The World May Never Know if Syria Really Destroyed All Its Chemical Weapons

Syria’s mustard gas program leaves behind a trail of contradictions, discrepancies, and unanswered questions.

IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 27: A Syrian boy receives treatment at a local hospital following a suspected chlorine gas attack by Asad regime forces in Jebel ez Zawiye, Idlib, Syria on April 27, 2015. (Photo by Firas Taki/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 27: A Syrian boy receives treatment at a local hospital following a suspected chlorine gas attack by Asad regime forces in Jebel ez Zawiye, Idlib, Syria on April 27, 2015. (Photo by Firas Taki/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Twelve years ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government embarked on a top-secret mission to produce large batches of mustard gas, a crude World War I-era blister agent that Syria manufactured as part of a broader chemical weapons deterrent against militarily superior enemies, including Israel.

Between 2004 and 2007, Syria made some 385 metric tons of sulfur mustard, enough to fill thousands of artillery shells. But Syria has admitted to building only 15 Scud missiles capable of delivering 5 to 6 metric tons of the chemical agent, leaving a yawning gap that has left weapons inspectors questioning whether Syria may have retained a stockpile of tactical chemical munitions it has never acknowledged. That’s the conclusion of a highly confidential, 75-page report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reviewed exclusively by Foreign Policy.

Syria’s claims raised a number of red flags. The OPCW’s inspectors, as members of the watchdog’s Declarations Assessment Team (DAT), initially expressed skepticism over Syria’s claim that it only intended to fill Scud missiles with sulfur mustard; the blister agent “is most effectively delivered through small-caliber [tactical] munitions,” including artillery projectiles and battlefield rockets, they noted, not through medium-range missiles.

“The discrepancy between the amount of sulfur mustard produced and the capacity of its designated munitions could indicate that some munitions and/or delivery means for sulfur mustard have not been declared,” the DAT report stated.

The United States and its allies also expressed alarm over the potential for hidden Syrian stockpiles of forbidden weapons.

“Syria has engaged in a calculated campaign of intransigence and obfuscation, of deception, and of defiance,” Kenneth Ward, the U.S. representative to the OPCW, said at a meeting of the group’s executive council in July. “We … remain very concerned that [the chemical warfare agents] and associated munitions, subject to declaration and destruction, have been illicitly retained by Syria.”

The Assad regime claims it destroyed almost all the munitions. Syria said Branch 450, a secret military department responsible for filling chemical munitions, destroyed the vast majority of the stockpile — some 365 metric tons’ worth of sulfur mustard — in May 2012, about two months before Syria publicly acknowledged for the first time the existence of its chemical weapons program. The remaining 20 metric tons were disposed of under U.N. supervision after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brokered a deal in September 2013 to eliminate the country’s remaining chemical weapons.

International inspectors have since confirmed through sampling that Syria did destroy mustard gas at four sites. But without an international team on the ground, the OPCW has been unable to verify the precise quantities of sulfur mustard destroyed, leaving open the possibility that the country kept more of the agent than it has let on.

And Syria has provided insufficient evidence to back up either of its claims. In April 2014, the Assad regime informed the DAT inspectors that it had destroyed most of the original documents related to its chemical weapons program to keep them from falling into the hands of anti-government armed opposition groups. The absence of original documentation on Syria’s chemical weapons program “has been a major barrier in corroborating much of the information provided by” the Assad government, wrote OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu in the confidential summary.

The discrepancy in Syria’s mustard gas inventory is only one of more than a dozen big mysteries surrounding the country’s chemical weapons program. Although the OPCW has confirmed the destruction of well over 90 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons program, there remain serious questions over Damascus’s claims that it has eliminated all its chemical weapons munitions, as well as precursors of deadly agents, including ricin, and nerve agents such as sarin, VX, and soman, according to the classified report. The chemical weapons inspectors suggest that without a dramatic improvement in Syrian cooperation, the world may never know for certain just how many toxic, nerve, and blister agents the Assad regime may have squirreled away. “A significant amount of time and effort has already been expended in order to resolve the outstanding issue enumerated in this report,” Uzumcu wrote in a two-page summary of the DAT paper. “A continuation of this effort without a change of approach by the Syrian Arab Republic to resolve all the outstanding issues related to its declaration is unlikely to yield concrete results.”

The DAT report, which was shared with members of the OPCW in July, provides an extraordinary glimpse into the history of a chemical weapons program kept secret for almost four decades. In late 1973, Syria established a secret agency, called Section 3600, to carry out research and development, production trials, and laboratory work on chemical weapons. The unit began a large-scale operation to procure chemical precursors abroad during the 1980s, according to a declassified report made by French intelligence. The program was primarily focused on generating highly lethal nerve agents, including sarin and VX. But Syria turned to the production of the more pedestrian sulfur mustard in 2004 as it struggled to acquire the raw materials needed to churn out nerve agents, according to the DAT report.

The current tussle to pin down the Syrian program evokes memories of the U.N. effort to disarm Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein of his chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs following the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s. Saddam secretly ordered the destruction of vast quantities of chemical and biological weapons in the Iraqi desert in the summer of 1991, making it virtually impossible to verify that the weapons allegedly incinerated had ever in fact been eliminated.

“We’ve seen part of this movie before; this is exactly the same kind of logic trail we went through in Iraq,” said Charles Duelfer, a veteran U.N weapons inspector who went on to head the landmark CIA study that declared Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction a figment of the imagination of George W. Bush’s administration.

“From what you describe, it sounds like there are bigger gaps in [the OPCW’s] ability to verify Syria’s declarations than we had with respect to Iraq,” Duelfer said.

U.N. inspectors also had far greater coercive powers to compel Baghdad to cooperate, backed by the constant threat of U.S. and British jets. In contrast, OPCW inspectors must seek Syria’s consent to disclose its full chemical weapons program. And the U.N. Security Council is unlikely to pressure Damascus to cooperate: The United States and Russia remain sharply divided over Syria.

Duelfer cautioned, however, that Iraq showed that misleading or inconsistent declarations don’t necessarily mean there is a hidden weapons program. He said one of the greatest mistakes America’s intelligence agencies made was to assume that because Iraq lied about the status of its weapons program — which it did — it meant the country was hiding those weapons. It wasn’t.

On one occasion, Duelfer recalled, the Iraqi government claimed to have buried a large batch of anthrax in the desert. The Iraqis directed the weapons inspectors to the spot where the deadly agent could be found — but when they got there, they found nothing. Years later, Duelfer interviewed the official responsible for burying the anthrax. He acknowledged lying — but not for the reason the inspectors thought. He had in fact buried the anthrax at another location, which was perilously close to one of Saddam’s presidential palaces; he was afraid he’d be executed if the Iraqi leader found out.

Duelfer said the large gap in Syria’s declaration of stores of mustard gas and munitions should rightly send up a red flag. But he cautioned against ruling out the possibility that Syria might be telling the truth and that the producers of excessive quantities of mustard gas simply made as much of the blister gas as their resources allowed.

“I think perfection, in terms of their declaration and resolution of every discrepancy, may not be a realistic goal. But we can get more to the bottom of this than we are now,” Rebecca Hersman, an expert on weapons of mass destruction at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told FP.

Governments, she said, should pursue “incremental improvements” in the world’s understanding of the program, and press the Syrians “to give better explanations for what they are turning up or not. There is a lot of room to go before we have hit the brick wall.”

Syria agreed in September 2013 to scrap its entire chemical weapons program, including tons of sulfur mustard. The move was a bid to avert threatened U.S. and French airstrikes, planned in response to Damascus’s alleged use of chemical weapons a month earlier — U.S. President Barack Obama’s famous “red line.” The deal, brokered with the help of Russia, led to the elimination of more than 90 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons, including the removal of 1,300 tons of chemical agents.

But the United States and its European allies suspect Syria may have retained remnants of the program that could be used against its own people or its neighbors, including Israel and Turkey.

Syria initially attributed the gap in munitions to “bad planning and the secretive nature of the chemical weapons program.” The teams producing munitions, Syria explained, didn’t know how much mustard gas was being produced. But the regime couldn’t back up its story with any documentary evidence.

And its accounts of the program have been shifting over time. For instance, Syria initially claimed that only Scuds would be used for mustard gas. But Damascus subsequently acknowledged filling 113 modified hydrogen fluoride cylinders — devices typically used by insurgents to produce ground explosives — with purified sulfur mustard. But Syria said it never tested the cylinders, let alone used them in battle. Damascus also conducted tests with at least two M400 bombs filled with sulfur mustard. But regime officials insisted they never filled tactical munitions, including artillery shells, with mustard gas for use on the battlefield.

Photo credit: Anadolu Agency/Contributor

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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