Chemical Weapons Watchdog Continues Hunt for Syria’s Elusive Nerve Agent
International inspectors find gaping holes in Syria’s chemical weapons declarations, raising concern that Assad may have hidden some of his deadliest warfare agents.
When Syria disclosed its long-secret chemical weapons program in December 2013, it presented international weapons inspectors with a hard-to-swallow story: One of the regime's premier chemical weapons facilities — an underground laboratory on the outskirts of Damascus that was designed to fill Scud missiles with a lethal nerve agent — had never in fact produced Sarin.
When Syria disclosed its long-secret chemical weapons program in December 2013, it presented international weapons inspectors with a hard-to-swallow story: One of the regime’s premier chemical weapons facilities — an underground laboratory on the outskirts of Damascus that was designed to fill Scud missiles with a lethal nerve agent — had never in fact produced Sarin.
The inspectors decided they would have to check for themselves. In three visits to the site, known as Hafir 1, specialists from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons started to believe they had caught Syria lying about the extent of its secret chemical-weapons development.
Samples collected at the site revealed the unmistakable presence of Sarin in the equipment used to mix the banned warfare agent and pour it into Soviet-era Scud or Tochka tactical ballistic missiles. They also betrayed traces of precursors for another, even deadlier nerve agent, VX, that Syria did not initially acknowledge using at the site. More signatures of Sarin were detected in two mobile filling units parked aboveground at the complex.
Repeatedly pressed for answers over the last two-and-a-half years, Syrian officials have offered a series of evolving, and often contradictory, explanations that have only deepened the inspectors’ doubts. Damascus also claimed to have destroyed virtually all original records detailing its development of chemical weapons, making it all all but impossible to verify Syria’s chemical weapons claims.
In a meeting at The Hague with Syrian government officials in April 2016, the OPCW inspectors laid their cards on the table. The samples they collected at Hafir 1 “contain indicators of Sarin and VX, which suggests that chemical weapons may have been produced and weaponized in this facility,” they told the Syrians, according to an account of the exchange in a highly confidential report by the OPCW’s Declaration Assessment Team, or DAT. Foreign Policy has exclusively reviewed the 75-page report.
The inspections at Hafir 1 — which have never been publicly detailed — are part of a wider effort by the world’s chemical weapons watchdog to determine whether Syria has really abided by a high-profile pledge it made three years ago to eliminate, under international supervision, a decades-old program designed to produce large quantities of mustard gas, Sarin, Soman, VX, and other lethal agents.
That agreement, brokered by the United States and Russia and so far seemingly upheld, became the Obama administration’s lone bright spot in the five-odd years of Syrian carnage. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, President Barack Obama said he was “very proud” of his decision to step back from a decision to bomb Syria and take the deal. The removal of Syria’s declared chemical weapons, added Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, constituted “the one ray of light in a very dark region.”
But there’s growing reason to be concerned that Syria hasn’t come fully clean.
While Syria has destroyed the vast majority of its declared weapons program, busting up laboratories and vital production equipment and incinerating more than 1,300 tons of chemical weapons precursors, U.S. and European officials fear that Syria may have retained a limited reserve. Syria’s repeated denials that it ever weaponized nerve agents, in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary, has only reinforced suspicions that Damascus may have retained some chemical weapons as a last line of insurance against a threat by the country’s myriad armed opposition forces and terrorists.
The intensified scrutiny on Syria’s chemical weapons program comes as Syrian forces are again accused of playing dirty. After promising to give up the use of banned chemical weapons as part of the 2013 deal, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has turned to the more common — and still legal to possess — chlorine gas for its chemical arsenal. This month, a U.N.-sanctioned team of experts confirmed that Syria used chlorine in attacks on opposition towns at least twice, while the Islamic State fired artillery shells filled with mustard gas into a contested opposition town. The team is expected to rule soon on whether the Syrian government was responsible for three other chlorine attacks.
The revelations about aspects of Syria’s undeclared chemical weapons program are coming to light as the United States is trying to rally support in the U.N. Security Council for a resolution penalizing Syria for those ongoing chlorine attacks. The United States and its allies are also weighing whether to include a provision that would compel Syria to step up cooperation with the OPCW, including being more transparent about the nature of its work at Hafir 1.
But Western officials have cautioned that Russia, Syria’s primary military backer and a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, is expected to push back on any significant effort to punish or pressure Syria.
The growing accumulation of physical, if not documentary, evidence of a larger-than-declared Syrian weapons program concerns weapons inspectors, because of Syria’s possible future use and what it might confirm about Syria’s alleged past use of the deadly agents.
Early Aug. 21, 2013, Syrian regime forces allegedly launched a barrage of at least a dozen Soviet-era, Sarin-filled, 140mm and 330mm artillery rockets at the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, killing as many as 1,400 people, according to U.S. estimates, and bringing Washington to the brink of military intervention in Syria. It was the largest use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein gassed Halabja in 1988.
There is no doubt that Sarin has been used. In Ghouta, U.N. investigators collected blood, hair, rocket fragments, and soil confirming its presence. But Syria denies having developed a line of artillery munitions capable of delivering a payload of Sarin, including the 140mm or 300mm rockets. The Syrian opposition, they claim, bears responsibility for the attack. Russia has backed that claim, as has the journalist Seymour Hersh in a highly controversial article in the London Review of Books.
But the United States, France, and other outside observers say the evidence points directly at Syria. Damascus has used similar rockets in previous conventional attacks on opposition forces, and it alone has the capability to produce the hundreds of liters of Sarin expended during the attack.
“The rocket that had been used in eastern Ghouta has only been seen in the hands of the government,” said Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch. “It could not have been a backyard operation. The rocket-delivery mechanism has not ever been seen being used by any opposition forces in Syria.”
Regime fingerprints in attacks like the one in Ghouta explain the government’s continued evasiveness about the scope of its chemical weapons program, some experts suggest.
“Clearly they are trying to avoid responsibility for that attack,” said Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University. “Showing the OPCW that they have these munitions is kind of a smoking gun, since the presence of those munitions has been clearly associated with the delivery of [a] nerve agent on a civilian population.”
It was concern over just that possibility of hidden munitions that prompted the OPCW to send a team to home in on the inconsistencies in Syria’s claims in the wake of the 2013 deal. Syria declared that it had produced enough munitions to carry about 315 tons of mustard, Sarin, and VX; they were promptly destroyed. But Syria had produced five times that much precursor — what for, if there were no missiles or shells to pour it into? Syria subsequently admitted building an additional 2,000 aerial bombs for Sarin and VX. But that still left more than 800 tons of surplus chemical weapons precursors.
In 2014, the OPCW established the Declaration Assessment Team to dig into just that. The inspectors collected samples from soil, concrete, and metal scrap in a network of some 28 military and industrial labs and research facilities throughout the country and have had some success.
They found traces of chemical warfare agents at labs run by Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center in Barzah and Jamrayah, facilities that Syria had never declared as chemical weapons sites. The inspectors coaxed Syria into acknowledging plans to weaponize Ricin, a toxin. Damascus at first denied it had, then conceded it experimented with weaponized Ricin on rats, but says it gave up and turned it into a medical research program.
Additionally, Syria acknowledged establishing an underground chemical weapons facility called Al Sayed, about 25 miles west of Homs. It was meant to mix the key ingredients of Sarin — methylphosphonyl difluoride, also known as DF, and isopropanol — and pour them into munitions. But, Syria said, the project was never completed.
On March 27, 2015, international inspectors visited Al Sayed to find out. They collected soil samples and found traces of Sarin’s main ingredients, indicating that “the facility could have been used to weaponize Sarin and VX.”
Pressed, Syria offered varying accounts. One explanation: International sanctions had compelled Syria to cannibalize equipment for Al-Sayed from other chemical weapons laboratories where limited experiments on the warfare agents had been undertaken. Or, the conflict forced Syria to move equipment around the country to prevent opposition fighters and extremists from getting their hands on it. Some traces of the lethal agents may have been tracked in by truck tires transporting material from other sites, the Syrians explained. Or maybe during all the unrest some isopropanol spilled on an old DF stain, Syrians suggested.
Syria’s claims, the report stated, “did not seem scientifically plausible,” the report stated.
Syria then tried another tack. In May 2016, officials in Damascus told inspectors they’d just learned about a top-secret 2005 experiment to combine Sarin and VX in a single explosive. They said the head of Syria’s chemical weapons department carried out a test with a missile warhead. But all it produced was an eruption of the liquid ingredients, a large spill, and a cloud overhead. Maybe that’s where the telltale samples came from, Syria suggested.
But the regime’s officials provided no original documentation describing the alleged test and said the warhead had been subsequently destroyed, making verification impossible.
Photo credit: ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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