Israel’s security establishment maintains that the Syrian army still possesses “significant” stockpiles of ready-for-use arms primed with chemical toxins, in contravention of the regime’s commitment to dismantle or give up its entire chemical weapons arsenal, an Israeli security officials told Reuters Thursday.
“There is, to my mind, still in the hands of Syria a significant residual capability… that could be used in certain circumstances and could be potentially very serious,” the official was quoted as saying.
According to the official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, the stockpiles, which were hidden by the Syrian army in secret locations across the war-torn country, included missile warheads, bombs, and rocket propelled grenades. The official added, however, that Israeli intelligence had been able to discover the whereabouts of the hidden arms.
Many of the cached weapons, the official continued, were spiked with deadly chemical agents such as sarin.
Syria, which has been engaged in a bloody civil war, agreed to give up its chemical arsenal last fall when US President Barack Obama threatened missile strikes in retaliation for a chemical attack on a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. The attack was believed to have killed more than 1,000 people. Obama abandoned talk of attacking Syria after President Bashar Assad agreed to the weapons surrender.
The official told Reuters that Israel had a “high degree of confidence” that its information regarding the weapons was accurate, adding that the IDF had decided not to disclose its estimates until now in order not to harm international efforts to rid Syria of unconventional arms.
The official added that Israel was not particularly concerned that it would be attacked by Syria, since the regime knew that if it were to target the Jewish State with chemical weapons, it “wouldn’t be a game-changer, it would be a game-ender,” for Syria.
While Israel has been “very careful not to be sucked in” to the Syrian civil war, the official said, “when we have seen things that we are concerned about, whatever has been done has been done.” The official was presumably referring to several attacks on Syrian targets that were attributed to Israel, though the IDF and Israeli officials have never confirmed on the record that such targeting ever took place.
Earlier this month, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said that the Obama administration was concerned that the Islamic State group and other terrorists could get hold of chemical weapons if Syria was hiding any stockpiles.
“Certainly if there are chemical weapons left in Syria, there will be a risk that those weapons fall into ISIL’s hands. And we can only imagine what a group like that would do if in possession of such a weapon,” Power said, referring to the militant group by one of its known acronyms.
The Israeli official, for his part, said that he hadn’t “seen any information that [the Islamic State] have received” such weapons. “I would not be surprised if they are interested, though, in receiving them.”
Israeli intelligence exposed the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons early last year. Top IDF military intelligence analyst Itai Brun, in April 2013, delivered a bombshell lecture in which he declared publicly that Assad was using nerve gas against rebel forces.
“To the best of our professional understanding, the regime has used lethal chemical weapons,” he said at the time, and specified that the IDF believed the toxic element was sarin.
His assertion was initially queried, but subsequently accepted, by US and other officials. The Israeli conclusion was “based on very special work,” by a team that “saw very clearly,” Brun later said.
In June, opposition figures associated with rebels in Syria accused the Syrian regime of hiding chemical weapons in remote Alawite regions, in the country’s northwest.
A senior member of the Syrian opposition who maintains contact with security officials still working for the Assad regime told The Times of Israel that on April 16, three vehicles arrived by night to Jourin, 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Hama, where the regime’s Mountain Brigade was stationed. According to the officials, the vehicles were loaded with chemical substances, which were then buried underground within the brigade’s encampment.
Electricity was cut to the entire region as the cars arrived, the activist said.
In addition, the sources reported, the regime has been transferring chemical substances and missiles carrying chemical warheads from a research center in the town of Marzaf, 20 kilometers (12 miles) northwest of Hama, to a converted recreation camp northeast of Masyaf, a town lying 50 kilometers west of Hama.
The weapons were placed in secret caves and trenches in the mountain near the camp.
“According to our information, this is not the first time chemical weapons are moved from place to place,” the opposition member told The Times of Israel. “We believe the regime has hidden a large amount of VX (nerve agent) which is extremely toxic.”
The Times of Israel could not independently confirm the information, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical stockpile, did not respond to a request for comment.
AFP contributed to this report.