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Friday, September 27, 2013

Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress

Mary Beth D. Nikitin, Coordinator
Specialist in Nonproliferation

Paul K. Kerr
Analyst in Nonproliferation

Andrew Feickert
Specialist in Military Ground Forces

Syria has produced, stored, and weaponized chemical agents, but it remains dependent on foreign suppliers for chemical precursors. The regime of President Bashar al Asad possesses stocks of nerve (sarin, VX) and blister (mustard gas) agents, possibly weaponized into bombs, shells, and missiles. The government also has associated production facilities. Chemical weapons and their agents can deteriorate depending on age and quality; little is known from open sources about the current condition of the stockpile. Syria continues to attempt to procure new supplies of chemical weapons precursors, which are dual-use, through front companies in third countries. Most countries that have had chemical weapons arsenals in the past have destroyed, or are in the process of destroying, these weapons under the Chemical Weapons Convention. The U.S. intelligence community cites Iran, North Korea, and Syria as having active chemical weapons programs.

The use or loss of control of chemical weapons stocks in Syria could have unpredictable consequences for the Syrian population and neighboring countries, as well as U.S. allies and forces in the region. The United States and other countries have assessed that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against opposition forces in the country. The largestscale use to date was on August 21, 2013. A U.N. inspection team began working in Syria on August 19, 2013 and completed their mission on August 31. Laboratories are currently analyzing samples collected by the inspectors.

President Barack Obama and other world leaders had said that the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population would be met with consequences, which could include the use of military force. For example, President Obama suggested during an August 2012 press briefing that the United States might take military action against Syria if Damascus used or lost control of its chemical weapons, explaining that “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

On August 31, 2013, President Obama stated that the United States should respond with “military action against Syrian regime targets” and added that he would ask Congress to grant authorization for the use of military force. The White House had previously announced on June 13, 2013, that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons “on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.” The statement added that, in response to the Asad regime’s use of chemical weapons, the President had authorized the expansion of military assistance to the opposition forces in Syria.

However, President Obama subsequently explained in a September 10 speech that he had asked congressional leaders to postpone a vote to authorize the use of military force in order to give the Administration time to pursue a new diplomatic initiative. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem stated the previous day that Damascus had accepted a proposal presented by the Russian government, according to which Syria would turn over its chemical weapons for international control and supervised destruction. The United Nations Security Council is discussing a French draft resolution designed to accomplish this goal. Key issues for negotiation include verification procedures, inspectors’ access, and security of international personnel.

While the United States and other governments have said they believe the Asad regime has kept its chemical weapons stocks secure, policymakers are also concerned about what could happen to these weapons in the course of the civil war, such as diversion to terrorist groups or loss of
control during a regime collapse. There is also concern that Syria could transfer its chemical weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Administration officials have stated that the United States has been working with regional allies to detect the movement of chemical weapons, prepare interdiction scenarios, and mitigate possible use against military or civilian populations.

During conflict, the intelligence community and Special Forces units would likely play a major role in locating and securing such weapons in a combat environment. The nature and recent course of the conflict in Syria suggests that rapid changes in control over critical military facilities may occur. U.S. government programs established to secure or remove chemical or other weapons of mass destruction through threat reduction or nonproliferation programs have focused on destruction or scientist redirection in an atmosphere of cooperation. At present, such programs are providing border security assistance to neighboring states. U.S. policymakers and Congress may wish to review and discuss authorities, funding, forces, and scenarios.

For additional information on chemical weapons agents, see CRS Report R42862, Chemical Weapons: A Summary Report of Characteristics and Effects, by Dana A. Shea. For a broader discussion of U.S. policy options, see CRS Report RL33487, Armed Conflict in Syria: Background and U.S. Response, by Jeremy M. Sharp and Christopher M. Blanchard.

Date of Report: September 12, 2013
Number of Pages: 29
Order Number: R42848
Price: $29.95

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