Bashar Assad’s poison weapons arsenal was supposed to have been dismantled in 2013 and 2014 under a deal negotiated between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. But, while various Western experts argued over whether or not it was all removed, DEBKA Weekly reports that the Assad regime concealed from UN inspectors 5-10 percent of its deadly stocks of mustard gas, ricin, and sarin and VX nerve gases, and cached them at a secret military complex in the northern town of al-Safira, near Aleppo.
Today, Assad’s cheating is having unforeseen consequences.
Western intelligence spotters tracking the movements in Syria of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) reported Wednesday, May 27, that a concentration of jihadi fighters was arrayed to attack the Al-Safira complex. Their action seemed to be timed to coincide with the general offensive Syrian rebels are preparing to launch for the capture of both Aleppo and the Al Safira complex.
This complex is no more than 25 km south of the sections of Aleppo occupied by ISIS and opposition forces including Jabhat al-Nusra. It is 146 km away from Raqqa, the Islamist State’s Syrian capital.
US special operations alerted to remove chemical agents
The Western spotters reported Tuesday that ISIS columns had left Raqqa and were heading west to link up with the unit poised to attack Al Safira.
If they succeed, the Islamists will have acquired their first known stock of deadly chemical weapons.
So far, there is no sign of Syrian military preparations to whisk chemicals out of danger to a new hideout, as they have done more than once in the past. The Syrian army may be too short of troops to spare for securing convoys shifting this stock.
But the ISIS threat looks serious enough to alert elite forces from Middle East lands, including US special operations teams, who have been trained to take charge of chemical weapons facilities. They appear to be preparing to step into the fray, take possession of the dangerous stock and remove it from Syria.
Eight months ago, in October 2014, the Syrian rebel Ahrar ash-Sham, one of the local groups linked to al Qaeda, launched an assault on the Al Safira complex. But although it captured a few villages in the vicinity, it failed to get through to the chemicals depot.
Syrian army’s operations chief assassinated in Damascus
Tuesday, May 26, Ahrar ash-Sham was in action again – this time with greater effect. A squad armed with a large explosive device and automatic rifles got through to the heart of Damascus and assassinated the Syrian army’s operations chief Brig. Gen. Bassam Ali Muhanna and six of his bodyguards.
It was the most disastrous attack on a high-level Syrian military figure in the capital since July 2012, when assassins murdered Assad’s brother-in-law Military Intelligence Chief Assef Shawkat and wiped out most members of the president’s inner circle.
Meanwhile, ISIS forces were also making tracks for Damascus, heading south from Palmyra just days after its capture this week.
On the way, they did not neglect to grab the Syrian phosphate mines of Khnaifess beside the highway to the capital, so robbing the Assad regime of an important source of income. This was not the worst of the Syrian ruler’s troubles. Among other setbacks, the cracks deepening at the top of his intelligence and military hierarchy are leading his regime to the edge of a precipice.