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Military intervention in Syria is ‘more than 50 per cent’ likely

Chemical weapons raise chances of military action, says former UN WMD expert

Even if Assad does not opt to do anything deliberately with his chemical weapons, there is a chance that, as things fall apart, others will move in on them

Paul Schulte, senior associate, Carnegie Europe

Prospects for a foreign military incursion into Syria to secure chemical weapons have risen to “more than 50 per cent”.

That is the view of a non-proliferation expert formerly of the Ministry of Defence who was also part of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq and who has written a report published today by RUSI, the Royal United Services Institute, about Syria’s chemical weapons.

The West, as well as Israel, is increasingly worried about the chemical weapons being seized by terrorist or extremist groups. Tel Aviv fears that the weapons could be passed to Hezbollah in Lebanon for use with Syrian-supplied rockets against Israel’s northern cities.

Paul Schulte, the non-proliferation expert, speaking about the chances of direct military intervention in Syria, told Exaro: “This is reasonably likely. I would say, slightly more than 50 per cent.”

Israel’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, said last Friday that his country was prepared to launch strikes against Syria in an attempt to stop chemical agents or advanced weaponry falling into the hands of militant groups.

On Monday, Syria acknowledged for the first time that it had chemical weapons. Jihad Makdissi, spokesman for the Syrian foreign ministry said that the weapons, under the control of the armed forces, would never be used “unless Syria faces external aggression.”

Security specialists say that any sustained Israeli military action would be likely to fracture the consensus in the Arab League against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and his government.

They see as credible suggestions that troops in Jordan, which neighbours Syria to the south, are being trained by US special forces to spearhead action to secure chemical weapons. The US, in this scenario, would provide air cover, as well as intelligence and surveillance capabilities, to the Jordanian troops.

If facilities come under threat from terrorists or extremist elements in the rebel forces, they say that troops would need to be on the ground in a matter of hours.

The difficulty of mounting effective action against such a threat, however, is highlighted in today’s report published by RUSI, the think-tank that focusses on defence and security issues.

The report says that Syria has been running a chemical-weapons programme for 30 years and is believed to have mustard gas, which causes blistering on the skin and in the lungs. It is also believed to have the deadly nerve agents, tabun, sarin and VX.

Schulte, the report’s author, told Exaro that the chance of military intervention depends on factors such as the “risky judgements of a rattled, angry and vengeful regime”.

“Even if Assad does not opt to do anything deliberately with his chemical weapons, there is a chance that, as things fall apart, others will move in on them and that will trigger something, probably by the Israelis.”

Schulte, now a senior associate of Carnegie Europe, the European centre of another think-tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, added: “That is reasonably likely. I would say slightly more than 50 per cent.”

His comments came after two former UK ambassadors to countries in the Middle East warned the West against direct military intervention in Syria. Their warning came as one American diplomat told Exaro that the US Department of Defense had drawn up secret plans to bring about ‘regime change’ in Syria.

Security specialists had considered that US-led military intervention was unlikely, but that it could be triggered by Syria’s chemical weapons.

According to Schulte’s report, the Pentagon estimates that up to 75,000 troops would be needed to secure all Syria’s suspected facilities for weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which are “dauntingly extensive and dispersed”.

“It would have to be expected that, at the very least, Iran would begin a proxy campaign to eject Western influences from its borders, as it has done in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says the report.

The use of airpower is, undoubtedly, under consideration, it adds. But it would have to overcome Syria’s formidable air-defence systems and lead to uncertainty over what any attack against a chemical-weapons target had actually destroyed.

The report concludes: “The dilemmas that these weapons pose will, therefore, almost certainly be painful and prolonged, whether or not action is finally forced by disturbing events on the ground.”

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