Britain and US fear Syrian chemical weapons could fall into the hands of extreme Islamist groups

 

The prospect of Syria’s chemical arsenal falling into the hands of extremist Islamists among the rebels fighting the country’s bloody civil war is a matter of mounting concern for the West.

General Sir David Richards, the head of the British military, has raised his worries in Whitehall in recent weeks and there has been a series of meetings over the issue between European and American officials and governments in the region.

The possibility that President Bashar al-Assad may unleash such weapons was one of the key reasons given for the deployment this week of Nato Patriot missiles to the Turkish border.

At the end of last year Barack Obama warned that the use of chemical weapons would mean the Assad regime had crossed a ‘red line’ and must bear the consequences. The regime appeared to have stopped on its tracks in preparing such attacks and defence secretary Leon Panetta stated subsequently that the threat has been reduced.

Although the US and UK governments still hold that a beleaguered regime on its last legs may use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) there is also the clear danger of jihadist fighter getting possession of stockpiles. The Obama administration has proscribed the Al-Nusra Brigade, one of the strongest of the rebel groups and one which declares itself affiliated to al-Qa’ida, as a terrorist organisation.

An SAS team is believed to have attended as observers an exercise carried out by US and Jordanian special forces in preparation for any operation which may have to be undertaken to secure the stockpiles. Defence sources in London stated there are no plans at present to deploy British personnel for such a mission.

There is bound to be public scepticism about claims of the Syrian regime and WMDs after the exposure of similar false reports about Saddam Hussein’s arsenal used by the Bush and Blair administrations to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Western officials insist, however, that there is ample evidence that the Damascus regime has the means to carry out chemical warfare and also evidence, of a more limited nature , that it has a biological warfare programme. One cause of apprehension is that the regime’s command and control for WMDs have been severely damaged by casualties and defections.

A series of meetings have taken place involving military personnel from the US, France, countries in the region and Israel whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, according to media reports in Jerusalem, met King Abdullah II of Jordan in Amman to discuss the matter. One aspect of Israeli concern is that Hezbollah, some of whose fighters have been fighting for the Assad regime, may be able to smuggle chemical weapons into Lebanon.

The vulnerability of the chemical stock is believed to have been discussed between American and Russian officials on a number of occasions . The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, subsequently stated that the chemical stock was being kept in two centres and it would be “suicidal” for the Assad regime, — which his government has supported throughout the uprising – to use them.

General Adnan Sillu, the recently defected former head of the Syria’s chemical weapons programme, has claimed that the regime has already used Sarin gas in an attack last month on the Al-Bayyadh district of Homs. The opposition Free Syrian Army maintains that the regime has used chemical weapons on 18 separate occasions. Western officials maintain, however, that photographs and testimonies they have received does not back up the charge.

An independent chemical and biological analyst, Dr Sally Leivesley, said: “If there really was an attack involving Sarin, then one would expect a significant number of fatalities. From what one hears about the symptoms it’s possible that a harassing agent rather than a nerve agent was used.”

Syria’s biological programme is less detailed than its’ chemical one. Dr Leivesley, who trained as a scientific advisor with the Home Office, and now works as a consultant to private industry as well as governments, said : “ Reports of Syria’s bio-warfare programme goes back to the mid-90s and there was report to the US Congress on 2004 and Nato reports. The material on all this is interesting because it was put together a long time before current events and thus one can’t say that it has been put together to fit a particular agenda.”

The problems with biological agents, Dr Leivesley held, may start by accident rather than the design of either the regime or rebels. “Pathogens such as anthrax, plague, tularemia, botulinium, smallpox, aflotoxin, cholera, and ricin can become exposed by people stumbling across them in insecure bases. If this happens we have the real possibilities of pandemics which will be very difficult to control” she said. “Of course one must guard against being alarmist, but what is necessary is to get as much information as possible so that we can at least know what we are facing.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the iWatch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
News
Astronauts could be kept asleep for days or even weeks
scienceScientists are looking for a way to keep astronauts in a sleeplike state for days or weeks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own