The world’s chemical weapons watchdog has repeatedly found traces of deadly nerve agents in laboratories that Syria insisted were never part of its chemical weapons program, raising new questions about whether Damascus has abided by its commitments to destroy all of its armaments, according to a highly confidential new report.
The discoveries of precursors for chemical warfare agents like soman and VX at several undeclared facilities, including two on the outskirts of Damascus, underscored what a 75-page report by the director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) describes as a troubling pattern of incomplete and inaccurate Syrian disclosures over the past three years about the scope of the country’s chemical weapons program.
Those gaps have confounded the inspectors’ attempts to verify whether or not Syria has fully abandoned its chemical weapons program, fueling suspicions by the United States and other Western powers that the government may be seeking to retain a limited capacity to use the nerve agents and other lethal toxins against the rebels working to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In a confidential two-page summary of the report, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu writes that the majority of 122 samples taken at “multiple locations” in Syria “indicate potentially undeclared chemical weapons-related activities.” Many of Syria’s explanations for the presence of undeclared agents, he added, “are not scientifically or technically plausible, and … the presence of several undeclared chemical warfare agents is still to be clarified.”
The incomplete and sometimes misleading assertions by the Assad government have shaped the often rocky relationship between foreign inspectors and their Syrian counterparts, bedeviling international efforts to determine whether or not Damascus has abided by its obligation to destroy its chemical weapons. Assad promised to eliminate his stores in 2013 to avert promised U.S. airstrikes against regime targets.
The findings of the OPCW’s Declaration Assessment Team report — which is marked “highly protected” — contrast sharply with Assad’s public insistence that Syria’s chemical weapons have been largely eliminated. In the summer of 2014, the chemical weapons watchdog confirmed that all of Syria’s declared stockpile had been removed from the country.
The OPCW’s conclusions could also pose political challenges for U.S. President Barack Obama, who has pointed to the deal as proof that diplomacy can often work better than overwhelming American firepower in stemming the spread of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. The president has emphasized that he is “very proud” of his decision not to launch airstrikes against the Syrian regime after it used the chemical agent sarin on civilians near Damascus, killing more than 1,400 people. Obama had previously said the use of such weapons was a “red line” that would bring an American military response but instead signed onto a Russian-crafted deal with Assad designed to eliminate the weapons. Secretary of State John Kerry said in 2014 that the agreement meant the administration had successfully “got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out” of Syria.
But U.S. and European officials who have studied the July 4 OPCW report are expressing growing alarm that Damascus may have hidden key parts of its once secret chemical weapons program. Those worries have intensified in recent weeks, as the world’s chemical weapons watchdog voiced concern that top Syrian officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, have provided the OPCW’s scientists with conflicting explanations about the presence of chemical warfare agents at sites the government hadn’t acknowledged to be part of its chemical weapons program. The lapse suggested that Syria maintained a network of chemical weapons sites far greater than it has acknowledged.
“The new information presented by the Syrian Arab Republic during recent consultations does not resolve the outstanding issues” surrounding the country’s chemical weapons program, Uzumcu wrote in the summary, which was shared with the U.N. Security Council. “In many instances, such new information presents a considerable change in the narrative from information provided previously — or raises new questions. In some cases, this new information contradicts earlier narratives.”
Uzumcu wrote that gaps in his agency’s understanding of Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities have “increased steadily over time.” Unless Syria dramatically steps up cooperation with his agency, the former Turkish diplomat warned, the OPCW is unlikely to ever conclude that Syria has destroyed its whole program.
The OPCW report also found that the Syrian government has failed to provide sufficient access to senior leaders in its chemical weapons program or to adequately account for 2,000 aerial bombs that Syria acknowledges were designed to deliver mustard gas. Syrian officials claim the bombs were converted into conventional explosives and dropped on enemy targets in 2013 as part of Syria’s civil war, but Uzumcu wrote that the lack of physical evidence makes it impossible to “verify that said bombs were repurposed and consumed.”
As far back as August 2014, a team of OPCW chemical weapons experts met behind closed doors with Syrian officials to learn about the history of the country’s once secret chemical weapons program. The inspectors were in for a bitter surprise: Syrian officials claimed that they had destroyed the records out of “fear that some sites related to the chemical weapons program might fall under the control of armed groups,” the report found.
In his confidential summary, Uzumcu wrote that the “lack of original documentation has been a major barrier in corroborating much of the information provided by” the Assad government while the watchdog’s lack of access to senior Syrian officials from the weapons program “precluded the Secretariat’s understanding of [its] full scope and activities.”
U.S. officials and their European partners have gone even further. During a July 12 OPCW public session, Washington’s representative to the organization, Kenneth Ward, accused Syria of engaging “in a calculated campaign of intransigence and obfuscation, of deception, and of defiance.”
The U.S. diplomat said samples of undeclared chemical warfare agents taken by the OPCW are “indicative of production, weaponization, and storage of [chemical warfare] agents by the Syrian military that has never been acknowledged by the Syrian government.”
The United States and other Western powers are weighing whether or not they can use the report’s findings to make the case that Syria is in violation of a U.N. demand, issued in Resolution 2118, that the country fully cooperate with international inspectors. Those governments could make the case that the Security Council should impose penalties on Syria for failing to fully comply with its disarmament obligations, but they would likely face intense pushback from Russia.
U.S. efforts to challenge Syria’s alleged activities have been constrained by Russia, one of Assad’s closest allies. Last month, Moscow blocked a U.S. initiative in the OPCW’s Executive Council to express “grave concern” over Syria’s conduct and call on Uzumcu to bring the watchdog’s full report to the attention of the U.N. Security Council, which has the power to sanction countries whose actions threaten international peace and security. Uzumcu went ahead and shared a redacted copy of the report, plus the two-page summary, with the 15-nation council. Still, the report’s findings are unlikely to persuade Russia to agree to punish Syria for its uneven and incomplete cooperation with the OPCW.
“I think the fundamental question for the United States, and also for the OPCW, is — have we come to the end of the road in terms of our ability to pursue a reasonably cooperative process with the Syrian government?” said Rebecca Hersman, the director of the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If we have, then it’s incumbent for the OPCW Executive Council and director-general of the OPCW to report to the Security Council their concerns with Syrian compliance.”
The United States and other Western powers have also claimed that the true scope of the program has been obscured, in part, by the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), a top secret branch of the Syrian Defense Ministry that Western powers believe has been at the center of Damascus’s chemical weapons program for decades.
The White House claimed in August 2013 that officials linked to the SSRC were preparing chemical weapons munitions just days before the Syrian government allegedly attacked the Damascus suburbs of Ghouta with sarin, killing more than 1,400 people. French intelligence maintains that a small part of the SSRC, called Branch 450, managed the chemical weapons program. The unit, according to a French intelligence assessment released in September 2013, is “composed solely of Alawite military personnel … [and] distinguished by a high level of loyalty to the regime.”
But Syria has long denied that the SSRC — which runs numerous laboratories and facilities throughout the country — was involved in its chemical weapons program. OPCW inspectors began scrutinizing the center after realizing that none of the chemical weapons facilities declared by Syria “seemed to have appropriate capabilities to enable development of a chemical weapons program.”
In May 2014, and again this January, OPCW inspectors paid visits to one of the center’s research and development facilities, Institute 3000. They collected multiple samples with traces of pinacolyl alcohol, a chemical precursor for the production of the nerve agent soman. The Syrian government initially denied the presence of soman. But two years later it confirmed the findings and offered a number of explanations for the presence of the agent, including one account suggesting the head of the SSRC ordered limited research on the material that was unrelated to chemical weapons work.
The OPCW report cast doubt on that claim, saying it was not “technically or scientifically plausible” because pinacolyl alcohol “does not have any other use for peaceful purposes, especially in the present context.” Asked for further explanation, the Syrian government said the SSRC head, who had previously worked at a Syrian chemical weapons facility, had set up special teams to conduct experiments with tiny samples of warfare agents for defensive purposes only, according to the report.
The investigators also found significant gaps in Syrian declarations on other chemical agents, including sarin, ricin, mustard gas, and VX. During a September 2015 visit to an undeclared SSRC-run facility in the village of Jamraya, which lies to the north of Damascus, inspectors discovered trace amounts of DIPA ethanol and DIPAE sulfonic acid, chemicals that are closely associated with the nerve agent VX.
Although the United States, Britain, and France have long been aware that Syria has been withholding information about the center’s role in its chemical weapons program, they initially sought to avoid a confrontation with the regime over it, fearing that it might provoke Damascus into halting the destruction of its declared chemical weapons stockpile. But with peace talks stalled, Western diplomats have little reason to downplay concerns over Syria’s chemical weapons activities.
It’s not only the Syrian government’s undeclared chemical weapons stockpile that has nonproliferation experts worried. The OPCW also faces a decision over a separate investigation into a series of chlorine gas attacks over the past year, for which the United States has blamed the Syrian government. Such attacks would be in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2235, which threatened action under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter — possibly including economic sanctions or military force — if chemical weapons attacks continued in Syria. The team of investigators established by that resolution, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), is planning to publish its findings this week on who conducted the attacks, which could pave the way for further Security Council action and potentially set the stage for a new confrontation with Russia, which will have to decide whether or not to allow the council to punish its ally.
The JIM has examined nine chemical weapons attacks, including an alleged Islamic State mustard gas assault on the village of Marea, north of the city of Aleppo, on Aug. 21, 2015. The eight other attacks allegedly involved the use of chlorine or other toxic agents by the Syrian government in heavily populated areas.
One of those attacks occurred in the town of Sarmin, in northern Idlib province, on March 16, 2015. Local medical workers said victims were streaming into the local hospitals, some of them foaming at the mouth and reeking of chemicals. Helicopters were still hovering in the sky as Mohammed Tennari, a doctor in the town, rushed to the hospital, where he found much of the staff in a panic as they tried to determine whether or not their own families had been injured.
As night fell, the hospital received a report of another chemical attack on the town. “It happened on one of the buildings — two barrel bombs were thrown,” Tennari told Foreign Policy. “One of them fell in a chimney hole and went all the way from the roof to the cellar.”
Hiding in the cellar were six members of the Talib family, including three small children. The entire family died after inhaling a large portion of gas, becoming the only deaths in the attack. Dozens of others were injured in the two assaults.
Tennari has no doubts who is to blame for the chlorine attacks. “The [Assad] regime is the only one who has helicopters and who has barrel bombs,” he said. “It is very clear that the fingers are pointing to the regime for this action.”
The JIM’s chief investigator, Virginia Gamba, recently informed key Security Council members that her team might require an additional six months to say definitely who is responsible for the nine attacks. But council members urged her to conclude her work on schedule this month.
Hersman told FP that the team should be able to draw conclusions about who is responsible for at least some of the attacks. But she acknowledged that the chemical weapons issue is so heavily politicized that the JIM might only assign blame when there was overwhelming evidence, which even Moscow would hesitate to deny, pointing to which side bore responsibility.
The JIM “has a very tightly worded mandate, with sharply limited time frames and a highly politicized Security Council environment into which they need to report,” Hersman said. “So it’s a challenge.… They want to be excruciatingly credible, [and] they want everything to be irrefutable so it can withstand the kind of picking apart it may get.”
The question looming over all this diplomacy, however, is whether or not the United States actually has an appetite to pick a fight with Russia over its client’s use of chemical weapons. The situation on the ground has changed dramatically since the 2013 agreement, most notably with Moscow’s decision to launch a massive air campaign in support of the Syrian government.
Robert Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who helped negotiate the chemical weapons deal, doubts that the Kremlin would support aggressive action against the Assad regime at the same time it is trying to prop up its ally in Damascus.
“Do we really think that the Russians are now going to allow Chapter 7 sanctions against their client?” Ford said. “The administration has worked itself into a position that’s just untenable. They look foolish.”
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