In Syria: Fears of terrorism out of chaos
A rally in support of President Bashar al-Assad in Deir Zor, Syria
February 8th, 2012
06:00 AM ET

In Syria: Fears of terrorism out of chaos

By Suzanne Kelly

(CNN) - As the international community debates how to stop the bloodshed in Syria, intelligence experts are looking closely at possible terrorist scenarios that could occur should the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad go.

Among those scenarios is the question of whether terrorists could get their hands on Syria's weapons arsenal , which includes not only stockpiles of chemical and biological agents that have not been accounted for with the international community, but also a sophisticated anti-ship missile system as well as a small fleet of surface to surface missiles.

"If things continue to deteriorate in Syria, there are a number of scenarios in which proliferation becomes a risk," said Aram Nerguizian, visiting fellow at Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The Syrians have been playing with chemical weapons capabilities for decades. By regional standards, you have a regionally mature chemical weapons system in Syria."

Syria has not only chemical weapons, according to Nerguizian, but also the means to deliver them via its long-range missile program.

Last year, the Russians delivered an anti-ship cruise missile system known as the "Yakhont." It delivers death at supersonic speed, and because of its ability to fly low-altitude, there isn't much warning to be had before it strikes its target. It's a viable threat to naval vessels, including parts of the Israeli fleet positioned within its range.

Israeli officials have been commenting on their concerns for weeks that weapons systems could be quietly slipped across the border into Lebanon and the waiting arms of Hezbollah.

The thought is also on the minds of Pentagon officials, who are considering worst case scenarios as Syrian politics play themselves out. "We are concerned about all chemical weapons and biological weapons stockpiles around the world. It's important to maintain the security of those stockpiles, including in Syria," said Pentagon spokesman George Little.

While Little says he's heard of no effort to deploy chemical or biological weapons in Syria, he says, "We certainly hope that measures are being taken inside Syria to ensure that they aren't used and that they are safeguarded."

Hope isn't very reassuring for a former intelligence official who worked in the region. Speaking anonymously because the majority of his work was done under cover, the former officer says the international community should be careful what it wishes for in Syria, because an uncontrolled removal of Assad could create vacuums among the factions that terror groups stand ready to exploit.

"There's a good chance that in the chaos, Hezbollah will have access to weapons. It would lead to a strengthened Hezbollah, and remember, they are already a formidable organization," said the former officer, who points to what happened in Libya as an example of weapons being moved across close borders, and into Mali, Egypt, and Sinai, as the Moammar Gadhafi regime fell.

Syria's political chaos could be a blessing for a number of groups looking for opportunities to arm themselves, including al Qaeda. While intelligence officials don't believe al Qaeda has a strong foothold in Syria the way it did in Libya, former FBI agent and terrorism expert Ali Soufan says there many other groups who could potentially exploit the situation.

"You cannot separate anything from anything. Terrorism usually happens because there are incubators that enable groups and individuals to take advantage of situations," said Soufan, who now runs The Soufan Group, which develops counterterrorism strategies for international clients. "In Syria, there are possible incubators, including the lack of unity among the opposition and so the potential for a power vacuum, there are regional actors with different national aims and outcomes they'd like to see, there is the potential for sectarian conflict, and so on. What we seeing today in Syria is a battle where all of these incubators are showing themselves."

If there is a silver lining, it is that all of these scenarios are still very much in the "if" column.

"It's still too soon," says Nerguizian. "A lot of the talk about Syria is that it's moments away, I think that's premature. You have a regime that has held onto power despite everyone's predictions that it was moments away from collapsing."

Barbara Starr and Kevin Flower contributed to this story.


Filed under: Assad • Intelligence • Pentagon • Syria • Terrorism • UN Security Council • United Nations
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