July 11, 2013 - 08:59 AMT
UK warns of ‘chemical catastrophe’ in Syria if Assad toppled

Syria's huge array of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of militants if President Bashar Assad was toppled, with "catastrophic" consequences, according to a report by senior British lawmakers published on Wednesday, July 10.

Britain's foreign intelligence services had no doubt Syria owned "vast stockpiles" of such weapons, including mustard gas, sarin, ricin and VX, the deadliest nerve agent, parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) said in its report, according to Haaretz.

Last month, the United States said Assad's forces had used the nerve agent sarin on a small scale multiple times against opposition fighters, an assessment with which the British government said it agreed.

On Tuesday, Russian's UN envoy reported that Russian scientific analysis had indicated that Syrian rebels had also used sarin in an attack on the city of Aleppo in March. On Wednesday, the opposition Syrian National Coalition denied this report.

The committee said the SIS had told them that "the most worrying point about our intelligence on Syria's attitude to chemical weapons is how low a threshold they have for its use."

The report also said that Britain's spy chiefs believed al-Qaeda groups and individual militants who have gained expertise and experience in Syria posed the biggest emerging threat to the West.

"Large numbers of radicalized individuals have been attracted to the country, including significant numbers from the UK and Europe," it said.

Last week, Britain's top counter-terrorism official said the conflict in Syria had brought large numbers of al-Qaeda fighters close to Europe for the first time.

So far, chief UN chemical weapons inspector Ake Sellstrom's team has not traveled to Syria because of diplomatic wrangling over the scope of access he would have there.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wants Sellstrom to have unfettered access to investigate all credible alleged chemical attacks while Assad's government wants the UN experts to confine their investigation to the March 19 incident. That disagreement has caused a deadlock in talks between the United Nations and Syria on access for the inspection team.

Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari on Monday said his government has invited Sellstrom and UN disarmament chief Angela Kane to Damascus to discuss allegations of banned arms use in Syria's two-year civil war but suggested it would not compromise on access.

The senior Western diplomat said Sellstrom and Kane were expected to accept the invitation and travel to Damascus soon to discuss ways of breaking the deadlock.