Syria Update, April 25, 2013 (Institute of Middle Eastern, Islamic and Strategic Studies. By Sherifa Zuhur)

26 Apr

Syria Update, April 25 2013. (Institute of Middle Eastern, Islamic and Strategic Studies. By Sherifa Zuhur)

Aftermath of a shelling in Qusayr (which killed 10, see below)

President Assad uses his connections to try to convince the US and American media that they are supporting “Islamic terrorists” and the wrong side of the war in Syria. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/25/world/middleeast/syria-campaigns-to-persuade-us-to-change-sides.html?hp&_r=0

PLEASE sign to demand the release of Syria’s nonviolent prisoners (and share)
http://org.salsalabs.com/o/2507/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=13220

Strategy by the Syrian regime has shifted to seeking control of the highways. http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130425/syria-army-shifts-war-highways

Where does Syria’s Shi`a community stand? Some Shi`i joined the opposition. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/04/201342491851986116.html

Aleppo province: https://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=map+of+aleppo+province&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=0x152ff85ac00b17c9:0xf68ea3d8dc74b61b,Aleppo+Governorate,+Syria&gl=us&ei=R9DLUKfTFoWO0QHBuIHABA&ved=0CC8Q8gEwAA

Yesterday (Wednesday) the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo has collapsed because of the violent clashes taking place next to it. This minaret has been in place for almost 1000 years,; it was built at the time of the Seljuk empire in the 11th century.
http://www.arabnews.com/news/449296

Damascus province: https://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=map+of+damascus+province&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=0x1518e6dc413cc6a7:0x69e5b88ad5b0817b,Damascus+Governorate,+Syria&gl=us&ei=_s_LUPTwHqWw0AHTtYDQAg&ved=0CC8Q8gEwAA

The Syrian regime forces captured al-Oteiba to the east of Damascus after five weeks of battle yesterday in a setback to the opposition. http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2013/04/26/Syrian-troops-capture-key-town-near-Damascus.html

Opposition fighters from the town of al-Oteiba (taken over yesterday by regime forces using the airforce, tanks and multiple rocket launchers ) have released this video about the creation of a new battalion, Liwa’ al-Shabab al-Sadiqeen (Battalion of the Honest Men). They state that they have resisted the Assad regime for 40 days without adequate support from others.

Heavy clashes took place in Harasta. Unknown gunmen shot an engineer in the village of Kafrhour.

Dara`a province: https://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=map+of+daraa+province&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=0x15195fa1016e8de7:0xff6b41761235d49c,Daraa+Governorate,+Syria&gl=us&ei=u9DLUPDfIcXq0gGRwIHADQ&ved=0CC8Q8gEwAA

Footage of the killed brigadier general of the 38th brigade in Rif Dara`a. He was killed last month on 23/3/2013 after rebels from several factions, including al-Nusra, stormed the 38th battalion. His head is decapitated in the second video.

Hama province: https://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=hama+governorate&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=0x15248293d5052f19:0x6e6de1581c39ed96,Hama+Governorate,+Syria&gl=us&ei=CdPLUKKbIqyF0QHB94HQAw&sqi=2&ved=0CIEBELYD

Jabat al-Nusra and other opposition battallions targeted an armored vehcilce in Tariq Halab in the city of Hama, burning alive some regular soldiers.

Homs province: https://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=homs+governorate+google+map&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=0x15230eeab10528a7:0x65655b88027a8699,Homs+Governorate,+Syria&gl=us&ei=BFPRUM6RBaTI0AHw1ICoCQ&ved=0CDMQ8gEwAA

Three airstrikes were carried out on the city of Homs today. Violent clashes occurred in the city of Homs between regular and opposition forces at the outskirts of the neighborhoods of Wadi al-Seih and Jouret al-Shayah. Regular forces shelled these areas which they have been trying to invade. The Syrian military shelled areas of the town of Sakhna which are currently controlled by the al-Islam battalion.

The Syrian regime forces bombarded the villages of al-Tiba and al-Koum from the air, killing 1 civilian and injuring 12. The Syrian regular forces bombarded the al-Basatin area of Palmyra. At least 4 security forces were killed by an ambush on the Homs-Palmyra road.

Air strikes in Qusayr (see also above) were carried out by the Syrian military. And killed 10. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=GcTG9TT8lXE

Opposition fighters accuse Hizbullah of widening the war by their attacks in this area. http://www.voanews.com/content/syria-opposition-accuses-hezbollah-of-widening-war/1648619.html

Idlib province: https://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=idlib+governorate+google+map&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=0x152500e6cc6ed27b:0xe59a7e2f651fc24c,Idlib+Governorate,+Syria&gl=us&ei=51PRUIiREsaB0AHN_YD4BQ&ved=0CC8Q8gEwAA

Clashes occurred at the edges of the town of Kamam killing 3 rebel fighters. Both regular and national defence units have been trying to overtake this town. A woman died today in the village of Daba`a from wounds received there in the regime’s aerial bombardment. The Syrian regular forces shelled the towns of al-Dar al-Kabira, Nahlaiya and Kafrnajd. The latter two were shelled by Syrian military at the al-Mastouma encampment near the city of Idlib.

Raqqa province: https://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=map+of+ar-raqqah+province,+Syria&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=0x153719cee4c60ce7:0x9d4657e00e899ab6,Ar-Raqqah+Governorate,+Syria&gl=us&ei=PJ_bUKrTBObF0AGMuYHwBw&sqi=2&ved=0CC8Q8gEwAA

Opposition forces were hit by the Syrian regime in airstrikes today in Raqqah, Hassakeh, Damascus, Idlib and Dara`a provinces. https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/nowsyrialatestnews/warplanes-hit-rebels-across-syria-watchdog

International:

Hikmat Massarwa, a member of Israel’s Arab minority attended a remand hearing at the Central District Court in Lod, near Tel Aviv, on Thursday.
Israel charged Massarwa this month with security offenses for joining Syria’s rebel forces against President Bashar al-Assad and said that he had associated with radical fighters.

Some members of the U.S. Congress (and Senator John McCain) urged President Barack Obama to take action to “secure” Syria’s chemical weapons after he warned Thursday that strongman Bashar al-Assad likely used them against his own people. http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130425/us-lawmakers-demand-action-syria-chemical-weapons

Jordan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Zeid al-Hussein sent a letter to the United Nations security council saying that the Syrian refugee influx is a humanitarian crisis and a threat to Jordan’s security and stability. http://www.theprovince.com/news/Jordan+tells+Syrian+refugee+influx+threatening+security/8295950/story.html

This op-ed states that the US is “inching” toward action in Syria. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22303554

Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov slams the “Friends of Syria” and exposes Russia’s differences with Turkey on Syria. http://www.todayszaman.com/news-312876-lavrov-slams-friends-of-syria-lays-bare-differences-with-turkey.html

A Primer on Syria’s Chemical Weapons

Sherifa Zuhur. Director, Institute of Middle Eastern, Islamic and Strategic Studies.
sherifazuhur@gmail.com
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Institute-of-Middle-Eastern-Islamic-and-Strategic-Studies/168189513225439?ref=hl

In August of 2012, U.S. President Obama warned the Syrian government not to use chemical weapons and stated that their use would be unacceptable. He also promised to aid the opposition. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=bsO3ehh8UEk

The opposition has demanded an inquiry into the current use of chemical weapons (CW) on 3/18/13 in an incident in Khan Assal in Aleppo province. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/sns-rt-us-syria-crisis-chemicalsbre92j0r4-20130320,0,1185396.story Thus far, the U.S. ambassador has said it is unlikely. But if it occurred, would the U.S. make good on its promise to punish Bashar al-Assad’s government or not? To the first question — have chemical weapons been used?

Syria’s chemical weapons program dates back to 1973 when Syria obtained mustard and sarin from Egypt. It is one of the strongest programs in the Middle East region. Syria’s current chemical weapons development is being supervised by Iranian scientists. Ever since 1989, the focus of the program has been on improving the accuracy and distance of potential strikes via the delivery system. Six years ago, Syria possessed 100 to 200 sarin-filled warheads (in 2008) there may be more today. The country has SCUD missiles and SS-21 missiles, both of which may be fitted to CW warheads.

Between late November and early December of 2012, the U.S. government was provided information indicating that Syria was mixing and moving its CW stores, probably for intended use. Photographs showed soldiers preparing precursor chemicals, and army units loading CW onto military transport. In this same period there were some claims of use of a gas or chemical weapon by those injured in Homs and other areas, and some of the injured were biopsied. The most recent claims of March 18, 2013 involve an attack on Khan al-Assal, an area in Aleppo, where the opposition had captured a police academy, and where the Syrian government troops and air force had been attacking in an effort to recapture. It appears the Syrian air force used a missile which then mistakenly hit Syrian forces in the opposition-held area, killing 16 Syrian troops and 10 opposition fighters. (SOHR 3/18, 3/19) The Syrian government’s claim that it was the opposition which had and used CW follows its pattern of terming the opposition “terrorists,” and also may have been expressed to cover up the mistake made by the Syrian military for firing on its own fighters. The missiles were fired from the Nayrab district. The opposition quickly denied that it has any such weapons; indeed the stockpiles are held by the Syrian government (Youtube and Barnard, NYT 3/19/13) Breathing difficulties, bluish skin and suffocation of some of the 26 victims were reported and a Reuters reporter confirmed seeing these symptoms and smelling chorine in the air.

In December one of the fighting groups of the FSA seized one of Syria’s facilities about 40 miles from Aleppo near the Euphrates river, the SYSSACO plant which manufactures chemicals including chlorine. At the time, al-Akhbar, a Lebanese newspaper sympathetic to the Assad regime claimed that there were 100-kilogram tanks of chlorine at that facility. ( http://digitaljournal.com/article/338771 ) The rebels declared the area a closed zone. It seems highly unlikely that the 3/18 bombing could have come from these stocks, or direction.

Events are moving swiftly. Here the Mujahidin Shura Council seizes poison gas (type unidentified) from the Khan Toman military warehouse. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XnANeCjPCuc&feature=youtu.be
But we should remember that the filled warheads and missiles are in the hands of the Syrian government, its researchers and military.

Previous Use of an CW Agent

The Syrian military attacked the city of Homs (which has been besieged for months) on December 23rd. Victims of attacks on that day suffered from nervous system, respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms after inhaling a gas on that day. Medical personnel and activists reported the incident, and the U.S. State Department engaged in an investagion from the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul but concluded CW had not been used. Some of the victims of this attack continued to suffer after fleeing as refugees and I was told that some biopsied tissue was returned to the U.S. for evaluation but have not seen any conclusions.

Other Possibilities.

Tear gas is used by the Syrian military (as by other police and militaries) but it is not considered CW, as it is non-lethal. Other CW elements like chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas have been used since World War One in warfare, and are possessed by the Syrian government Chlorine is a powerful agent which burns the throat, nose, eyes and lungs and may kill via asphyxiation. It is water-soluble and masks or the use of a wet cloth have been used to protect against the gas. Phosgene is even deadlier than chlorine, and as a war gas is often mixed with chlorine.

Syria has not signed, nor acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Its primary rationale for not renouncing chemical weapons is that Israel poses a threat to Syrian security. Jane’s Defense has reported on Syria’s upgrading of its CW since 2005, a process reliant on Iranian assistance.

There is no strong evidence that Iraq’s chemical weapons were moved to Syria (although there is no proof they were not, one may surmise that Syria’s CW program is robust on its own).

Syria obtained the design for the Soviet Scud warhead using VX back in the 1970s. It appears that Syria has the capabilities to produce CW agents on its own; it has procued nonpersistent nerve gas since 1984. There is confirmation of its possession of sarin since 1986. Syria’s CW program began with CERS, its Scientific Study and Research Center in Damascus and later, plants in al-Safira, Hama and Homs were established.

By 1987, Syria had sarin-filled warheads on Scud missiles and since then its focus is to increase range and effectiveness of strike capability. After 1997, Syria obtained warhead that could be fitted with bomblet-filled cluster heads and Syria worked to develop V-agents. There appear to be stockpiles of mustard and sarin and the country may have between 100 and 200 Scuds fitted with sarin warheads. As well as sarin and mustard to use in artillery shells or other air-dropped forms. Syria recently conducted a missile test (in August of 2012); Iranians were reported to be present for the tests. Iran and Syria had signed a defense cooperation agreement in June of 2006.

In the summer and fall of 2012, there were 2 warnings that chemical weapons stockpiles were being moved within the country and one claim (by a U.S. official) that Syria has begun mixing sarin – the components are to be stored separately.

http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/12/syria-chemical-weapons-3/

http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/how-would-assad-use-chemical-weapons

These claims prompted warnings from the United States, France and other nations including China. Russia and Syria denied that Syria would use its chemical arsenal.

Syria’s Biological Weapons Program

Syria is a signatory to the Biological Toxic Weapons Convention, but has not ratified that Convention. Just as its CW program is very advanced, its biological weapons program is also quite robust.

Israeli and German sources state that Syria has botulinum toxin, ricin and Bacillus anthracis, and some other sources state that Syria also has plague, smallpox, aflotoxin, cholera, camelpox and tularemia. Syria then, possesses A, B, and C pathogens and toxins. Syria has advanced pharmaceutical capabilities and thus could have (and according to some accounts has) obtained dual use equipment needed for pharmaceutical and defense research and development. It has research centers in Damascus and Aleppo. Certain U.S. sources are certain that Syria can produce anthrax and botulism, but what was not known is whether it has a formal program to develop delivery systems for these weapons. A 2004 Swedish Defense Agency report said there was no evidence of a defensive or offensive biological weapons program in Syria. However, the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the CIA, and the DIA have stated opinions to the contrary as have scientists and specialists. Other experts believe that Syria’s CERS (Scientific Studies and Research Center) has the capabilities and expertise to work on these systems, probably involving the use of drones and UAVs, or adapting warheads and cluster munitions to deliver the biological agents.(Cordesman, 2008) Russian advisors are said to be working with the biological warfare program. An American expert contends that there was a transfer from the Iraqi biological warfare (defensive and offensive programs), namely the camelpox virus.

Cordesman claimed that there were some indications that biological variations on ZAB-incendiary bombs and PTAB 500 cluster bombs and Scud warheads were being tested. Syria is technologically capable of designing adapted delivery systems which would have “the effectiveness of small theater nuclear weapons.” However he also noted that the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) held a far more restrained view of Syria’s capabilities in BW development.

A detailed, but accessible interview with Jill Dekkar is here:
http://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm/frm/13108/sec_id/13108

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