Extremists Pose ‘Very Real’ Risk to Syrian Chemical Arms: U.S. Intel Official

Members of the Syrian rebel group al-Nusra Front prayed last week as they held position in the village of Aziza, on the outskirts of Aleppo. A senior U.S. intelligence official on Tuesday underscored the risk of extremists obtaining weapons of mass destruction in Syria.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
Feb. 12, 2014, 3:19 a.m.

A seni­or U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial on Tues­day warned of a “very real” risk of ex­trem­ist groups gain­ing con­trol of Syr­i­an chem­ic­al or bio­lo­gic­al weapons.

“The cur­rent in­stabil­ity in Syr­ia presents a per­fect op­por­tun­ity for al-Qaida and as­so­ci­ated groups to ac­quire these weapons [of mass de­struc­tion] or their com­pon­ents,” U.S. De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency Dir­ect­or Lt. Gen. Mi­chael Flynn said in Tues­day testi­mony be­fore the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, cit­ing the ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tions’ long­time stated in­terest in ac­quir­ing the most dan­ger­ous arms.

His re­marks stand in con­trast to some re­cent com­ments by U.S. dip­lo­mats who have played down the risk that ex­trem­ists might seize Syr­i­an chem­ic­al arms as they are trans­por­ted to a coastal city for in­ter­na­tion­al re­mov­al and de­struc­tion.

Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar As­sad’s gov­ern­ment has blamed delays in mov­ing these sens­it­ive war­fare ma­ter­i­als out of the coun­try on se­cur­ity con­cerns, amid as­ser­tions that the sens­it­ive con­voys already have come un­der rebel at­tack. Dam­as­cus last year agreed to U.S. and Rus­si­an de­mands that it sur­render its en­tire chem­ic­al ar­sen­al fol­low­ing a ma­jor sar­in gas at­tack that al­legedly killed more than 1,400 ci­vil­ians.

“While Syr­ia’s stock­piles are cur­rently un­der the con­trol of the re­gime, the move­ment of these weapons from their cur­rent loc­a­tions for dis­pos­al or oth­er reas­ons drastic­ally in­creases the risk of these weapons or their com­pon­ents fall­ing in­to the wrong hands,” Flynn said. “There is also the very real pos­sib­il­ity that ex­trem­ists in the Syr­i­an op­pos­i­tion could over­run and ex­ploit chem­ic­al and bio­lo­gic­al weapons stor­age fa­cil­it­ies be­fore all of these ma­ter­i­als are re­moved.”

Dam­as­cus this week said nearly all of most of its most deadly chem­ic­als would be moved out of Syr­ia by the end of the month — two months past a dead­line set by in­ter­na­tion­al au­thor­it­ies.

At the Tues­day hear­ing, U.S. Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence Dir­ect­or James Clap­per told the pan­el it was “hard to dis­cern” wheth­er the Syr­i­an delays were due to le­git­im­ate se­cur­ity con­cerns. In­stead, he in­dic­ated, the lag times could re­flect a scheme by Dam­as­cus aimed at length­en­ing the chem­ic­al dis­arm­a­ment pro­cess for “as long as pos­sible be­cause it … serves to im­pli­citly le­git­im­ize As­sad.”

U.S. Am­bas­sad­or to the United Na­tions Sam­antha Power in com­ments to re­port­ers last week seemed to min­im­ize Dam­as­cus’ ar­gu­ment that ex­trem­ist threats to chem­ic­als un­der trans­port jus­ti­fied the delays.

“We know the re­gime has the abil­ity to move these weapons and ma­ter­i­als be­cause they have moved them mul­tiple times over the course of this con­flict,” Power said. “It is time for the As­sad gov­ern­ment to stop its foot-drag­ging.”

On Tues­day, Clap­per also told the Sen­ate pan­el there are pro­jec­ted to be in ex­cess of 7,500 for­eign fight­ers hail­ing from about 50 coun­tries cur­rently in Syr­ia. “Among them are a small group of [Afgh­anistan-Pakistan] al-Qaida vet­er­ans who have as­pir­a­tions for ex­tern­al at­tacks in Europe, if not the [U.S.] home­land it­self,” he said.

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