Syria transferred chemical weapons to port city last month, raising alarm bells, report says

Russian and US warnings came after news that embattled regime had moved weapons

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

An IDF drill simulating an attack on Israel with chemical weapons, 2008 (photo credit: Gili Yaari/Flash 90)
An IDF drill simulating an attack on Israel with chemical weapons, 2008 (photo credit: Gili Yaari/Flash 90)

The Syrian regime transferred chemical weapons from a storage base near Damascus to the port city of Tartus last month, sparking American and European concerns that the weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon or other extremist organizations inside Syria, Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai reported Sunday.

On August 20, US President Barack Obama declared that the US would consider military intervention if Syria deployed or used chemical weapons in its possession. British diplomatic sources told the Kuwaiti paper on Sunday that Obama issued the strongly-worded warning following the transfer of weapons from Damascus to Tartus.

On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that US and Middle Eastern officials were concerned that Syria had dispersed its chemical weapons stockpile, considered to be the third-largest in the world, to 20 sites around the country.

It did not detail where those sites were.

Officials in Israel and the West fear that chemical weapons may fall into terrorist hands in the chaos surrounding Syria’s bloody civil war. They also fear Assad may use the weapons on rebels or transfer them to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite terror group .

In a speech delivered on September 3, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared that his organization does not possess chemical weapons and that such weapons are banned under Islamic law, a claim voiced in the past by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Nasrallah’s reference to chemical weapons may have followed pressure from Syria’s ally, Russia. Lebanese daily Al-Nahar reported Sunday that a Russian envoy recently arrived in Beirut and warned Nasrallah against accepting chemical weapons from Syria. According to the daily, Russian President Vladimir Putin assured Israel that Syria’s chemical weapons will not leave their storehouses. Al-Nahar is staunchly opposed to Hezbollah and aligned with the March 14 movement led by Saad Hariri.

The diplomatic sources who spoke to Al-Rai speculated that the weapons were moved to Tartus as part of the Assad regime’s “plan B” to flee to an Alawite-majority region of Syria if the regime is in jeopardy.

The ancient port of Tartus, along the country’s coast, is one of the country’s few Alawite majority enclaves. In August, Jordan’s King Abdullah speculated that Assad may try to create a mini-state in the area should he lose control of Damascus.

Ten thousand soldiers are on permanent alert to take over 31 bases inside Syria where chemical weapons are stored, if the West becomes convinced that those weapons may no longer be secure, the British diplomatic sources told Al-Rai.

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