Syrian Bombs Are Now Filled With Chemicals — And Could Be Up for Grabs

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An American sailor during a simulated chemical attack. Photo: U.S. Navy

The Bashir Assad regime in Syria is loading of some of its weapons with deadly nerve agents, and mixing together the chemical precursors needed to carry out a sarin-laced attack. But that may not be the biggest chemical threat Syria faces. There’s also an increasing chance that a terror group might get its hands on some of the planet’s most gruesome chemical arms. Assad’s chemical corps have spent years buying up and experimenting with the chemicals needed to make the nerve agent sarin; not even an increasingly bloody civil war has kept the labs from running. Today, Syria-watchers in the U.S. government believe, these chemical engineers may be skilled enough in handling sarin that the nerve agent might remain deadly for up to a year. (“This is not a ‘move it or lose it’ situation,” one American official tells Danger Room.) And during that time, the sarin could be acquired by one of the Islamic extremists working in the loosely led rebel movement to topple the Assad regime. In other words: There’s the prospect of chemically armed terrorists emerging from the Syrian civil war.

“Uncertainties regarding this crisis are pervasive, yet at least one outcome is highly probable: terrorist acquisition of chemical weapons if the regime falls,” writes Federation of American Scientists analyst Charles Blair. The nerve agent sarin is inherently unstable, breaking down over time and potentially corroding its containers — especially if the sarin is anything less than pure. So when Assad’s engineers began combining some of its stores of phosphorous compounds and isopropanol to make the deadly agent, it sparked fears that the Syrian military would either have to have employ the chemical weapons, or see a portion of its stockpile vanish.

But there’s a converse, and potentially more troubling, scenario. If Assad’s sarin is stable enough to last for months, as U.S. observers believe, it could be a tempting target for some of the more radical elements in the Syrian opposition. With more than 500 metric tons of nerve agent precursors scattered across more than two dozen sites, there have long been opportunities for a militant band getting its hands of some portion of these chemicals. Now that some of those precursors have been combined and loaded into munitions in central Syria, it makes the prospect of such acquisitions even more dark. Yes, mixed sarin is much more dangerous to maintain and transport than its precursor chemicals separately; “it makes handling this stuff ten times harder,” says one U.S. official. But is easier to employ as a weapon. These safety and security concerns led the U.S. and other chemical-armed states during the Cold War to build artillery rounds that keep the two “binary” precursors separate. Only when the round is fired — and spinning thousands of times per minute — does the membrane separating the two chemicals break, and the deadly combination form.

But this decades-old approach has been difficult for other states to master. The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, for example, “tested a limited number of binary artillery systems, including 155-mm and 152-mm shells for sarin, but did not enter serial production of such systems,” according to one United Nations report (.pdf). During Hussein’s war with Iran in the 1980s, Baghdad’s military didn’t use the binary shells during its chemical attacks. “The Iraqis used to make it [the sarin] up and shoot it off right away,” RAND corporation unconventional weapons specialist James Quinivan tells Danger Room. Many of Syria’s chemical-capable munition arms aren’t artillery rounds at all. They’re BM-21 “Grad” rockets and rudimentary Soviet-era gravity bombs, designed to be dropped from airplanes. Neither of them spins fast enough to break a membrane in-flight. Depending on the weapon, the precursor chemicals are loaded in separately, and then mixed within the munition while it is still on the ground. “Or they’ll mix it before putting it on the weapons,” one U.S. weapons intelligence expert tells Danger Room. “This is Russian stuff, older. So there’s just a single chamber” on the munition.

The blending is a tricky process; the precursors have to agitated just so, and sometimes cooled as they are mixed. But if it’s done right, the result is a nerve agent so awful and so taboo, no one in the world has dared to used it for decades. That is a point the Syrian military has now reached; “they’ve gotten to the point where the can load it up on a plane and drop it,” an American official told Danger Rom earlier this week. Hopefully, the prohibition against used these weapons will still hold. In the meantime, according to one report, Western governments are training some of the more responsible Syrian rebel groups in chemical weapons security. The training is reportedly taking place in Jordan and in Turkey, where the U.S. has been schooling the rebels for months in using the latest communications gear. “U.S. contractors have also been on the ground in Syria to monitor the status of regime stockpiles,” according to the new Syria Deeply site.

At least one opposition leader is trying to work behind the scenes with Assad officials to keep the weapons and their chemical precursors safe. And everyone from President Obama to the U.N. Secretary-General to the head of NATO are warning Damascus not to go any further with its nerve agent preparations. “Our concerns are that an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons or might lose control of them to one of the many groups that are now operating within Syria,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday, in advance of a meeting with her Russian counterpart. “And so, as part of the absolute unity that we all have on this issue, we have sent an unmistakable message that this would cross a red line and those responsible would be held to account.” Wired

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