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US ramps up counter-WMD spending amid Mideast proliferation threats

The Pentagon is putting $6 million into countering weapons of mass destruction in five Middle Eastern countries, as US special operations forces take control of the fight.
An Israeli Defence Force (IDF) reservist from the Home Front Command wears a protective suit during an exercise, together with hospital staff, simulating a chemical warfare attack at the Wolfson Hospital in Holon near Tel Aviv March 26, 2015. REUTERS/Baz Ratner 
      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY           TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - GF10000039107

The Donald Trump administration is spending $6 million on a handful of US allies in the Middle East to help keep mass-casualty bombs and chemical agents out of the hands of terrorists.

The Pentagon grants, detailed in recent congressional correspondence reviewed by Al-Monitor, are part of a $28 million package of train-and-equip funds used to help foreign militaries around the world stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Between 2014 and 2017, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the Pentagon’s in-house agency formed a decade ago to counter weapons of mass destruction (WMD), allocated $17 million to help foreign militaries respond to dangerous incidents.

The $6 million Middle East carve-out will help Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon keep WMD out of the hands of violent extremists. US officials believe that all five countries are vulnerable to chemical, biological and other WMD attacks, according to congressional correspondence.

Justifying the assistance to Congress, the Defense Department specifically expressed concern that the Islamic State could cause an incident in Turkish cities or attack Jordan with chemical or biological agents. Pentagon officials are also worried about “frequent use of chemical and biological agents in or near Syria,” such as further chlorine gas attacks from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, which could put Lebanese citizens at risk on the Syrian border.

While the funding doesn’t amount to a significant portion of the Pentagon’s $1.4 billion in annual funds for equipping US allies, former US officials who have worked on counter-WMD programs say things as simple as installing locks or fencing can be important first steps to stop harmful materials from falling into the wrong hands.

“Our way of approaching this problem is to secure it at the source first,” said Daniel Gerstein, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and a former science and technology undersecretary in the Department of Homeland Security. “We’re very keen to stop things from leaving their countries of origin.”

“If they have ammonia-producing chemical plants, we want those secured,” he added.

The Middle East training programs will wrap up by September, the end of the US government’s fiscal year. They include a live chemical agent course for the Lebanese Armed Forces in the Czech Republic, which is known for having some of the strongest chemical defense capabilities in the former Soviet bloc.

The assistance comes as monitoring groups say Assad has increased his use of chemical weapons such as chlorine to root out the last remaining pockets of resistance in Idlib and the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta. Western powers have accused Assad of launching three chlorine gas attacks so far this year, with US Defense Secretary James Mattis warning that the Syrian leader would be “ill-advised” to launch more chemical attacks after a Feb. 1 chlorine strike, which the UN is currently investigating.

Despite documented efforts by several Middle East countries to develop WMD, the UN has also waged an on-again, off-again campaign to create a mass-casualty, arms-free zone in the area.

The US assistance comes as US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which oversees clandestine operations as well as many foreign military training programs, takes the leadership role in fighting WMD. Taking the mantle from the US Strategic Command, which manages America’s nuclear arsenal, SOCOM aims to apply its counterterrorism model to deal with the WMD threat, help US allies limit the flow of dual-use commercial goods, and prepare local military, health and homeland security agencies for a potential crisis.

Last year, the US Army created a new doctrine to counter WMD that said US troops could use boarding vessels and enhanced detection capabilities to seize shipments of chemical weapons. The doctrine, however, did not refer to specific countries known to possess chemical weapons.

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