Documents: Iran helped Syria build chemical weapons arsenal
By The Washington Post
Published: Saturday, July 28, 2012, 9:04 p.m.
Updated: Saturday, July 28, 2012
Syria has expanded its chemical weapons arsenal in recent years with help from Iran and by using front organizations to buy sophisticated equipment it claimed was for civilian programs, according to documents and interviews.
The buildup has taken place despite attempts by the United States and other Western countries to block the sale of precursor chemicals and dual-use technology to Damascus, according to the documents.
As recently as 2010, documents show that the European Union provided $14.6 million in technical assistance and equipment, some intended for chemical plants, in a deal with the Syrian Ministry of Industry. Diplomats and arms experts have identified the ministry as a front for the country's chemical weapons program.
Recognizing the potential for Syria to divert equipment to the weapons program, the EU stipulated that it be allowed to conduct spot checks on how it was used. But the inspections were halted in May 2011 when the organization imposed sanctions on Syria.
Concerns about Syria's chemical weapons arsenal took on significance last week when a top Syrian official warned that the regime of President Bashar Assad would use them “in the event of external aggression.”
U.S. officials have expressed concerns over whether Assad would authorize using the weapons against his own people as a last-ditch effort to remain in power. Similarly, officials have said they worry about the security of the arsenal if Assad's government falls.
The portrait of Syria's efforts to develop a larger chemical weapons program emerged from EU documents, little-noticed State Department cables released by WikiLeaks and interviews with experts.
Syria has pursued a two-pronged strategy, arms experts said, to build and grow its chemical weapons stockpile: overt assistance and procurement of chemical precursors and expertise from Iran, coupled with the acquisition of equipment and chemicals from seemingly unwitting businesses in other countries, in many cases through a network of front organizations.
The materials are often dual-use, with purposes in civilian plants and in weapons facilities.
A 2006 cable recounts a confidential presentation by German officials to the Australia Group, an informal forum for 40 nations plus the European Commission that protects against the spread of chemical weapons. The cable described cooperation with Iran on Syria's development of chemical weapons, noting that the Assad regime was building up to five sites producing precursors to chemical weapons.
“Iran would provide the construction design and equipment to annually produce tens to hundreds of tons of precursors for VX, sarin, and mustard [gas],” said the cable, written by a U.S. diplomat. “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.”
A 2008 State Department cable summarized a presentation by Australian officials to the monitoring group that concluded Syria had become sophisticated in its efforts to move equipment and resources from civilian programs to weapons development.
Despite such warnings, analysts said it has proved difficult for the United States and other Western countries to prevent Syria's acquisition of materials and equipment, given their many civilian uses.
Dutch officials warned in 2008 that the Syrian Ministry of Industry “allegedly serves as a front organization for procurement efforts” and had helped acquire precursors that could be used to manufacture VX nerve gas and mustard gas from a Netherlands company.
According to a procurement notice in the EU's official register, the Syrian ministry solicited tenders from European companies for “standards for calibration laboratories.”
James Quinlivan, senior operations research analyst at the RAND Corp., noted that such testing equipment can be an important component of chemical weapon programs, particularly with relation to retention and longevity.
“Calibration is a big deal for these things,” Quinlivan said. “While mustard [gas] lasts amazingly well, nerve agents do not.”
Countries outside Europe have apparently provided dual-use equipment to Syria in recent years. According to the cables disclosed by WikiLeaks, the United States objected to China's plan to sell Syria a large quantity of pinacolyl alcohol (pine alcohol), which can be used as a precursor to soman nerve gas.
It is not clear whether the U.S. intervention prevented the sale, but other documents in the WikiLeaks cache show China taking two years or more to provide responses to similar American queries.
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