Journalism in the Public Interest

Where Did Syria’s Chemical Weapons Come From?

There is intriguing evidence pointing at long-ago help from Moscow, and help from Western European countries.


The Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, north of Damascus, is considered to be where Syrias chemical weapons program was planned and developed. (Google, DigitalGlobe)

In the wake of a recent Russian-U.S. deal averting American airstrikes, Syria has begun to answer questions about its chemical weapons stockpile. One thing inspectors don’t have the mandate to ask is where those weapons came from in the first place. But evidence already out there suggests Syria got crucial help from Moscow and Western European companies.

When Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was asked recently about the origins of Syria’s chemical weapons, he said, “Well, the Russians supply them.“ Hagel’s spokesman George Little quickly walked back that statement, saying Hagel was simply referring to Syria’s conventional weapons. Syria’s  chemical weapons program, Little explained, is “largely indigenous."

But declassified intelligence documents suggest Hagel, while mistakenly suggesting the support was ongoing, was at least pointing his finger in the right direction.

A Special National Intelligence Estimate dated Sept. 15, 1983, lists Syria as a “major recipient of Soviet CW [Chemical Weapons] assistance.” Both “Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union provided the chemical agents, delivery systems, and training that flowed to Syria.” “As long as this support is forthcoming,” the 1983 document continues,” there is no need for Syria to develop an indigenous capability to produce CW agents or materiel, and none has been identified.”

Soviet support was also mentioned, though with less details, in another intelligence estimate dated Feb. 2, 1982. That report muses about the U.S.S.R.’s motivation for exporting chemical weapons to Syria and other countries. The Kremlin saw gas as useful for allies fighting against insurgencies: For the countries that had actually used it in combat – Kampuchea, Laos, Afghanistan and Yemen - the authors conclude that the Soviet Union saw it as a way of “breaking the will and resistance of stubborn guerrilla forces operating from relatively inaccessible protected sanctuaries.”

The 1982 report goes on to say: “The Soviets probably reasoned that attainment of these objectives – as quickly and cheap as possible – justified use of chemical weapons and outweighed a small risk of exposure and international condemnation.” Last week, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that intelligence sources in the country are convinced blueprints for four of the five Syrian poison gas plants came from Moscow.

Evidence gathered from what we now know was a sarin attack last month is also suggestive. According to an investigation by Human Rights Watch, one of the weapons used in the attack was “a Soviet-produced 140mm rocket.” Meanwhile, the UN’s own report shows a picture of Cyrillic letters on the remnants of the rocket.

It’s impossible to know the exact extent of Soviet and Russian help. U.S. intelligence was not particularly focused on the Syrian program, says Gary Crocker, a proliferation specialist at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the 1970s and 1980s. Most analysts did not know much about its program: “Detailed information on the Syrian program was only accessible to very high level intelligence officials,” Crocker said.

There are also indications that the Soviets grew increasingly uneasy with Syria’s ability to deliver the deadly gas by long-range missile. Concerned about Syria’s buildup, the head of the Soviet chemical warfare corps, General Vladimir Pikalov,flew to Syria in 1988. According to reports from the time, he decided against supplying the country with SS-23 missiles, which would have been able to deliver poison gas deep into Israel.

But the Soviets don’t appear to be the only ones who provided some help.

“Soviets provided the initial setup, then the Syrians became quite proficient at it. Later, German companies came in,” Crocker said.

As then- CIA director William Webster said in Senate testimony back in 1989: “West European firms were instrumental in supplying the required precursor chemicals and equipment.” Asked why the companies did it, Webster answered: “Some, of course, are unwitting of the ultimate destination of the products they supply, others are not. In the latter case, I can only surmise that greed is the explanation.”

Indeed, Syria received precursor chemicals from the West until well into the last decade. Last week, the German government acknowledged that between 2002 and 2006, it had approved  the export to Syria of more than 100 tons of so-called dual-use chemicals. Among the substances were hydrogen fluoride, which can be used to make Teflon,  and also sarin. The exports were allowed under the condition that Syria would only use them for civilian purposes. The British government also recently acknowledged exports of dual-use chemicals to Syria.

Both the British and German governments said there’s no evidence the chemicals were used to make weapons.

It’s not the first time Germany may have turned a blind eye to potentially dangerous trade. In the 1980s, for instance, German and French companies were crucial in building poison gas plants in Iraq and Libya . Stricter export controls in Europe were only installed after a web of companies that supplied the chemical weapons programs in the Middle East was exposed in the late 1980s. The New York Times embarrassed the German government by revealing the connection between German company Imhausen-Chemie and a Libyan poison gas plant in Rabta. (Times columnist William Safire German later called the plant “ Auschwitz-in-the-sand.”)

In the following years, German authorities indicted more than 150 managers of companies involved in Saddam Hussein’s program, which he had used to kill thousands of Kurds. According to one report, from the late ‘90s, more than half of the proceedings were stopped. Most of those that went to trial were acquitted or paid fines, a handful received jail time.

Just how deeply were German companies involved in Syria’s program? We may never know.  A long-ago proposal by the German Green party to install a fact-finding commission to comprehensively investigate the web of German companies supplying Middle Eastern states – and government knowledge of these exports - was voted down by all other parties in parliament.

I’m SHOCKED - SHOCKED that Islamic regimes confound our Leftist administration with a WMD lend-lease program.  Didn’t they say President Bush (and Iraqi Air Force General Georges Sada) lied?

Stephanie Palmer

Sep. 25, 2013, 4 p.m.

Kind of like Donald Rumsfield selling chemical weapons to Iraq. Wherever money is to be made, the powers that be will always permit the sale of just about anything.

A British Company sold precursor chemicals to Syria just 6 months ago and have been called before Parliament to answer for it. The article failed to mention which Syrians it sold to; the government or the ‘rebels’.
Other information I’ve read talks about chemical weapons as a deterrent to the nuclear arsenal of Israel being the primary reason Syria has them. There is no proof Syria has or Russia have used these weapons in the way described in this article.

There are other sources not mentioned in the article. Two other places where chemical weapons were stock piled - Libya and Iraq. What happened to these Chemical Weapons? Iraq’s went to Assad’s Syria just before Gulf War Two. Libya’s went to the rebels. If you remember that the CIA had boots on the ground during our bombing and want to destroy various stock piles. The Obama administration said no. So the US indirectly provided chemical weapons to the Syrian rebels which have significant ties to terrorism.

Most people understand the futility of “hide the penny” before kindergarten - it’s amazing that our administration is so befuddled by the game.

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

Sep. 25, 2013, 9:07 p.m.

The “rebels” have captured a lot of the stockpiles that the government had in place, for defence against who knows what. In a country as large and diverse as Syria, they need defence. Their bordering countries have felt the aggression of the Kings in the past. Syria is a country that has been in existance for thousands of years, under the same name even.

Chemical weapons are hard to control, just as biological weapons are.

Looks as if the weapons are really not the major concern here, instead, I would look at the cause of the “rebels”. Funny how the media is cheerleader for “rebels” and wants to destroy “insurgents”.

It will be interesting to see who the US wants to attack next. Our war machine is hungry for the soon to be worthless dollars. Our leadership seems to be good at employing people in the armaments industry through executive orders. Let’s see if we can get another act of war past congress while they are engauged elsewhere and the country is distracted by the Kardasians and Miley Cyrus.

I Feel they came from Iraq remember the Smoking Gun, Russia and hard to belief the ??????  The Stock piles in Afghanistan got orders from BO not to destroy God Bless America

It is interesting how the focus of the article is on the former Soviet Union and so little about England.

Fiscal Conservative

Sep. 26, 2013, 3:48 a.m.

We need not get involved.  This is not our fight.  We don’t need another war.

Hermann Helmholtz

Sep. 26, 2013, 9:26 a.m.

I don;t think the chemical weapons were really the main objective of the US administration. They actually came in the way.

The administration have been drawing the Syrian regime in the same colors as the regime of Saddam Hussein since 2011. It seemed a convenient way to demonize it, as we do any regime which we do not own in the Third World. 

Along this line the administration let itself be carried away in its own game, and the “Red Line” came out as an excuse for not intervening in Syria despite the heated statements by the White House spokesman and that of the State Department, and the orgy of “bleak reports” from Syria in the press, TV and radio.

I do not believe for a moment that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in combat. That was done by the Saudi-supported armed groups. But the Syrian regime succeeded in using chemical weapons in inflicting a defeat of the administration, trapped in its own propaganda and “Red Line.”

Today, the president of Russia is an international deal-maker, if not peace-maker. The US appears as a result hesitant, irresolute, divided and is led by confused characters who are not sure what to do next!

Talking about the European source of the raw materials is like milling water. Of course “precursor chemicals” came from Europe - just as they arrive, to this day in Israel, where the stockpile is still growing.
I would even suggest that US suppliers are engaged too in such deliveries.

Chemical weapons killed 524 people in Syria, but 100,000 others died by conventional ones!

Anything for a buck!

Thomas E. Duggan

Sep. 26, 2013, 11:33 a.m.

Virtually all data collected by the CIA and less official federal spying apparatus before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 has been shown to be notoriously shoddy, in some cases mere fantasy and generally unreliable. The early to mid-1980’s information in this piece is virtually meaningless and, if any effort and money was expended in its collection, simply a waste. Articles like this must contain much more timely information to be useful and relevant.

I’m not a fan of Israeli Intelligence agencies, but you can bank on them knowing exactly where virtually every multi-use chemical, plans for plants and equipment and manufacturing equipment itself has originated in the last 20 years. Ask them.

Not that this isn’t important, too, but two years ago when Marie Colvin died, everybody was pretty sure that the Syrians tracked her phone signal and blew up the hotel.  But nobody asked where that technology came from and the few officials who cared were happy with the Syrian government conclusion that she was killed by an IED filled with nails.

Also, can we make an obvious point here that a lot of this chemical weapon debate is largely theatrics?  I don’t want to diminish the deaths, by any means, but taking a year to disassemble the weapons is pretty much useless, if we’re to believe the prevailing theory that the weapons are sarin.

Sarin generally doesn’t last more than a few weeks before degrading, unless very high-quality materials are used in manufacture.  By the end of the year, there won’t be anything left to dismantle except for some shells and harmless residue.  We need to find the current, non-hypothetical source and dismantle that.  “Maybe it was the Russians” doesn’t cut it as anything better than propaganda.

And as Hermann points out, do we not care about the people dying by other means?

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

Sep. 26, 2013, 1:47 p.m.

Stange how so many missions are called “humanitarian”.

If this was true, we would have hospital ships offshore rather than missile ship batteries.

Mr. Shahislam

Sep. 27, 2013, 3:08 a.m.

Wise ones can note a few good points indicated by Mr. John as matters of eternal facts! 
The past is gone and now no big deals are issues relating to weapons of all kinds.
We -the wise heads in this century can make sure at this very moment that for the next thousand years ‘No brutal minded thugs in the disguise of state-heads, royals, businessmen of law, politics etc.’ shall be able to misuse natural power vacuum anymore in dark-age-styles.
Because of our current US Administration’s good job and therefore, embarrassment created by wisdom of new generation global folks; Putin, Netanyahu, Markel type heads wouldn’t even dream anymore tomorrow to produce and sell such bomb-materials including those of nukes, leaving royal-type war-mongers on the verge of extinction like dangerous animals.

Now we -the nonviolent minded, wise guys should feel less worried about ingredients, threat and makers of bombs after reading this theory: “Bury them soonest, as chemicals do not come from outside of our self sufficient world, they will dissolve fast into and remain underneath the earth where they safely belonged to earlier from the cosmic beginning of creation.

Back to the point: The power-vacuum is now in the hands of ordinary ‘Folks of Wisdom’ and It’s going to be ‘Brutal war and weapon’ -free world for up coming global generations!

It can be made sure: At least until 2020, Biden-Barack continue what have been started and V. Putin(s), Hassan R(s) etc. become our friends and not servants of super-wealthy-thugs 200 /2000 (SWTs in disguise like Assad(s), Emir(s), King(s), Queen(s), Businessmen of Oil. Gun, Law etc. that, still in today’s time of digital transparency, keeps humanity’s sufferings continuous only because of greed of too much wealth and power)

As opposed to the Iraqi chemical weapons which were made with US chemicals.

Brian Anderson

Oct. 14, 2013, 10:46 a.m.

Follow the $. Doesn’t really matter. Who used them? The cia? Hillery’s comment about “crossing the line” was a hint: an excuse to invade Syria later.

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

Oct. 16, 2013, 7:40 a.m.

Mr. ShahIslam:
I’ve been reading your comments for a while now, and have visited your website.

I want you to know that we have no fear of you in my part of the country. We have no fear of your leaders. We have no fear of our leaders, either. If things get very ugly, as I assume they will in our country when your leadership finishes crashing the US dollar and wrecking our country those that are of your faith will suffer at the hands of those of my faith.

Be careful of what you wish for, you just might get it.

Mr Bicycle, It may very well be that (Evangelical) Christians and (Radical) Muslims well be killing each other, members of their own faith, members of ANY other faith. I presume you from the south.

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

Oct. 16, 2013, 10:08 p.m.

Why would you presume I am from the south, Mr. Mac Geough?

I was accused of being a troll on this website one time.

Mr Bicycle, I worked in the south for a while “ my part of the country” was an often used phrase. Referring to a select area of the nation as a whole RE: The Confederacy.

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

Oct. 18, 2013, 8:52 a.m.

Thank you Mr. Mac Geough. You have made my day. Some of my ancestors fought on the side of the Confederacy.

This does not make me a hater of anyone. There were nineteen slaves that got off the ship at Jamestown, in the early years of the european invasion of this land. The black peoples of the world helped build this nation as it is today. I salute those great men, George Washington Carver, Brooker T. Washington, and many many others. These, along with Tesla, Edison, Westinghouse, Alexander Graham Bell, Samuel Morse. These men believed in bettering yourself through education, not indoctrination.

I will not stand by and allow be idle when my nation needs me. I will not advocate the overthrow of our rights. With sixteen years of total ineffective leadership, we will be fortuneate to recognize our nation when the Islamist movement gets finished with us.

Funny thing is, you don’t hear of people retiring, and moving up north :)

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

Oct. 18, 2013, 9 a.m.

If you want to discover a dedicated man, suggested reading is that of George Washington Carver. There is a statue but a few miles away from where I sit now, that students pass by every day and never grasp the meaning of. All men could use this man as a role model and become better men.

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