QUESTION: We’re seeing more and more reports about opposition fighters getting their hands on anti-aircraft weapons, mostly being seized from the Syrian army. I know this was a big concern of the U.S. in Libya, and that a lot of effort and a lot of money went into finding out where these weapons were going. Is that possible even in Syria, and how concerned is this Administration about the possibility of those weapons getting out there?
MS. NULAND: Well, if what you’re talking about it MANPADS, Cami, you know that around the world we have been very concerned about the proliferation of MANPADS and about their use in – on conflict and combat.
That said, we have a Syrian opposition that is facing some of the most egregious and horrific violence we’ve seen exacted on a civilian population anywhere. We have reports, as you know, over the weekend of summary executions by the Syrian regime. We have reports of aerial strafing of people lined up waiting for bread outside of Aleppo.
So, while it is difficult, it’s not surprising that unfortunately the opposition is fighting back in whatever way it can to try to protect civilians. And this is a direct result of the fact that the Assad regime is not stopping its assault and, in fact, is continuing its assault and using increasingly horrible and brutal methods.
QUESTION: But this will be a big problem if, as you say, the Assad regime is going eventually, and then you have all of these weapons out there, and not knowing who all the various opposition people are, you’ve got all these weapons again.
MS. NULAND: Right. Well, as we’ve said a number of times here, and as the Secretary said in Istanbul, as we look at what we’re calling day-after planning – planning on the U.S. side but also internationally for how we can support the Syrian people after Assad goes and when they’re in that transition phase – one of the key issues we’re looking at is how we might be able to offer support in securing, safeguarding some of the most dangerous weapons from the Assad era. So it would not only be some of these kinds of things, but also chemical weapons, et cetera. That’ll certainly be a very, very big job for them, and we are looking at how we can be ready to help if we’re asked. –State Department Briefing by Victoria Nuland, August 27, 2012
Syria is definitely a troubling problem when it comes to weapons, and losing control of them. This country actually has large stores of chemical weapons, along with a scattering of MANPADS like SA-7’s throughout the country at various bases. As more terrain is gained by the rebels, the chances of these weapon sites being exploited by the rebels and anyone else in the area is high. Losing control of those weapons is not good, and the fear is that they will find their way into other parts of the world and be used in terrorist attacks. Or even used in all out assaults against countries like Israel.
The question is, what will be done about it? That is the million dollar question.
For one, I believe we will just have to assume that some of this stuff will be taken and smuggled away to wherever. I don’t think we can prevent that unless we have troops and folks on the ground, physically going in there and securing or taking these weapons. As it stands now, it seems like we are dependent upon the honesty of those rebels in Syria that are involved in the fighting. But any jihadists with them could care less about what the west thinks, and yet the jihadists are there on the ground and actively fighting along side these guys.
If we were to put folks on the ground, what would be more politically feasible–military or contractors? That is a question I have thrown around on Facebook and have received lots of interesting feedback. Some say the military is better equipped and other say that contractors are equally capable and politically more feasible than the military. Who knows, and both resources could do the job. Hell, a combination of both would be even better. Someone to take the sites in the initial phases (military) and someone to hold the site after things have cooled down (contractors).
With any intervention we do, it will certainly require a partnership with the locals. I suggest using the CMC projects in Iraq as a possible model of operation for any contractor based solution. In Iraq, the Coalitions Munition Clearance program was a contract completely run by civilians and Army Corps of Engineers to secure old Iraqi Ammo Supply Points that were damaged in the war, and ‘clear’ or destroy those weapons on site. The program was highly successful and helped to remove tons of weapons from the battlefield that could have otherwise been used by the insurgents.
But a program like this is highly dependent on areas that are not contested in war zones. In other words, a project needs to be set up in territory that has been taken from the Syrian government. If not, that contracted security force could end up doing some heavy duty fighting or defending and be outgunned. But in zones being loosely held by local forces, negotiations can be made and the security of that site can become a priority and even a cash cow for the locals. I think the locals would also appreciate someone willing to go in there and destroy that nasty stuff.
What can be done is to ready private forces to move in as soon as territory has been gained, or to move in as soon as there has been a complete collapse of the government. Because then at that point, arrangements can be done with local leaders, tribes, etc.–much like how the CMC projects worked. The project can also employ local Syrians in doing some of the non-technical work. The guard force can be a combination of Syrians and expats. Like I said before, the CMC projects are a great model of operation for something like this.
Besides, companies are already being tasked with chemical munitions management and destruction. In the US, Tetra Tech just won a 489 million dollar CMA contract to do just that. Hell, they are even going to Vietnam to clean up agent orange sites. Here is a quote:
Tetra Tech, Inc. recently announced that it has secured an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract worth $489 million from the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency (CMA) and is a part of Integration Support V (PAIS V) contract.
As per the contract, the company will be providing program management and technical support to the CMA and the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program at facilities across the U.S for the next five years.
Tetra Tech will also support a variety of program management, integration and technical services support for aiding efficient destruction of chemical warfare and related material. This support comprises environmental studies, design, monitoring, operations and maintenance, quality assurance, safety and logistics support services.
Simultaneously, the PAIS V contract activities enable the U.S. Army to fulfill the international chemical weapons conventions and move toward disintegration of chemical agent disposal facilities and stockpile storage areas.
Apart from this, Tech will also be helping CMA in managing its non-stockpile chemical material program and chemical stockpile emergency preparedness program.
In addition, Tetra Tech recently received a contract for the excavation and construction activities related to the environmental decontamination of Vietnam’s Da Nang Airport, affected by dioxin pollution. This contamination was the result of the use of chemical herbicides and defoliant during the Vietnam War.
Tetra Tech was also one of the companies used in Iraq for the CMC projects. So the private side of this solution is there and it is capable.
One final note is about these MANPADS in Syria. It is very difficult to get a fix on who has them or where they are at. There are a few folks out there that are putting together a picture for public consumption. Especially with all of these videos and social media related bits of news. CJ Chivers is one of those guys doing an awesome job, and he goes into how to properly view and pick apart these videos. Here is another blogger that is tracking the locations of Syrian MANPADS that have been identified in news stories.
As this develops, we will see the direction it takes. The west is definitely interested in securing this stuff, and the real question will be ‘how’. Perhaps we will see a repeat of how we did things in Libya, or this might require a different direction…Who knows? I do know that the clock is ticking and the rebellion is not waiting for anyone. –Matt
Worries intensify over Syrian chemical weapons
By Joby Warrick
September 6, 2012
Western spy agencies suspect Syria’s government has several hundred tons of chemical weapons and precursor components scattered among as many as 20 sites throughout the country, heightening anxieties about the ability to secure the arsenals in the event of a complete breakdown of authority in the war-torn nation, U.S. and Middle Eastern officials say.
Officials are monitoring the storage sites, but they expressed growing fear that they have not identified every location and that some of the deadly weapons could be stolen or used by Syrian troops against civilians.
“We think we know everything, but we felt the same way about Libya,” said a former American intelligence official who was briefed on U.S. preparations for both conflicts. “We had been on the ground in Libya, yet there were big surprises, both in terms of quantities and locations.” The former official was one of several people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.
The collapse of government control in several Syrian provinces has prompted heightened scrutiny of the weapons depots by the United States and its allies in the region. It also has hastened preparations for securing the sites with foreign troops, the U.S. and Middle Eastern officials said.
Drawing from recent intelligence assessments, the officials believe that the Syrian arsenal contains several hundred tons of chemical weapons and precursors, including sizable quantities of battlefield-ready sarin, the deadly nerve agent.
The stockpile appears to be larger and more widely distributed than originally suspected, according to two officials who have seen the intelligence reports. They said the most dangerous chemical stocks are kept in bunkers in about a half-dozen locations, while as many as 14 other facilities are used to store or manufacture components.
Because of the risks posed by the stockpile, U.S. spy agencies have devoted enormous resources to monitoring the facilities through satellite imagery and to developing plans to safeguard the weapons if the crisis worsens, current and former U.S. officials said.
“It’s obvious that ensuring their security is paramount,” a U.S. official said. “Planning for different scenarios, consulting appropriately with allies and preparing to manage any new challenges is simply being responsible.”
Several current and former officials acknowledged the difficulty of securing chemical depots inside Syria, given the fighting underway and the likelihood of fierce resistance from Syrian forces to any incursions by outsiders. Some of the officials also conceded that there may be yet-undetected facilities within the country, roughly the size of Washington state.
The former U.S. intelligence official said North Korea and Russia have assisted Syria over the decades in constructing weapons facilities that are well-fortified and shielded from spy satellites. “They are masters at concealment,” the former official said.
In August, a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, said the Damascus government would never use chemical arms against its people, but he warned that it would unleash the weapons against what he called foreign invaders. He said the military was guarding the stockpile.
In response, President Obama cautioned the Syrian government that any deployment of its chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and invite an immediate response by the West.
Syria is thought to possess the world’s third-largest stockpile of chemical weapons after United States and Russia, whose Cold War arsenals are being dismantled and destroyed. Syria’s weapons, predominantly deadly nerve agents that can be delivered by artillery rockets, shells and aircraft munitions, were developed for use in a war against Israel.
Heightened terrorism risk
The increased focus on Syria’s stockpile is driven in part by the government’s de facto retreat from large portions of the countryside as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad concentrate on driving rebels from Damascus, Aleppo and other key cities. Despite setbacks, the opposition Free Syrian Army says that up to half of the countryside is in rebel hands, a claim that underscores concerns that weapons depots could be abandoned or overrun.
U.S. and Israeli officials fear that the chemical sites could be looted, leading to weapons being sold or given to radical Islamists or to Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters. A single crate of artillery shells or a few barrels of chemical precursors would contain enough lethal poisons for a series of terrorist attacks, weapons experts say.
Mitigating the risk somewhat is the fact that the most of Syria’s stockpile consists of chemical precursors that must be combined and loaded into shells or bombs. Amateurs who attempt to mix ingredients for sarin gas run a strong risk of killing themselves instead of their intended targets.
Still, the terrorism risk has prompted extensive contingency planning by the United States and regional allies, including Israel, Jordan and Turkey, said the U.S. and Middle Eastern officials.
Under the most optimistic scenario, teams of experts could be dispatched into rebel-controlled parts of Syria to secure and remove chemical weapons, as happened in Libya after the fall of Moammar Gaddafi. But if weapons sites are overrun during fighting — or if loyalist forces are seen preparing for a chemical attack — plans call for sending elite foreign military forces to secure the arms under fire, if necessary, according to the officials.
Fears of chemical attacks
Syrian rebels also have grown increasingly concerned about the stockpile, fearful not only about looting, but also about the possibility that Assad will use the weapons against rebel fighters and civilians as a last resort, said Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria who recently returned from a month-long trip to the region.
“They recognize it as a problem,” said Tabler, author of “In the Lion’s Den,” a book about Syria under Assad. “They think the regime is moving the weapons around, mostly to the coast and other areas where the regime will go if it is forced to contract.”
The Obama administration shares the rebels’ concern that a desperate Assad might decide to use chemical weapons against his countrymen. But despite reports that Syria has consolidated some of its chemical stockpile in recent weeks, intelligence agencies have not detected evidence that Syrian forces are filling chemical shells or otherwise preparing for a chemical attack.
Syrian Rebels Step Up Efforts to Get Anti-Aircraft Missiles
By Jamie Dettmer
August 16, 2012
Syrian rebels are redoubling their efforts to acquire portable anti-aircraft missiles following government airstrikes on cities and towns in the north of the country.
In the latest such strike, a Syrian Air Force jet bombed the rebel-held town of Azaz near the Turkish border, killing at least 50 people and wounding more than 100.
Rebel commanders and activists say their buyers are now scouring the arms black markets in the region to get the shoulder-fired missiles that can counter the government airstrikes.
According to opposition activist “Tony” al-Taieb, who works with the rebel military council in Aleppo, representatives with cash from rich Syrian exiles are negotiating to buy the portable surface-to-air missiles, often called SAMS or MANPADS, for “Man-Portable-Air-Defense-System.”
“Don’t believe everything you hear about the Qataris and Saudis supplying us with heavier weaponry,” al-Taieb says. “We are getting hardly anything from them.”
Al-Taieb said acquiring as many MANPADS missile systems as possible was now the highest priority for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the umbrella organization for many of the rebel brigades that have been trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the past 18 months.
He said the government airstrikes on Aleppo, Azaz, Tel Rifat and villages such as Akhtarin and other settlements closer to the Turkish border were apparently designed to menace the rebel enclave in the region and disrupt rebel supply routes from Turkey.
Military analysts say shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles can turn the tide of battle in an insurgency war like the one in Syria.
The example most often cited is the Afghan Mujahedeen insurgency against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan 25 years ago. Many military analysts say U.S.-supplied Stinger portable missiles downed dozens of Moscow’s feared Hind attack helicopters and helped the Afghan guerrillas defeat the Soviets.
According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, many of the casualties in the town of Azaz were women and children buried under piles of rubble. Opposition activists in Azaz said the death toll would likely rise to 25.
Rebel commanders say portable surface-to-air missiles could help them defend towns such as Azaz and even give them the advantage in Aleppo, where forces loyal to President Assad managed to uproot rebels from parts of the city after eight days of bloody fighting.
“We need a no-fly zone and, failing that, anti-aircraft missiles,” says Zaher Sherkat, a 32-year-old commander of the rebel Abu Bakr brigade. The unit is now down to about 120 fighters after losing 20 men in the Aleppo fighting.
“We have had 20 ‘martyrs’ from my brigade and about 30 wounded,” he says.
Sherkat says he established the brigade after Assad’s forces killed half a dozen children in his hometown of Al Bab.
Despite press reports that rebels already have a small supply of MANPADS missiles, rebel commanders insist they don’t. And there have been no verified media reports of rebels firing such missiles.
Last week, rebels in Deir el-Zour province claimed they had shot down a Syrian jet, and activists released a video they said showed the government Soviet-made MiG warplane catching fire after apparently being hit by ground fire.
The jet exploded in flames and rebels claimed to have captured the pilot. Rebels said they shot down the plane using a captured 14.5 mm anti-aircraft gun, the largest weapon in their armory.
“Machine guns were used to shoot at the plane,” says Aref Hammoud, an FSA spokesman in Turkey. “It was in a low range, which made it possible to hit.”
The Syrian government conceded it had lost a warplane, but said it crashed because of “technical difficulties.”
The U.S. and other western governments sympathetic to the anti-Assad rebellion have so far declined to supply the rebels with portable anti-aircraft missiles. One reason cited is that such missiles, capable of shooting down a commercial aircraft, could fall into the hands of terrorists or foreign Jihadists now reported infiltrating into Syria.
At a recent meeting with reporters in Washington, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro said the U.S. government hadn’t seen any evidence of MANPADS missiles getting into Syria from Libya, but acknowledged such a possibility was an area of concern.
U.S. officials estimate that the late Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya may have had as many as 20,000 MANPADS missile systems and that several thousand of them turned up missing during the civil war there last year.
Al-Taieb, the Aleppo opposition activist, would not talk about the possibility that Syrian rebels were buying some of the Libyan missiles.
“In the coming days we will have a consignment of MANPADS, Insha’Allah,” says al-Taieb. Asked whether if rebels managed to secure MANPADS, would they have trouble moving them into Turkey and then across the border, he responded:
“The Turkish government turns a blind eye to some things but not others.”