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Syria Believed to Match Iraq in Chemical Weapons

November 19, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Syria, a newfound U.S. ally against Saddam Hussein, has a chemical weapons arsenal at least as dangerous as Iraq’s, U.S. experts say.

The two nations are believed to be the biggest producers of chemical weapons in the Mideast, creating hundreds of tons of the deadly gas each year. World attention has focused on Iraq’s chemical capability in the three months since its unprovoked invasion of neighboring Kuwait.

Washington’s relations with Damascus, strained for many years over Syria’s support for international terrorism and its hardline positions against Israel, have warmed in recent weeks since the Syrians joined the anti-Iraq coalition.

Syria has promised to send 15,000 troops to join the U.S.-led multinational force arrayed against Iraq in Saudi Arabia.

U.S. officials say they are concerned about the Syrian chemical weapons production and have tried to prevent Syria from obtaining the materials necessary to produce such arms.

The United States is part of the Australia Group, named for the country that initiated the international effort to stop the proliferation of chemical weapons - the poor man’s atom bomb.

The 16-nation group tracks companies that sell components for the production of nerve and mustard gas, and encourages governments to tighten their export control laws for such chemicals and to prosecute violators.

At least five Arab countries manufacture chemical weapons: Syria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Libya. Israel also is known to have a sizable chemical weapons cache.

Syria’s chemical warfare program has been a cause of concern to its biggest arms supplier, the Soviet Union. In 1988, the head of the Soviet chemical warfare corps, Vladimir Pikalov, visited Syria to find out what it was up to, said Seth Carus, a modern warfare expert.

″The Soviets believed the Syrians were lying to them about not producing″ chemical weapons, said Carus.

But attempts to stop Syria have largely failed.

Syria, like Iraq, got most of its help in setting up production facilities through German companies, although other Western European firms also were involved, experts say.

Damascus received its first chemical weapons from Egypt in 1972 in the form of chemical-filled artillery shells, but did not use such weapons in its 1973 war with Israel.

It acquired production capability in the mid-1980s, concentrating on the agent Sarin, which paralyzes the human nervous system, said Carus. Syria is believed to have two production facilities - one just north of Damascus and the other near the city of Homs. The program is run by CERS, a governmental scientific research authority.

Syria produces several hundred tons of nerve and mustard gas every year, said Carus. Iraq is believed to produce an estimated 800 tons of nerve and mustard agents every year.

But Syria is believed to have more accurate means of delivering the chemicals than Iraq does.

Israeli experts who track the Syrian program believe Syria has equipped Soviet-made SS-21 rockets with chemical warheads, said Leonard Specter, an arms control researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The short-range SS-21s are highly accurate and could inflict severe damage on next-door Israel, immobilizing its air force and reserve call-ups in the initial stages of a war, said Specter. Syria also is believed to have equipped longer-range SCUD missiles with chemical delivery capability.

Iraq may have placed chemical warheads on some of its Soviet-designed SCUDs, which have been modified to reach targets as far away as Israel, 600 miles away.

Syria also could attack Israel with chemical artillery shells, which are far cheaper and more abundant than missiles, said Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ″They have the advantage of being near enough (to) Israel to use shells and cause damage,″ he said.

But most independent experts believe Syria is unlikely to use chemical weapons unless it felt seriously threatened by Israel’s superior military might.

Specter said: ″Some weapons are less usable because of who your adversary is. Syria would have to think long and hard before it risked retaliation from Israel or Iraq, for that matter.″

Iraq and Iran are known to have used chemical weapons during their eight- year war in the 1980s, and Egypt is known to have mounted 32 attacks with such weapons while putting down an insurrection in Yemen in the 1960s.

Iraq also unleashed chemical agents against its Kurdish minority in 1988, killing and wounding thousands.