And according to a confidential account of the plan reviewed by Foreign Policy, it includes 120 Syrian security forces, dozens of heavy, armored trucks, and an advanced communications network linking Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea. The extensive request for equipment with both civilian and military applications has already triggered expressions of alarm from Western diplomats. "Let’s just say we will be looking at this list very skeptically, particularly items that could be diverted to a military program," said one Security Council diplomat.

The Syrian plan calls for equipping at least eight platoons of up to 35 soldiers each to secure the road between Damascus to the port city of Latakia, from which the weapons would be shipped overseas for destruction. The most likely destination: Albania, which got rid of its own chemical stockpile in 2007. The United States is nearing agreement with the Albanian government to destroy Syria’s chemicals and nerve agents, according to two U.N. Security Council diplomats. According to the American proposal, which has not been made public, the United States would supply the Albanian government with mobile labs capable of destroying Syrian nerve gas through a process known as hydrolysis — essentially bombarding it with water and caustic reagents like sodium hydroxide.

The Cable first reported last week on aspects of the Syrian destruction plan, including a proposal to convert 12 chemical weapons plants into commercial factories. But The Cable has since obtained a far more detailed account of the plan, including requests for tens of millions of dollars worth of equipment, including 40 armored transport trucks, advanced cameras, computers, radios, 13 power generators, five construction cranes, five forklifts, packing materials, and 20 Teflon-lined 2,000-liter metal crates for storing controlled chemicals, including phosphoryl chloride and phosphorus trichloride, a precursor chemical used in the production of sarin and tabun.

"In order for the Syrian government to be able to complete the operation in respect of securing, protecting and transporting chemicals from their current sites … the Syrian Arab Republic has developed … preliminary requirements for the implementation of the security and transport plan," reads a confidential Oct. 22 letter from the Syrian foreign minister to the director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ahmet Üzümcü. "We wish that all the requirements contained in the initial plan be met in order to ensure the successful completion of this task."

The Syrian appeal for assistance presents the United States and other foreign powers with a dilemma: If they meet the request, they run the risk of equipping a regime they had sought to oust with equipment that could later be used in support of its military campaign. If they decline, they may hinder the Syrian government’s ability to safely transfer its chemical weapons out of the country, a key component of the U.S. goal of ensuring such materials are destroyed.

According to the Assad government’s plan, Syrian officials would establish a central communications headquarters in Damascus, with a series of outposts along the route to the sea, through the cities of Homs and Tartus, and on to the country’s main port at Latakia.

Syrian authorities have requested 40 armored 15-ton trucks to cart bulk chemical precursors and nerve agent from staging areas in Damascus and Homs to Latakia. The Syrians have also asked the OPCW to secure safety equipment, including 10 ambulances, 10 fire trucks, and "ten 10,000 liter water tanks to be transported together with the convoys for use in the event of chemical contamination." The plan also calls for the construction of housing for Syrian security personnel, including 32 prefabricated bedrooms and eight field kitchens.

The Syrian government agreed in September to an ambitious U.S. and Russian-brokered plan for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal by the end of June 2014. A joint U.N. and OPCW mission completed the first stage of the plan, overseeing the destruction by Syria of its filling and mixing equipment in all of its declared chemical weapons sites.

The United States, the United Nations, and the OPCW have been searching for a country to destroy Syria’s toxic materials, and Washington has approached Albania, Belgium, France, and Norway for help. Russia, which has one of the world’s largest chemical weapons destruction facilities, told council diplomats that Moscow might participate in the destruction of the chemical weapons inside Syria.

Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters outside the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that "we are looking at various forms of our participation in this process. Russia is not going to do the actual destruction of chemical weapons, but Russian participation is quite possible." Russia has previously indicated it would be prepared to send Russian troops to Syria to provide security for the inspectors.

Norway, which has limited experience in the destruction of chemical weapons, has declined. "Due to the lack of technical capacity and [a] tight timeline it turned out that Norway was not a suitable location for the destruction process," Norway’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Ragnhild Imerslund, told The Cable in a text message. "Other countries are now being considered."

Sigrid Kaag, a Dutch national who heads the joint U.N.-OPCW mission, said that 21 of Syria’s main 23 chemical weapons sites — and 39 of 41 facilities located at those sites — have been rendered inoperable. But she declined to say whether any foreign government has agreed to receive and destroy chemical agents from Syria, according to a council diplomat.

But a council diplomat said it is looking increasingly likely that the United States would provide mobile labs to Albania to destroy the chemicals and nerve agent on Albanian territory.

The Albanian mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for a comment. The U.S. mission to the United Nations referred questions on the matter to the State Department. A State Department official, speaking on background, declined to comment on an Albanian deal, but said, "We encourage nations to provide support, including personnel, technical expertise, information, equipment, and financial and other resources and assistance to enable the OPCW and U.N. missions … We continue to discuss with international partners the most effective and expeditious means for eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons program."

CNN, meanwhile, reported tonight that the United States is reviewing classified intelligence suggesting that Syria may be underreporting the size of its chemical weapons stockpile. The cable network cautioned that the intelligence "is not definitive" but cited an unnamed U.S. official claiming "they have done things recently that suggest Syria is not ready to get rid of all their chemical weapons."

Following today’s Security Council meeting on
Syria, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that "we have made significant progress toward taking away potent weapons of war and terror from Assad and his forces" but that "there is nothing yet to celebrate."

Follow me on Twitter: @columlynch.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch