(Adds France saying sarin used by Syrian government)
By Anthony Deutsch and Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMSTERDAM/AMMAN, June 5 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 programme three decades ago, aided by its neighbours,
allies and European chemical wholesalers.
Damascus lacked the technology and scientific capacity to
set up a programme 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
"Syria was quite heavily reliant on outside help at the
outset of its chemical weapons programme, 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 chemical weapons.
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 al-Assad, and there are also
fears they could fall into the hands of militants seeking to
destabilise the region.
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. France's foreign
minister went further - saying there was no doubt the Syrian
government had used the nerve agent sarin against the rebels.
As a result of the wars of 1967, 1973 and 1982, Syria sought
to counter Israel's military superiority.
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.
"Syria had to have something to stack up against Israel,"
Smithson told Reuters.
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.
The first technology and delivery systems were most probably
obtained from the Soviet Union and pre-revolution Egypt,
military experts believe, while chemical precursors came from
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.
It is "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.
The 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.
"The man 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 unsuccessful.
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 rebels.
"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 said.
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 U.S. official, asked about Sheikh's comments, told
Reuters: "This is one concerning scenario we're taking a close
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.
A wide 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
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 Iraq.
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 U.S. government in March
leaves little doubt about the threat it poses.
"Syria's overall chemical weapons programme is large,
complex, and geographically dispersed, with sites for storage,
production, and preparation," the Director of National
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
(Additional reporting by Phillip Stewart in Washington; Editing
by Giles Elgood and Janet McBride)