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.