President Bashar Assad likely does not have complete control over Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons — one of the world’s largest — which is dispersed across the country and believed to have been shared with its allies, including the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, analysts say.
“Assad controls a majority of the chemical weapons, but he gave some to Hezbollah and the shabiha [civilian thugs] so that they can protect their villages,” said Kamal al-Labwani, a member of the Syrian opposition National Coalition’s defense and security committee. “Hezbollah now has a large amount of chemical weapons.”
The chemical weapons were taken from near the Al Dumayr military airport, about 30 miles northeast of Damascus, said Mr. al-Labwani. He said his information is based on reports from defectors from the Assad regime.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who heads the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, said no one knows whether the Assad regime maintains full control of its chemical weapons, “but the bulk of the arsenal probably remains under regime control.”
The regime’s chemical weapons stockpile includes sarin gas, mustard gas and the nerve agent VX.
Despite questions about who controls the weapons, Western analysts and Syrian opposition activists say Mr. Assad likely ordered a chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21 that the U.S. says claimed the lives of more than 1,400 people, including hundreds of children.
“Based on the intelligence presentations from the U.S., the U.K. and France, the Syrian scientific research institute, CERS, prepared the sarin nerve agent for August’s attack,” Mr. Riedel said. “CERS reports directly to Mr. Assad. Whether Assad personally ordered the attack or not, he is responsible for what his subordinates do.”
But chemical weapons researcher Jean Pascal Zanders said the jury is still out on who ordered the attack.
“Was it a central decision, was it pre-delegated authorization or was it a rogue element? This is very difficult to say,” Mr. Zanders said. “There is quite a bit of vagueness in all of the reports [from the U.S. and France] and nothing is confirmed as a fact.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Monday that if Mr. Assad turns over his chemical weapons to the international community within a week, he could avert U.S. military strikes in response to the Aug. 21 attack.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov followed Mr. Kerry’s comments with a proposal that Syria turn over its chemical weapons to international control to be destroyed. Such a process would take weeks, if not months, and be complicated by the ongoing civil war that the U.N. estimates has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem welcomed the Russian initiative, but it is not clear if Syria is willing to act on it.
Declassified intelligence reports from the U.S. and France blame the Assad regime for the Aug. 21 attack, but in an interview with CBS News’ Charlie Rose broadcast Monday, Mr. Assad said there is no evidence that he had used chemical weapons.
Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said Mr. Assad retains control of his chemical weapons stockpiles. He said Mr. Assad made it clear in his interview with Mr. Rose that he controls the chemical weapons.
“If he was worried about some rogue elements [in his regime], he would have made a different point in his interview,” Mr. Korb said.
Western nations have not been able to convincingly link Mr. Assad to the attack, and doubts have been cast on the Syrian leader’s role in the attack.
The German newspaper Bild am Sonntag, citing unidentified German intelligence sources, reported over the weekend that Mr. Assad had not ordered the attack.
Syrian activists blame divisions of elite Syrian troops led by Mr. Assad’s younger brother, Maher Assad, for the Aug. 21 attack.
Maher Assad commands the Republican Guard, the Syrian army’s 4th Armored Division and special forces. It is unclear if the younger Mr. Assad was responsible for the attack.