Syria's chemical weapons arsenal

By Melanie Phillips
The Daily Mail
25 July 2012

Syrian General Ali Abdullah Ayub, right, is pictured meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus (Getty Images)

There is a degree of panic, and rightly so, over whether the Syrian tyrant Basher al Assad will use chemical weapons against either his own people or foreign attackers. His regime has this week threatened to do the latter, thus finally confirming what was long suspected but never openly admitted, that Syria possesses chemical weapons. It is believed to have mustard gas as well as nerve agents such as tabun, sarin and VX. The fear is either that the Assad regime uses them or that they fall into the hands of Hezbollah, al Qaeda or other Islamic terrorist groups. Either prospect is utterly nightmarish. Even Russia says it has told Syria it is unacceptable to threaten to use them.

In the last few days, this has been much discussed. What has not been raised, however, is the question of how Syria managed to develop such a chemical weapons stockpile in the first place. No-one in the western media seems remotely curious about how Syria has managed to arm itself to the teeth with them beneath the radar of international scrutiny.

Dr Danny Shoham, at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, is an expert in chemical and biological warfare. In a Middle East Quarterly article in 2002, Guile, Gas and Germs: Syria's Ultimate Weapons, he set out the extraordinary history of Syria’s chemical weapons programme.

It first received chemical weapons from Egypt, he says, as far back as 1973. By the late eighties, it was saying it possessed an ‘answer to Israel’s nuclear threat’; people who read between the lines understood this meant Syria now possessed non-conventional weapons. In 1992, Syria refused to commit itself to the elimination of chemical weapons. From the 1970s onwards, wrote Shoham, Syria covertly developed a chemical weapons programme, aided by a wide variety of European and Asian suppliers including the Soviet Union, West Germany and middlemen and brokers located in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Britain, and Austria.

Shoham concluded:

‘Syria now possesses the most formidable CBW capabilities of any Arab state. Its arsenal probably even exceeds that of Iran in quantity and quality. Yet in building it from scratch, under the rule of Hafiz al-Asad, Syria has always managed to stay just outside the spotlight of international scrutiny. It did so by diffusing its efforts, and by playing its political cards with supreme skill—entering (and exiting) the Arab-Israeli "peace process" at just the right times, joining the Kuwait war coalition, cutting back at the last moment on its support for Kurdish separatism in Turkey, and so on. The West has always had some reason not to include Syria on its blackest list. Other regional problems have also drawn attention away from Syria. The United States is still preoccupied with Iraq and Iran, alongside which Syria appears benign.

But at this moment in time, it is a fact: Syria has more destructive capabilities than either of them. The West is often accused of a double standard—of tolerating Israel's possession of WMD, while preventing those same weapons from coming into the hands of Arabs or Muslims. But if there is such a double standard, then how does one explain the West's silence, if not complicity, in the building of Syria's CBW capabilities? A simple explanation would be to say that Syria outwitted the world. But that explanation may be too simple. Many parties profited from the Syrian build-up, and foreign strategists thought that a strong Syrian deterrent might give Hafiz al-Asad the confidence to make peace.'

That, however, was back in 2002. In 2003 the US, Britain and others went to war in Iraq to make the world safe from Saddam Hussein and his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Ever since, however, we have been told that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the proof of that is that none was ever found – surely one of the most profoundly illogical and imbecilic formulations ever to have fallen from human lips.

At the time, however, there were a number of reports that enormous truck movements across the border from Iraq into Syria suggested that some of these WMD had been moved there. Saddam’s Air Vice-Marshal Georges Sada, whom I interviewed, said he was absolutely certain that WMD had been moved from Iraq to Syria. All of this was however brushed aside for, as the bien pensant world has never stopped intoning with positively religious fervour, ‘we were taken to war in Iraq on a lie’.

But now we know that Syria possesses an arsenal of chemical weapons. So could any of this have come from Saddam’s Iraq, just as it was transferred from Egypt two decades previously?

In a more recent paper published in 2006 in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence , An Antithesis on the Fate of Iraq’s Chemical and Biological Weapons, Dr Shoham wrote that the two official reports – Duelfer and Carnegie in 2004 – that supposedly exonerated Saddam of still having WMD by the outbreak of war ignored much information that indicated the smuggling of chemical and biological weapons from Iraq into Syria. Although the most knowledgeable and experienced individuals tracking Iraq’s WMD were members of UNSCOM, they were largely excluded by the US intelligence community. Ill-trained soldiers would go to a site, find something suspicious, return 48 hours later and find it had disappeared.

In October 2003, the US intelligence community publicly pointed for the first time to transfers of WMD from Iraq to Syria. The Director of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, James Clapper, said it linked the disappearance of Iraqi WMD with the huge number of Iraqi trucks entering Syria before and during the US invasion; based on satellite imagery, it assessed that these trucks contained missiles and WMD components. Shipments to Syria were supervised by Saddam’s most loyal intelligence agents. Once the shipments were made, these agents would leave and the regular border guards resumed their posts.

Moreover, captured Iraqi documents record that the Russian ‘spetsnaz’ moved many of Saddam’s weapons and related goods, including chemicals used to make chemical weapons plus missile components and MIG jet parts, out of Iraq and into Syria in the weeks before the 2003 invasion.

In 2004 Nizar Najoef, a Syrian journalist who defected from Syria to Europe, claimed he had received information from contacts in Syrian intelligence that:

  • Tunnels dug under al Baida near Hama in northern Syria were an integral part of an underground factory, built by the North Koreans, for producing Syrian Scud missiles. Iraqi chemical weapons and long range missiles were stored there;
  • Vital parts of Iraq’s WMD were stored in the village of Tal Snan, north of Salamija where there was a big Syrian air force camp;
  • Iraqi WMD was also stored in the city of Sjinsjar on Syria’s border with Lebanon.

Shoham concluded:

‘Apparently, then, the prevailing perception of the “failure” to find Iraq’s CBW arsenal ought to be rethought...Strategically, Iraq’s enduring arsenal may affect Syria’s CBW capabilities, provided that the transfer did in fact take place...’

Might some of Basher al Assad’s chemical (and possibly biological) arsenal have Saddam Hussein’s name on it?