According to a United Nations report, sarin gas has been used in Syria, likely killing hundreds of civilians. The UN could not determine which side used the gas; but it’s clear that any chemical weapons available for use in Syria must have been acquired and stockpiled by the Syrian government. (It’s conceivable that the opposition has had time to establish import channels, but highly unlikely.) So the question arises, how did the Syrian government get those weapons or the chemical precursors and know-how needed to manufacture them?
A recent report by the Congressional Research Service, based on US intelligence estimates, concluded that, while “Damascus has sought a self-sufficient chemical weapons program since the mid-1980s”, it “has apparently not yet achieved this goal.” This means that Syria must have accumulated its chemical weapons, or obtained the wherewithal to manufacture them, via holes in the international export control regimes designed to prevent that.
Syria began stockpiling chemical weapons long before the Chemical Weapons Convention went into effect in 1997. Egypt provided a small supply during the lead-up to the Yom Kippur War in 1973. In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union supplied Syria with chemical agents, delivery systems and training related to weapons use. Syria is also likely to have gotten equipment and precursor chemicals in that time frame from private companies, especially Germany – whose then-lax controls are blamed for its companies’ heavy involvement in construction of a large weaponizing plant in Libya.
While Germany subsequently tightened its controls, it recently acknowledged that it had approved deliveries of more than 100 tons of chemical precursors to Syria between 2002 and 2006; and the Brits likewise admitted that they had authorized sales of sodium fluoride – essential in the manufacture of sarin – to Syrian companies between 2004 and 2010. But the Brits insisted the amounts permitted were consistent with commercial uses, for manufacture of such mundane items as toothpaste. And the Germans maintained that there is no evidence that the chemicals they sent ever made it into weapons. Of course, there’s no evidence that they weren’t diverted, either.
The most intriguing theory, at least among apologists for the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, is the notion that Saddam Hussein shipped his stockpiles to Syria during the run-up to invasion. John Giorkas has ably collected supporting evidence at mic.com; but even he admits that:
Truthfully, we’ll probably never know where these chemical weapons now being used in the Syrian civil war originated from. I also concede that all we have to go on are second-hand eye witness accounts and sources as well as a lot of hearsay and conjecture for which no amount of intelligence gathering from 10 years ago can now prove beyond a shadow of a doubt.
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