Where Did Syria’s Chemical Weapons Come From?

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ProPublica looks beyond the rhetoric of current and past Western governmental administrations to trace the genealogy of Syria’s current chem “stockpile.” You aren’t likely to be surprised at the shape of the chemical warfare family tree.

by Jannis Brühl
ProPublica,  Sep. 25, 2013, 12:41 p.m.

In the wake of a recent Russian-U.S. deal averting American airstrikes, Syria has begun to answer questions about its chemical weapons stockpile. One thing inspectors don’t have the mandate to ask is where those weapons came from in the first place. But evidence already out there suggests Syria got crucial help from Moscow and Western European companies.

When Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was asked recently about the origins of Syria’s chemical weapons, he said, “Well, the Russians supply them.“ Hagel’s spokesman George Little quickly walked back that statement, saying Hagel was simply referring to Syria’s conventional weapons. Syria’s chemical weapons program, Little explained, is “largely indigenous.”

But declassified intelligence documents suggest Hagel, while mistakenly suggesting the support was ongoing, was at least pointing his finger in the right direction.

A Special National Intelligence Estimate dated Sept. 15, 1983, lists Syria as a “major recipient of Soviet CW [Chemical Weapons] assistance.” Both “Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union provided the chemical agents, delivery systems, and training that flowed to Syria.” “As long as this support is forthcoming,” the 1983 document continues,” there is no need for Syria to develop an indigenous capability to produce CW agents or materiel, and none has been identified.”

Soviet support was also mentioned, though with less details, in another intelligence estimate dated Feb. 2, 1982. That report muses about the U.S.S.R.’s motivation for exporting chemical weapons to Syria and other countries. The Kremlin saw gas as useful for allies fighting against insurgencies: For the countries that had actually used it in combat – Kampuchea, Laos, Afghanistan and Yemen – the authors conclude that the Soviet Union saw it as a way of “breaking the will and resistance of stubborn guerrilla forces operating from relatively inaccessible protected sanctuaries.”

The 1982 report goes on to say: “The Soviets probably reasoned that attainment of these objectives – as quickly and cheap as possible – justified use of chemical weapons and outweighed a small risk of exposure and international condemnation.” Last week, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that intelligence sources in the country are convinced blueprints for four of the five Syrian poison gas plants came from Moscow.

Evidence gathered from what we now know was a sarin attack last month is also suggestive. According to an investigation by Human Rights Watch, one of the weapons used in the attack was “a Soviet-produced 140mm rocket.” Meanwhile, the UN’s own report shows a picture of Cyrillic letters on the remnants of the rocket.

It’s impossible to know the exact extent of Soviet and Russian help. U.S. intelligence was not particularly focused on the Syrian program, says Gary Crocker, a proliferation specialist at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the 1970s and 1980s. Most analysts did not know much about its program: “Detailed information on the Syrian program was only accessible to very high level intelligence officials,” Crocker said.

There are also indications that the Soviets grew increasingly uneasy with Syria’s ability to deliver the deadly gas by long-range missile. Concerned about Syria’s buildup, the head of the Soviet chemical warfare corps, General Vladimir Pikalov,flew to Syria in 1988. According to reports from the time, he decided against supplying the country with SS-23 missiles, which would have been able to deliver poison gas deep into Israel.

But the Soviets don’t appear to be the only ones who provided some help.

“Soviets provided the initial setup, then the Syrians became quite proficient at it. Later, German companies came in,” Crocker said.

As then- CIA director William Webster said in Senate testimony back in 1989: “West European firms were instrumental in supplying the required precursor chemicals and equipment.” Asked why the companies did it, Webster answered: “Some, of course, are unwitting of the ultimate destination of the products they supply, others are not. In the latter case, I can only surmise that greed is the explanation.”

Indeed, Syria received precursor chemicals from the West until well into the last decade. Last week, the German government acknowledged that between 2002 and 2006, it had approved  the export to Syria of more than 100 tons of so-called dual-use chemicals. Among the substances were hydrogen fluoride, which can be used to make Teflon,  and also sarin. The exports were allowed under the condition that Syria would only use them for civilian purposes. The British government also recently acknowledged exports of dual-use chemicals to Syria.

Both the British and German governments said there’s no evidence the chemicals were used to make weapons.

It’s not the first time Germany may have turned a blind eye to potentially dangerous trade. In the 1980s, for instance, German and French companies were crucial in building poison gas plants in Iraq and Libya . Stricter export controls in Europe were only installed after a web of companies that supplied the chemical weapons programs in the Middle East was exposed in the late 1980s. The New York Times embarrassed the German government by revealing the connection between German company Imhausen-Chemie and a Libyan poison gas plant in Rabta. (Times columnist William Safire German later called the plant “ Auschwitz-in-the-sand.”)

In the following years, German authorities indicted more than 150 managers of companies involved in Saddam Hussein’s program, which he had used to kill thousands of Kurds. According to one report, from the late ‘90s, more than half of the proceedings were stopped. Most of those that went to trial were acquitted or paid fines, a handful received jail time.

Just how deeply were German companies involved in Syria’s program? We may never know.  A long-ago proposal by the German Green party to install a fact-finding commission to comprehensively investigate the web of German companies supplying Middle Eastern states – and government knowledge of these exports – was voted down by all other parties in parliament.

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  • squeeze127

    Wasn’t Saddam’s WMDs sent to the Beqaa Valley in Syria?

    • momo

      That valley is located in Lebanon, not Syria.

  • http://www.thefreedomtrainusa.com/ FreedomTrainUSA

    And there were reports that the Russia helped SO DAM INSANE… move his stock piles of Weapons of Mass Destruction to Syria…and to Russia…Why is no one bringing this out???

  • Fred

    I’ve been waiting for someone to mention this for quite a while. When I was in Iraq in ’03 there were steady convoys of truckloads of Saddam contraband headed into Syria, weapons, gold, and who knows what. Some was intercepted by coalition forces, but most was not.

    • Col. Sink

      There were WMD found in Iraq (see links below)…Hey, the CIA, Israeli Intell, the French, MI6 all said he had them…People are so cynical (& with good reason about our leaders), but Bush was just acting on what he was told & I think it was correct info…remember too, Saddam tried to assassinate a sitting prez, Bush #1,was paying $25,000 to families of Palestinian suicide bombers & his sons were worse than him…So, having said all that, I still think it was wrong to go in there, but I can understand why a prez who took oath to protect us might have wanted to.

      http://nypost.com/2010/10/25/us-did-find-iraq-wmd

      http://weaselzippers.us/2013/09/02/flashback-chemical-weapons-in-syria-include-wmds-shipped-from-iraq/

    • jjet

      Fred,, Exactly. Inspecters had been thrown out of Iraq. With the Stupid Congress and media running their mouths about Bush wanting the inspecters back, in compliance to UN. And telling Iraq what was to come, and for 8 months gave plenty of time to get the weapons out, and to Seria. Thus the said Convoys seen. All before inspecters were allowed back in, therefore no

      • jjet

        WMD’s were found, supposed by ( to the trill of the Dems). How sick and sad for America since then.

        • RAFAEL RUCKSUCKER

          And the DEMS would’ve been the first to scream bloody murder if Bush had not went in & Saddam did something with WMD

  • Bob

    I would bet they came from Iraq, the missing weapons of mass destruction. Iraq used them on Iran killing more then a million people.

  • Quester55

    Doesn’t really matter, in the Long Run, Where or Whom supplied the Gas Agents, They could came from Anywhere Including a Home Lab !
    For less than 6 bucks, Any kid can buy the 2 main products that can put the Syria gas to shame. so all of this HYPE of Who produced the gas is Just so much ” Smoke Screen “, To Keep our News Reporters Busy!!

  • Carlos

    These chemical weapons are probably the ones we invaded Iraq for. There were many reports of the Iraqi’s moving them to Syria just before and after the fight started. Of course the Liberals deny this, after all they voted to Invade Iraq under the pretense Hussien had WMD’s, then when it became clear the Iraqi’s had moved them, they used this as a political tool against Bush.

  • ChuckS123

    I agree that at least some may have come from Iraq. It would be interesting to know if some came from East, West, or unified Germany.