Syria’s chemical weapons nexus

THE BOTTOM line is that even if Russia and Iran did not provide the sarin gas to Syria, their delivery systems are responsible for making it into an operational WMD.

MISSILES ARE seen at a Syrian air defense base (photo credit: Reuters)
MISSILES ARE seen at a Syrian air defense base
(photo credit: Reuters)

The main achievement of the UN report on the August 21 chemical weapons attacks in Syria is not its indisputable conclusion that sarin nerve gas was used “on a relatively large scale.” It is the affirmation in a UN document of the de facto existence of a chemical weapons nexus comprising Syria, Russia and Iran, whose purpose is to support President Bashar Assad’s regime as the linchpin of regional resistance to the US and Israel.

According to the report, two types of surface-to-surface rockets were used to deliver the chemical agents. The first, found in the Western Ghouta area, was a Soviet-era 140-mm. M14 artillery rocket that was probably launched by the Sovietmade BM-14 multiple rocket launcher in the possession of the Syrian army.
One rocket remnant found by the UN team carried the number 179 on its casing.
The number is a factory marking that refers to the Soviet-era “Factory 179” in Novosibirsk, one of the largest producers of artillery and rockets during the Soviet period and a known manufacturer of the 140-mm. M-14 rocket.
The M14 artillery rocket comes in three variants, including one specifically designed to carry and deliver 2.2 liters of sarin. It is unclear if this type of warhead was provided by Moscow. But even if it was manufactured indigenously to fit the M14, it is inconceivable the Russians were unaware of the modification given the level of their involvement with the Syrian military.
The Kremlin’s involvement in the Syrian chemical weapons program has spanned many years. Maj.-Gen. Amnon Lipkin- Shahak, chief of IDF Military Intelligence at the time, told IDF magazine Bamahane on June 11, 1986: “In 1967 [during the Six Day War], we saw that the Syrian army had [Soviet-made] defensive equipment for this type of [chemical] warfare. At that time, we noticed that the Syrian soldiers had [gas] masks and personal protection gear.”
Moreover, most Soviet combat vehicles, including many shipped to Syria, were outfitted with chemical protection systems and chemical detection sensors as standard equipment. In the 1970s and 1980s, Moscow even provided the Syrians with a full range of mobile decontamination systems.
The provision by the Soviets of arms and equipment to enable fighting in a chemical environment acted as a stimulant for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), even if Moscow had never transferred chemical agents or their precursors to its ally. The Kremlin must have known that the recipient of such aid could have produced chemical weapons indigenously or have acquired them from alternative sources, and with its defensive gear already in place could move rapidly to fight a chemical war.
Indeed, while opinions differ as to when the Syrian offensive chemical weapons program started, it is generally agreed that the first chemical fills were developed for Soviet-supplied aerial bombs. Among the munitions were the Soviet aerial incendiary bomb ZAB and subsequently, its aerial cluster bomb PTAB-500 (which contains bomblets). The bombs fitted to Soviet-supplied aircraft like the MiG-23, Su-22 and Su-24.
Beginning in the mid-’70s, the Soviets had also started providing Syria with surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs), including the 300-km. range Scud B and the solid-fueled SS-21, which the Syrians equipped with chemical weapon warheads (as early as 1979 in the case of the Scud B). The Syrian SSM brigades even underwent reorganization in the late ’80s, patterned on their Soviet patrons. In the latter case the number of launchers per unit was expanded, among other things to compensate for the need to hold a portion of the missile force in reserve to enable a rapid shift to non-conventional warfare. Similarly, the Soviet material support for the expansion of Syria’s SSM brigades enhanced their capacity to convert to chemical weapons on short notice.
Given the pervasive Soviet influence on Syrian military thinking, it was only natural that the latter adopted the Soviet chemical weapons doctrine. The Syrian military trained, held exercises and planned operationally according to Soviet chemical weapons standards.
In fact, such was the collaboration between the two allies that on March 19, 1988, Col.-Gen. Vladimir Pikalov, chief of the Chemical Warfare Corps of the Soviet Army, arrived in Damascus on a rare external foray. Pikalov headed a large team of engineers and scientists and had met with Mustafa Tlas, then Syrian defense minister.
There was speculation in the Western press that the visit may have produced a secret agreement, to provide Syria with materials to produce a version of the Soviet persistent nerve agent VX, code-named Substance 33 or V-gas. It may be recalled that Lt.-Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich, Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s personal adviser on chemical disarmament (who was dismissed from his post on suspicion of smuggling nerve gas precursors to Syria in early 1995), admitted in an interview in 1998 with New York-based Jewish weekly The Forward that shipments to Syria of small amounts of nerve gas components had indeed taken place.
According to the general, however, these shipments were only intended for “research purposes” and had been authorized by the Russian government under previously undisclosed terms of a treaty with Syria.
Clearly, Syria’s chemical weapons nexus did not falter with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reports suggest that in 1999, Russia helped Syria establish a solid fuel development capacity for its SSMs. In July 2001, a Scud-B missile carrying a chemical warhead was reportedly launched in a test flight from near Aleppo to a point just north of the Israeli border. Accordingly, Syrian sources confirmed the flight was meant as a deterrent signal to Israel.
Last May, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told a Helsinki press conference his country was ready to pull out the stops and possibly start supplying offensive weaponry to Syria, in response to the EU’s decision to drop its own embargo on providing arms to Syrian rebels. Evidently, Damascus’s shopping list includes 100 solid-fueled SS-26 Iskander-E SSMs. With a 280-km. range and an optical seeker for terminal guidance, the Iskander-E is a highly accurate weapon (with a miss distance of 10-20 meters). It can fly at a variable trajectory that can help it evade Israeli air defenses, and may be equipped with an unconventional warhead. Indeed, the improved accuracy would make the SS-26 particularly adept at delivering the highly persistent nerve agent VX.
According to the UN report, the second type of chemical weapons delivery system found by its team in Syria, at the site of the Eastern Ghouta attacks, was a 330-mm. rocket that Syria’s chemical weapons nexus 37 apparently was responsible for most of the casualties.
The warhead had a capacity to hold about 56 liters of liquid sarin (plus or minus 6 liters) – more than 20 times the amount of other such rockets or artillery shells.
The rocket’s dimensions are compatible with the Iranian-produced 333-mm. Falaq-2 launcher. The Syrian government is known to possess the Iranian Falaq-2 rocket launching system, as several videos have emerged on social media sites allegedly showing Syrian government forces firing the 330-mm. rockets from truck-mounted 333-mm. launchers. Iran is believed to be the only country in the world to produce rocket launchers in the 333-mm. category to boot. In 2011, the London-based Daily Telegraph cited Mossad sources as indicating that Iran was diverting civilian trailer trucks for military use. At least some of the Falaq-2 launchers spotted in Syria were mounted on civilian trucks.
AS IN the case of Russia, Iran’s involvement in the Syrian chemical weapons program has been extensive – one aspect of an ever-deepening strategic and military relationship. For example, a 2006 US State Department cable posted by WikiLeaks, the website known for publishing classified US documents, recounted a confidential presentation by German officials to the Australia Group, an informal forum comprising 40 nations plus the European Commission that protects against the spread of chemical weapons.
The cable described Damascus’s cooperation with Iran on Syria’s development of new chemical weapons, noting that Syria was building up to five new sites producing precursors to chemical weapons.
Written by an American diplomat, the cable states: “Iran would provide the construction design and equipment to annually produce tens to hundreds of tons of precursors for VX, sarin and mustard [gas]. Engineers from Iran’s DIO [Defense Industries Organization] were to visit Syria and survey locations for the plants, and construction was scheduled from the end of 2005-2006.”
It should be noted that Iran had signed (1993) and ratified (1997) the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.
The British magazine Jane’s Defense Weekly, in its September 26, 2007, edition, said Iranian engineers were among those killed in a blast at a secret Syrian military installation two months earlier. The July 26 explosion in Aleppo, northern Syria, was confirmed at the time by the official Sana news agency, which said 15 Syrian military personnel were killed and 50 people were injured. The agency said only that “very explosive products” blew up after fire broke out at the facility, and that the blaze was not an act of sabotage.
However, according to Jane’s, quoting “Syrian defense sources,” the explosion happened during tests to weaponize a Scud-C missile with mustard gas. The magazine assessed that the incident confirmed information that the two countries have been involved in developing chemical weapons for more than two years under a strategic cooperation agreement. It said Tehran helped Damascus in the planning, establishment and management of five facilities designed to develop chemical weapons on an industrial scale.
An Iranian chemical manufacturer – whose identity Jane’s said was known to the publication, and who had connections to the Islamic Republic’s defense industry – and a Syrian firm with links to the military have made a number of deals since 2004.
One of the magazine’s sources said the deals involved the importation of “hundreds of tons of sodium sulphide, hydrochloric acid and ethylene glycol-MEG from Iran,” which can be used to produce mustard gas and sarin.
The German Der Spiegel reported on September 17, 2012, that the Syrian army had tested launch systems for chemical weapons in the desert at the end of August.
Citing “various witness statements,” the magazine said the tests took place near a chemical weapons research center east of Aleppo, in the vicinity of the country’s largest chemical weapons facility at Safira. It added: “Iranian officers believed to be members of the Revolutionary Guards were flown in by helicopter for the testing, according to the statements.”
It is entirely reasonable to speculate the tests involved the Syrian modification of the Iranian Falaq-2 to fire its 330-mm. rocket. The latter appear to be of a unique Syrian design, different from any of the shells and warheads associated with other producers of chemical arms. Indeed, the non-aerodynamic design of the rocket indicates it would be relatively short-ranged and incapable of accurate targeting.
Thus, in its chemical weapons mode, it would be intended to carry a non-persistent agent like sarin that dissipates quickly and allows troops to shortly advance to capture the targeted area. Sarin, of course, would be Damascus’s weapon of choice to begin with, as its rapid dissolution would attract a regime looking to cover up its dirty deeds.
It is not clear why the Syrians also used the Sovietmade munition to deliver the sarin on August 21. If it is true, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed, that the BM-14 is no longer in the service of the Syrian army, the idea might have been to implicate the rebels in the outrage.
But instead of clearing Russia of any wrongdoing, the August 21 attacks highlight the workings of the chemical weapons nexus in Syria. As a result of this partnership, Damascus was able to preserve its stock of strategic weapons – i.e. its chemical weapons mounted atop or inside long-range delivery systems like the Scud SSMs or aerial bombs on-board Soviet/Russiansupplied aircraft – while using the shorter-range, Iranian-provided Falaq-2 to launch deadly tactical chemical strikes.
Damascus was thus able to maintain its deterrent against a foreign intervention intact – a clear Russian (and Iranian) interest.
Moreover, Assad was able to resort to WMD while skirting potential frictions with Moscow, which might have sought a say in any Syrian decision to employ chemical weapons using Soviet/Russian-provided delivery systems.
Finally, it is safe to assume Moscow also benefited from the Syrian chemical weapons “solution,” given its cardinal interest in suppressing the rebellion while not being implicated in the attacks.
THE BOTTOM line is that even if Russia and Iran did not provide the sarin gas or even its chemical precursors to Syria, their delivery systems are responsible for transforming a most lethal nerve agent into an operational weapon of mass destruction.
Indeed, Putin did not deny this assertion. Instead, he sought to “remind” the world why the Syrian WMD arsenal had even come into being. Speaking at the Valdai International Discussion Club in the Novgorod region on September 19 – almost a month after the chemical massacre in Syria – Putin said that “Syrian chemical weapons were built in response to Israel’s nuclear weapons.” He added that Israel’s nuclear weapons “only make her into a target.”
Incredibly, Putin implied that in the absence of an Israeli nuclear capability, the Syrian chemical arsenal would not have existed – and thus ipso facto the carnage at Ghouta would have been prevented.
The Russian leader is even laying the groundwork to press Israel to abandon its nuclear option as generally counterproductive – especially now that the Syrian chemical threat is (supposedly) being removed.
Instead of a “war crime” as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has labeled it, the chemical atrocity committed in Syria has become a tool in Putin’s hands to garner strategic and political rewards for Damascus and Moscow.
There is little doubt the US is aware of the Syrian chemical weapons nexus and its implications. Yet President Barack Obama opted to enter into an agreement with Putin on Assad’s chemical weapons, which in effect safeguards Moscow interests in Syria and implicitly absolves Moscow of any responsibility for Assad’s chemical butchery.
Even if the deal he struck produced a chemical weapons-free Syria, which seems rather doubtful, a US-Russian “grand bargain” that also called for Israel to renounce its nuclear option would be a diplomatic disaster of the first order – given that another one of Israel’s enemies had just resorted to weapons of mass destruction.

The writer is the author of The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence (Yale University Press)