- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Early on Sunday morning, the skies over Damascus lit up with explosions as Israeli jets launched airstrikes near the capital. The target was reportedly the innocuously named Center of Scientific Studies and Research in the suburb of Jamraya, which goes by its French initials CERS.
CERS, according to Western intelligence agencies, is in charge of research and development for Syria’s chemical and biological weapons programs. It has long been on the radar of the Israelis: As far back as 2010, an Israeli general warned that the site "will be demolished" if it continued to transfer weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas, and it was already targeted by a suspected Israeli strike in January. While CERS is an ostensibly civilian agency, it works hand in glove with the Syrian military: In the 1990s, the U.S. Defense Department reported that the Assad regime had set up a production line to manufacture bomblets containing VX nerve agent at an underground site in the same location as CERS’s Damascus facility.
How did CERS acquire the know-how to manufacture such weapons? The crucial period was in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Assad regime researched and acquired sarin gas, which it now stands accused of using in small quantities on its own people. During this period, Syria did not rely on rogue states, or even entirely on its alliance with the Soviet Union, to acquire its chemical weapons stockpile — it simply asked European companies for the technology.
Foreign assistance was of "critical importance in allowing Syria to develop its chemical warfare capability, and …West European firms were instrumental in supplying the required precursor chemicals and equipment," testified then-CIA Director William Webster before Congress in 1989. "Without the provision of these key elements, Damascus would not have been able to produce chemical weapons."
In order to receive European help, Syria exploited gaping loopholes in the Western anti-proliferation regime. President Hafez al-Assad established CERS in 1971 as a civilian agency dedicated to research in unthreatening fields such as solar energy, sewage treatment, and telecommunications. In reality, by the 1980s CERS reported directly to Assad, and the agency director-general was promoted to the rank of cabinet minister. CERS’s true aim was to scour Europe for dual-use technology that could bolster its chemical weapons program.
The Assad regime was massively successful. CERS received financial support to purchase equipment from the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO, and it sent its engineers for training at the French government’s official research agency, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). Until the early 1990s, the French government was actively encouraging French high-tech companies to do business with CERS, according to a 1992 report by Middle East Defense News (Mednews).
European companies, rather than inquiring about how their sensitive technology would be used, looked to make a quick profit by providing CERS with whatever it desired. In the mid-1980s, the West German company Schott Glasswerke provided high-durability glass instruments for what the Syrians dubbed the "Borosilicate Glass Project" — but which was, in reality, a project to manufacture sarin gas. According to Mednews, over a dozen major German companies also supplied CERS with sensitive hardware.
By 1992, Europe had wised up to the military research being conducted by CERS — but the damage had already been done. The Assad regime had already acquired stockpiles of sarin gas and potentially VX nerve agent. These same weapons are now causing headaches for governments across the globe: Israel’s recent strike allegedly targeted ballistic missiles bound for Hezbollah, and one reason Jerusalem acted so aggressively is no doubt because it fears Assad could enable the Lebanese militant group to launch chemical weapon-tipped missiles.
But even while Syria’s chemical weapons program was advancing, some European officials knew that something was not quite right. "Every day I sign off on export licenses," Mednews quoted a senior French licensing official as saying, "and I wonder whether I have not just signed my resignation."