With the World Watching, Syria Amassed Nerve Gas
NY TIMESBy DAVID E. SANGER, ANDREW W. LEHREN and RICK GLADSTONE
Published: September 7, 2013
WASHINGTON — 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 American 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 enormous 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,” Juan C. Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism in the George W. Bush administration, recalled Friday.
“People tried. There were always other understandably urgent priorities — Iran’s nuclear program, North Korea,” said Mr. Zarate, who has written a book about American efforts to crack down on illegal financing for terrorist groups and states including Syria, Iran and North Korea. “It was an issue that was always there, but never rose to the top of the world’s agenda.”
Proliferation experts said President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his father before him, former President Hafez al-Assad, were greatly 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 Mr. Obama came to office, newly installed officials grew increasingly alarmed by the ease with which Mr. 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, the antisecrecy group.
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 antiproliferation countries that organized to stop that flow.
The cable was included in a trove of State Department messages leaked to WikiLeaks in 2010.
Another leaked State Department cable on the Syrians asserted that “part of their modus operandi is to hide procurement under the guise of legitimate pharmaceutical or other transactions.”
Publicly, American officials contend that they have done much since then to limit the flow of raw materials that feed Syria’s chemical weapons industry, in particular Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center, which has been identified as a principal government enterprise for weapons development. Israel struck a missile convoy outside the center in January, American intelligence officials have said, on suspicions that weapons were headed for delivery to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“For several years, the Treasury Department, working with our partners across the U.S. government, has taken steps to expose and disrupt the Syrian regime’s W.M.D. proliferation activities,” David S. Cohen, the Treasury under secretary in charge of sanctions, said in an e-mailed statement. “We will continue to use all of our authorities to undermine the Syrian government’s W.M.D. proliferation efforts within Syria as well as around the world.”
The diplomatic cables and other intelligence documents show that, over time, the two generations of Assads built up a huge 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. A Russian general responsible for dismantling old Soviet chemical weapons, who died a decade ago, was identified by a colleague as the man who helped the Syrian government establish its chemical weapons program.