AMSTERDAM/AMMAN - Syria, defeated by Israel in three wars and
afraid its arch enemy had gained a nuclear arsenal, began in earnest to build a
covert chemical weapons program three decades ago, aided by its neighbors,
allies and European chemical wholesalers.
Damascus lacked the technology
and scientific capacity to set up a program on its own, but with backing from
foreign allies it amassed what is believed to be one of the deadliest stockpiles
of nerve agent in the world, Western military experts said.
quite heavily reliant on outside help at the outset of its chemical weapons
program, but the understanding now is that they have a domestic chemical
weapons production capability," said Amy Smithson of the James Martin Center for
Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, an expert on nuclear, biological and
As Syria's civil war enters its third year with 80,000
dead, chemical weapons are reported to have been used by the government of
President Bashar Assad, and there are also fears they could fall into the
hands of militants seeking to destabilize the region.
As a result of the
wars of 1967, 1973 and 1982, Syria sought to counter Israel's military
Non-conventional weapons have already been used in the
region. The late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons such as
mustard gas and other nerve agents during the 1980s, including the killing of
5,000 Kurds in Halabja, during the war with Iran.
Syria's ally Iran is
accused by the West of seeking to develop an atomic bomb, which it denies, while
Israel refuses to confirm or deny whether it has nuclear weapons.
had to have something to stack up against Israel," Smithson told
United Nations human rights investigators said on Tuesday they
had "reasonable grounds" to believe that limited amounts of chemical weapons had
been used in Syria. They had received allegations that government forces and
rebels had used the banned weapons, but most testimony related to their use by
Syria is one of only seven countries not to have joined
the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which commits members to completely
destroying their stockpiles.
Syria does not generally comment on its
chemical weapons, but in July last year it acknowledged for the first time that
it had them. Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told a news conference
the army would not use chemical weapons to crush the rebels but could use them
against foreign forces.
While it is relatively easy to
produce small amounts of chemicals, scaling up to megaton quantities of
precursors needed for weapons of mass destruction requires long-term,
industrial-grade processing facilities with advanced equipment.
technology and delivery systems were most probably obtained from the Soviet
Union and pre-revolution Egypt, military experts believe, while chemical
precursors came from European companies.
To boost its own capabilities,
Damascus set up the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), an agency
with a civilian figure head that was run by military intelligence.
"the best-equipped research centre in Syria, possessing better technical
capacity and equipment than the four Syrian universities," the Nuclear Threat
Initiative, a leading non-proliferation group, wrote last month.
SSRC, attacked by rebels earlier this year, oversees chemical weapons facilities
in Dumayr, Khan Abou, Shamat, and Firaqlus, according to the U.S. Center for
Strategic and International Studies. It set up facilities for blister agent,
sarin, mustard and VX nerve gas, the Center said.
The agency is now
headed by one of Assad's top advisers, national security chief Ali Mamlouk, said
Brigadier General Mustafa al Sheikh, a Syrian army defector.
overseeing the chemical weapons in general is Ali Mamlouk, but effective control
of the weapons is becoming fragmented," Sheikh, who served for almost two
decades in chemical weapons units, told Reuters from an undisclosed location in
northern Syria. "Assad himself has lost overall command and control." Mamlouk,
on a list of Syrians targeted by EU sanctions since 2011, was promoted last year
to head national security after its chief was killed in a bombing in Damascus.
Considered to be a member of Assad's inner circle, Mamlouk is one of two Syrian
officers indicted last August in Beirut for allegedly plotting to incite
sectarian violence in Lebanon. Efforts to reach Mamlouk for comment were
Sheikh said the arsenal is now in the hands of chemical
weapons-trained loyalists of Assad's Alawite clan, a Shi'ite offshoot sect, and
is being used for limited attacks that have killed dozens of
"Most of the chemical weapons have been transported to Alawite
areas in Latakia and near the coast, where the regime has the capability to fire
them using fairly accurate medium range surface-to-surface missiles," Sheikh
Some chemical munitions remain in bases around Damascus, and have
been deployed with artillery shells. "It is a matter of time before fairly large
warheads are used," he said.
A US official, asked about Sheikh's
comments, told Reuters: "This is one concerning scenario we're taking a close
look at." Reports of use of chemical weapons in the battlefield have become more
frequent in recent weeks. A U.N. team of inspectors has been denied access and
has been unable to verify the claims.
The bulk of
chemical and biological weapons production technology came from "large chemical
brokerage houses in Holland, Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany," said
Globalsecurity, a security information provider.
In the early 1980s,
Syria mostly imported French pharmaceuticals, some of them so-called "dual use"
chemicals, which could also be used for chemical weapons, it said.
range of industrial chemicals with legal applications, such as in agriculture,
are also precursors for chemical weapons. The most important precursors for
sarin, the nerve agent believed to have been used in recent fighting in Syria,
are methylphosphonyl difluoride and isopropanol.
None of the reports
cited named specific companies as suppliers. Syria has said it intended to use
the chemicals for agriculture.
Securing raw chemicals on the
international market became more difficult in 1985, when suspect sales were
restricted by the Australia Group, a 40-nation body that seeks to curb chemical
or biological weapons through export controls.
Some experts say Damascus
obtained supplies from Russia and Iran instead, but Syria may also have turned
to a network of illegal traders using front companies to sell to Iran and
Former Russian general Anatoly Kuntsevich was suspected of
smuggling precursor chemicals to VX gas to Syria, according to Globalsecurity.
He died in 2002.
While questions remain about the origins of Syria's
chemical weapons stockpile, an evaluation by the US government in March leaves
little doubt about the threat it poses.
"Syria's overall chemical weapons
program is large, complex, and geographically dispersed, with sites for
storage, production, and preparation," the Director of National Intelligence
It "has the potential to inflict mass casualties, and we assess
that an increasingly beleaguered regime, having found its escalation of violence
through conventional means inadequate, might be prepared to use chemical weapons
against the Syrian people."