The Secret Syrian Unit That Is In Charge of Hiding Assad's Chemical-Weapons Stockpile

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Sept. 13 2013 1:30 PM

The Secret Syrian Unit That Is In Charge of Hiding Assad's Chemical-Weapons Stockpile

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Syrian pro-government troops are seen on the streets of the Christian town of Maalula on September 11, 2013

Photo by -/AFP/Getty Images

As John Kerry and his Russian counterpart continue to negotiate a deal that would, in theory at least, force the Assad regime to turn over all of its chemical weapons there remains the secondary—but no less important—question of how such a deal would actually be enforced. Put another way, how will we ever know that the Syrian government has truly turned over everything? Via the Wall Street Journal comes the latest reason to believe that we won't:

A secretive Syrian military unit at the center of the Assad regime's chemical weapons program has been moving stocks of poison gases and munitions to as many as 50 sites to make them harder for the U.S. to track, according to American and Middle Eastern officials. ...
Unit 450—a branch of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center that manages the regime's overall chemicals weapons program—has been moving the stocks around for months, officials and lawmakers briefed on the intelligence said. ...
The regime traditionally kept most of its chemical and biological weapons at a few large sites in western Syria, U.S. officials said. But beginning about a year ago, the Syrians started dispersing the arsenal to nearly two dozen major sites. Unit 450 also started using dozens of smaller sites. The U.S. now believes Mr. Assad's chemical arsenal has been scattered to as many as 50 locations in the west, north and south, as well as new sites in the east, officials said.
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According to the Journal, U.S. intellegence agencies and their Israeli counterparts still claim to know where most of the stockpile is, but they are obviously less confident than they were six months ago. The United States estimates that the regime has about 1,000 metric tons of chemical and biolgoical agents, but as one unnamed senior American official tellingly put it: "That is what we know about. There might be more." Head on over to the WSJ for more on the secret unit.

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

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