The Syrian army, under the supervision of Iranian advisers, has reportedly tested a missile system designed to fire poison gas shells at a suspected chemical weapons site near Aleppo.
Five or six shells capable of delivering chemical weapons were fired by tanks and aircraft during an exercise conducted last month, the German weekly Der Spiegel reported on Monday.
A number of officers believed to be members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards corps were flown by helicopter to the Safira research centre, regarded as Syria’s largest chemical weapons testing facility, for the exercise, the publication quoted “various witnesses” as saying.
North Korean and Iranian scientists frequently work at the facility, which is used to produce chemical agents such a sarin, tabun and mustard gas, according to claims by Western intelligence agencies cited by Der Spiegel.
The shells fired in the exercise were blanks and did not contain nerve agents but any sign of chemical weapons activity will cause concern in the West.
Western officials have said that any attempt by President Bashar al-Assad to use chemical weapons against rebel forces could trigger international military intervention.
The Assad regime has promised never to use its chemical weapons stockpiles against its own people, but has given warning that it could activate them to fight off a foreign invasion.
Western officials believe it is unlikely that Mr Assad would authorise the use of chemical weapons, but are more concerned that they could fall into the hands of Islamic militants in the event of a complete breakdown of authority in the country.
Syria is thought to have the world’s third largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, with western spy agencies estimating that several hundred tonnes of nerve agent and precursor components are stored in at least 20 sites across the country.
Aside from fears that many sites are inadequately defended, there is also concern that not all depots have been located.
Thanks to suspected assistance from North Korea and Russia, many of Syria’s chemical weapon facilities were constructed in such a way as to make them virtually invisible to Western spy satellites.