Naturally, Syria’s possession of chemical weapons is at the core of Saturday’s missile strikes. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons program continued to operate with impunity until Saturday.
To be sure, Syria did not declare all its stockpiles and capacities to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on its accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in October 2013. Syria also omitted
the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), whose work on chemical weapons and ballistic missile systems is notable given that it was known to be an active research center for decades.
The SSRC managed at least four chemical agent manufacturing plants — at Dumayr, Khan Abou, Shamat and Furklus — and operated additional storage sites dispersed across the country in about 50 different towns and cities before the beginning of the civil war.
Only recently has Syria agreed to declare certain SSRC activities under the CWC, but failure to declare any urban use of chemical weapons warranted the airstrikes by a coalition of Western countries. Syria failed to declare the sites at Barzeh and Jemraya too, eventually doing so only in 2018.
French security services also sought to inquire about possible remaining stocks of yperite (mustard gas) and DF (a sarin precursor); undeclared chemical weapons of small caliber that may have been used on several occasions, including during the attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017; signs of the presence of VX and sarin on production and loading sites; and possible signs of the presence of chemical agents that have never been declared, including nitrogen mustard, lewisite, soman and VX. America and other Western powers, too, saw the same evidence of an active Syrian chemical weapons program.
The use of chemical weapons in Syria is an Assad family affair along with close allies within the security apparatus. Assad and some of his closest advisers order the use of chemical weapons. Maher Assad, Bashar’s younger brother and commander of the powerful 4th Armored Division, is directly implicated in the decision-making process to use barrel bombs laced with chemical weapons. The 155th Missile Brigade, which was responsible for launching the sarin-filled rockets used in many attacks, is subordinate to the 4th Armored Division.
The UN Security Council’s Joint Investigative Mechanism identified the Syrian government, and specifically Assad and his close allies, as being responsible for the orders to use chemical weapons in urban war zones.
Indeed, according to Western intelligence officials, Assad has delegated day-to-day decision-making on chemical weapons use to his senior commanders. These officials include Maj. Gen. Rafiq Shihadah, the former director of military intelligence who still serves as an adviser to the president on strategic affairs; Maj. Gen. Mohammed Mahmud Mahalla, the current director of military intelligence; Maj. Gen. Jamil Hassan, the director of air force intelligence; and Maj. Gen. Mohammed Khalid Rahmun, the head of the political security directorate. These officials are probably also members of the “crisis cell” established by Assad at the outset of the uprising to coordinate the regime’s response.
The key question here is what comes next. If Assad uses chemical weapons again there will be more targeted strikes against facilities, especially the command and control of Syria’s chemical weapons use.
• Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C. He is a former Rand Corporation senior political scientist who lived in the UAE for 10 years, focusing on security issues.