As Syria teeters ever closer to civil war, one little-discussed danger concerns the fate of its stockpile of deadly chemical weapons, possibly the largest in the world.
Reports suggest that Syria has amassed hundreds of tons of chemical weapons including nerve agents Sarin, Tabun, VX and mustard agents. It may also possibly have developed biological weapons such as anthrax and cholera. Intelligence sources believe many of these agents are weaponized and ready for use, in artillery shells, aerial bombs, cluster munitions and SCUD missile warheads.
There are clearly two nightmare scenarios arising out of the growing disarray that threatens to rip Syria apart: the first is that terrorists gain control of some of these weapons. The second is of a full-scale civil war in which one or another party actually deploys them against its enemies causing thousands of civilian casualties.
The CIA has concluded that Syria possesses a large stockpile of sarin-based warheads and was working on developing VX, a deadlier nerve agent that resists breaking down in the environment.
By early in the last decade, some weapons experts ranked Syria's chemical stockpile as probably the largest in the world, consisting of tens of tons of highly lethal chemical agents and hundreds of Scud missiles as well as lesser rockets, artillery rockets and bomblets for delivering the poisons.
The website GlobalSecurity.org reports that Syria is capable of producing several hundred tons of chemical weapons agents per year from four suspected sites. One is located just north of Damascus, and the second near Homs. The third, in Hama, is believed to be producing VX agents in addition to Sarin and Tabun. The fourth site is near Cerin which is also suspected as being used for the development of biological agents.
Sarin is the nerve agent that killed 13 people and sickened about 1,000 during a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. It is deadly if inhaled even in minute quantities, and can also be used to contaminate water and food supplies.
In July 2007, a Syrian arms depot exploded, killing at least 15 Syrians and an undisclosed number of Iranian engineers.
At the time, it was reported that the explosion happened when Iranian and Syrian military personnel attempted to fit a Scud missile with a mustard gas warhead.
Syria is one of only 7 nations which is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. It signed the Biological Warfare Convention but never ratified it.
We can presume that foreign intelligence agencies, including those of the United States and Israel, are keeping a very close eye on these facilities. This entire episode illustrates what happens when despotic rulers like the Assads, father and son, backed by irresponsible allies like Iran, are allowed to amass deadly and illegal weapons without any international curbs, sanctions, control or supervision.