A convoy of about 100 Syrian army trucks was sighted Monday, Oct. 15, transporting a large consignment of chemical arms from their big depot at the Al Safira military base east of Aleppo to another facility in the town of Hama, some 160 kilometers to the south, debkafile’s military and intelligence sources disclose. Tarpaulin sheets concealed the trucks’ freights from foreign spy planes and satellites. A large military escort secured the convoy.
The general assumption was that Bashar Assad was moving part of his chemical weapons stocks and missiles of delivery out of Al Safira, where Scud C and Scud D surface-to-surface missiles capable of carrying chemical warheads were also known to be housed in bunkers.
This was the first time in the more than two and-a-half years of the Syrian civil war that a large shipment of chemical weapons has been taken out of Al Safira.
The rebels have repeatedly battled in vain to capture Al Safira and get hold of the chemical weapons and missiles stored there. But they never got further than the adjoining town, where many Syrian officers attached to the base are lodged with their families.
In the second half of last week, a number of rebel militias returned to the attack. The Syrian military hit back hard: Bombing attacks by fighter planes and assault helicopters were intense enough to stop the rebel advance in its tracks.
However, under cover of this harsh counter-offensive, the Syrian military prepared the way for the exit of chemical weapons stocks from Al Safira by mopping up rebel emplacements on the hills overlooking the base and clearing them off the access roads.
At the end of this cleansing operation, the trucks and their chemical shipment exited the base Monday afternoon.
Western intelligence sources tracking Syrian chemical movements offer four optional reasons to account for their transfer:
1. Bashar Assad decided to forestall the very real danger of a rebel break-in to Al Safira;
2. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, shortly after being award the Noble Peace Prize, complained that its inspectors had only reached five out of at least 20 facilities capable of producing chemical weapons, but was prevented from reaching any more because they were located in rebel-controlled battle zones.
Vilified by the world as a mass-murderer of his own people, even Assad basks in the unfamiliar praise he has won for cooperating with the UN inspectors – not only from the Russians but even from the Americans. He may hope to keep the plaudits going by his action in moving large chemical weapons stocks out of Al Safira, where they are at risk, to Hama, where they are accessible to OPCW inspectors.
3. But the reverse explanation is also worth consideration: In Hama, the Syrian army may distribute small CW parcels to small fleets of trucks for onward trips to new places of concealment inaccessible to the international monitors.
4. Or else, Assad is preparing to smuggle those stocks out of the country,