Syria exploited loopholes to amass nerve gas

  • New York Times
  • September 7, 2013 - 7:20 PM

– Syria’s top leaders amassed one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons with help from the Soviet Union and Iran, as well as Western European suppliers and even a handful of American companies, according to U.S. diplomatic cables and declassified intelligence records.

While an expanding group of nations banded together in the 1980s to try to block the Syrian effort, prohibiting the sale of goods that would bolster the growing chemical weapons stockpile, the archives show that Syria’s governing Assad family exploited large loopholes, lax enforcement and a far greater international emphasis on limiting the spread of nuclear arms.

Now, as President Obama confronts difficulties in rallying a reluctant Congress and a skeptical world to punish the Syrian government with a military strike over what is said to be its apparent use of deadly nerve agents last month, he appears to be facing a similar challenge to the one that allowed the Assads to accumulate their huge stockpile. While countries around the world condemned Syria for adding to its arsenal as most nations were eliminating their own, few challenged the buildup, and some were eager to profit from it.

“It was frustrating,” recalled Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration. “People tried. There were always other understandably urgent priorities — Iran’s nuclear program, North Korea.”

Zarate, who has written a book about U.S. efforts to crack down on illegal financing for terrorist groups and states, said, “It was an issue that was always there, but never rose to the top of the world’s agenda.”

Proliferation experts said President Bashar Assad of Syria and his father before him, former President Hafez Assad, were helped in their chemical weapons ambitions by a basic underlying fact: often innocuous, legally exportable materials are also the precursors to manufacturing deadly chemical weapons.

Soon after Obama came to office, newly installed officials grew increasingly alarmed by the ease with which Assad was using a network of front companies to import the precursors needed to make VX and sarin, deadly chemical poisons that are internationally banned, according to leaked diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks.

Sarin gas has been identified by the United States as the agent loaded atop small rockets on Aug. 21 and shot into the densely populated suburbs of Damascus, killing more than 1,400 people, according to administration officials.

The growth of Syria’s ability was the subject of a sharply worded secret cable transmitted by the State Department under Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s name in the fall of 2009. It instructed diplomats to “emphasize that failure to halt the flow” of chemicals and equipment into Syria, Iran and North Korea could render irrelevant a group of anti-proliferation countries that organized to stop that flow.

The diplomatic cables and other intelligence documents show that, over time, the two generations of Assads built up a stockpile by creating companies with the appearance of legitimacy, importing chemicals that had many legitimate uses and capitalizing on the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As early as 1991, under the first Bush presidency, a now declassified National Intelligence Estimate concluded that “both Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union provided the chemical agents, delivery systems and training that flowed to Syria.”

But even with such a large stockpile of weapons on hand, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper Jr., reported to Congress earlier this year that Syria “remains dependent on foreign sources for key elements” of its program. That dependence points to an important vulnerability that the West may be able to exploit as it tries to stop Syria from expanding its program.

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