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Fears for Libya and Syria’s WMDs

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Both Libya and Syria have large arsenals of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and with the demise of Gaddaffi's regime and possibily the Assad regime, there are concerns that the WMDs could get into the wrong hands - with catastrophic results.

According to Ynet, most of Libya's chemical weapons are held at a facility located in Rabta, south of Tripoli. Western analysts believe that the country's WMD arsenal alone contains some 10 tons of various chemical agents which can inflict grave damage. It is also believed that Gaddafi was in possession of Scud-B missiles, over 1,000 tons of uranium powder and mass quantities of conventional weapons.

Western intelligence officials are trying to track Libya's chemical weapons arsenal. On CNN, US Envoy to the UN Susan Rice said that the US was taking steps to prevent the weapons from falling into the wrong hands.

There are also real concerns that many Libyan rebels have links to al-Qaeda and this increases the risk of WMD's falling into the hands of terrorists. For example, Abdel Hakim Belhadj leads the rebel forces in Tripoli, and he was a founder of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), and is believed to have been close to the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Jean-Pierre Perrin writes:

"Osama Bin Laden's organisation had many Libyans among its leading members, including Abu al-Laith al-Libi, one of Al-Qaeda's military chiefs who was killed in Afghanistan in 2008. In 2007, the LIFG was given the seal of approval by Ayman al Zawahiri, then Al-Qaeda's number two, and current successor of Bin Laden at the helm of the network. The LIFG then called on Libyans to rebel against Gaddafi, the U.S. and the other ‘infidels' of the West.'"

US, British and French diplomats have discussed with the Libyan Interim National Council (NTC) ways to secure the WMDs after the fall of Gaddafi's regime. Fortunately Libya had taken some action to destroy its WMDs in exchange for normalising ties with the US. However, US sources claim that Libyan plans to halt and destroy chemical weapons were held up due to disputes between Libya and the US over funding and logistics.

Fears for the future of WMDs in Syria are also concerning. Syria has a massive arsenal of chemical agents in militarised form, which range from mustard gas to advanced nerve agents such as sarin and possibly persistent nerve agents, such as VX gas. Syria was also building nuclear weapons as became apparent in September 2007 when the Israeli air force destroyed Syria's nuclear facility in al Kibar. After the raid the Syrians bulldozed the site and have since blocked inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

While Assad inherited WMDs from his father and continued their development, both were cautious about their use. For example WMDs were not used in the 1982 Lebanon war with Israel, and they do not appear to have been given to Hezbollah.

However, commentators such as former CIA officer Bruce Reidel speculate that with Assad's regime under threat he may be more tempted to use the WMDs - potentially against NATO, Israel and/or his own civilian population. Reidel is also concerned that if Assad falls, the WMDs may get into the hands of a new Syrian government that may be less cautious with their use, or sold to non-state actors including terrorists such Hezbollah or other criminals.

Reidel writes in the Daily Beast:

"If Syria collapses into chaos over the next few weeks and months, or the army splits between Assad's fellow Alawi Muslims and the majority Sunnis, a key question will be the fate of these chemical weapons and their delivery systems. Terrorist groups, such as Assad's friends Hezbollah and Hamas, would love to get sarin warheads. Whether they could maintain and use them is another question. Chemical weapons in amateur hands can be very dangerous both to the amateur and his enemy."

Leonard Spector notes in Foreign Policy that the options available to the US and Israel to minimize these risks are limited, he writes:

"Washington has certainly warned Assad against using the weapons domestically. But with Assad already at risk of indictment for crimes against humanity, and given his likely belief that the United States will not intervene militarily due to its commitments elsewhere -- including its politically unpopular and still opaque involvement in Libya - U.S. warnings may have little deterrent effect.
A pre-emptive Israeli military strike to destroy the weapons does not appear technically feasible: Even if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were ready to change the status quo, Assad is believed to have stored bulk chemical agents and filled (or quickly filled) shells and bombs in underground bunkers at multiple sites throughout the country. Moreover, even if Israel used incendiary bombs in an attempt to incinerate the chemical agents, the risk of dispersing large quantities of poisonous liquids would remain, with the potential to cause large-scale casualties."

Spector writes that the US needs to plan how to manage Assad's WMDs:

"If a new government replaces Assad -- or even if different groups compete for international recognition -- a U.S.-led coalition, including Turkey and the leading Arab states, should demand as a condition of support that the weapons immediately be placed under control of international monitors from the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and plans developed for their destruction."

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