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 so-called 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 E.U. 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 after the crackdown on opposition groups.
Concerns about Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal took on new significance this week when a top Syrian official warned that the regime of President Bashar al-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 E.U. documents, a handful of little-noticed State Department cables released by WikiLeaks and interviews with outside experts.
Arms experts say Syria has pursued a two-pronged strategy 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 Syria’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.
“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.
“The Australians believe Syria is committed to improving and expanding its program, including through testing,” the cable said. “Syria maintains a basic indigenous capability, in contrast to other countries of concern, but maintains some dependence on precursor imports. . . . Syria appears focused on importing precursors and precursors of precursors.”
Despite such warnings, analysts say it has proved difficult for the United States and other Western countries to prevent Syria’s acquisition of precursor materials and equipment, given their many civilian uses.
In 2010, the European Union initiated a $14.6 million technical assistance program intended to improve industrial production in Syria.
An E.U. spokesman said the money was part of a program to finance Syria’s development of safety standards for products and laboratories. But the testing equipment, experts said, could potentially have been used in a chemical weapons program.
The contract was with the Syrian Ministry of Industry, which Dutch officials warned in 2008 “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 E.U.’s official register, the Syrian ministry solicited tenders from European companies for “equipment and consumables for chemical analysis laboratory,” “equipment for preparation and analysis of biological substances” and “standards for calibration laboratories.”
“It is difficult to be specific about the order,” said Alastair Hay, a British expert in chemical weapons at the University of Leeds. “It could cover legitimate government agencies anxious to ensure quality control so that they can meet the expectations for other governments regarding the quality of exports.”
In an illustration of the difficulty in selling dual-use equipment, another expert found Syria’s purchase order suspect.
James Quinlivan, senior operations research analyst at the RAND Corporation, 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. For nerve gases, particularly sarin, retention relies on purity, and this must be tested.”
The spokesman for the European Commission, Peter Stano, said the E.U. had a “regular independent monitoring schedule” until it was suspended in May 2011, along with other E.U. cooperation, in response to the Syrian government crackdown on unrest.
Countries outside Europe have also apparently provided dual-use equipment to Syria in recent years. According to the cables disclosed by WikiLeaks, U.S. officials have contacted their counterparts in China and India over concerns about the sale of dual-use technology to Syria.
In one instance, 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 U.S. queries.
Quinlivan, of RAND, said the experience of the Syrian weapons program showed the difficulty of preventing the country from developing chemical munitions.
“Certainly a lot of equipment is obviously dual use: A lot of equipment bears a close similarity to that in a pesticide plant,” he said. “You can see that there’s a large overlap between civilian and military uses. The person selling chemicals does not have to know they’re selling chemicals for military use: Basic precursors have hundreds of uses.
“For the country building the program, it’s like high school chemistry — how simple do you want your ingredients to be?” he added. “How many steps can you take toward a chemical weapon? I think you do have to credit Syria with the ability to assemble a weapon from precursors.”