Syria Chemical Weapon Update – 1997

In February 1997, CIA Director George Tenet had little trouble telling Congress that Syria was among those countries that “have or are actively developing chemical and biological weapons.” Syria is considered to have one of the most advanced chemical weapon programs in the Arab world. Mated with its fleet of ‘Scud’ ballistic missiles, Syria’s chemical weapons have become a significant threat to Israel.

According to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Syria began developing an offensive chemical warfare program in the early 1970s “as a result of a perceived Israeli threat.” Syria reportedly received its first chemical weapons from Egypt before the 1973 October War. Then, according to the CIA, Syria mounted its own chemical warfare program in the mid-1980s. Syria’s efforts have been located at the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Scientifiques (CERS) in Damascus.

In 1990, the DIA reported that Syria had developed the nerve agent Sarin for use in 500kg aerial bombs and Scud B missile warheads. And in 1993, the DIA reported that Syria had developed aerial bombs and missile warheads for chemical agents and that there were two known chemical weapon depots: The Khan Abu Shamat Depot and the Furqlus Depot. In its most recent annual report to Congress, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency stated that “it is highly probable that Syria is developing an offensive biological warfare capability.”

Syria’s chemical arms have set off alarms in Israel, which has accused Syria recently of producing lethal VX nerve gas. In November 1996, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai told the press: “We know Syria [has] increased its production capacity, particularly that of VX….” Mordechai repeated the charge in May 1997, when he confirmed newspaper reports that he had discussed the matter with U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen.

Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and has signed but not ratified the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention.

Foreign assistance

Syria’s chemical weapon effort has relied heavily on foreign help. Former CIA Director William Webster testified in 1989 that “West European firms were instrumental in supplying the required precursor chemicals and equipment. Without the provision of these key elements, Damascus would not have been able to produce chemical weapons.” In the mid 1980s, the German firm Schott Glasswerke sold corrosion-resistant glass laboratory equipment to a Damascus research institute/production plant. While Schott officials insisted they did not know the purpose of the equipment, U.S. officials believe that it was destined to be used in the production of sarin nerve gas.

In 1993, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) determined that the Soviet Union had played an instrumental role in developing Syria’s chemical weapon defensive capability but had provided no direct assistance to Syria’s offensive program. However, in 1996, Lieutenant General Patrick M. Hughes, Director of the DIA, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that a high Russian official, Anatoli Kuntsevich, “was implicated in a program to sell chemical weapons-related chemicals to Syria.” Kuntsevich was formerly in charge of the destruction of the Soviet chemical weapon production complex, but was sacked by Russian President Boris Yeltsin in April 1994 for “numerous and gross violations.” Hughes also noted that “it is unclear whether [Kuntsevich was removed]…..due to his proliferation activities.”

In November 1995, the U.S. Department of State determined that Kuntsevich had “engaged in chemical weapons proliferation activities” and imposed sanctions, prohibiting him from conducting business with the United States for at least one year. Kuntsevich has reportedly admitted that “shipments of small amounts” to Syria did occur, but he stressed that they were approved by the Russian government. The Russian foreign ministry has denied involvement in the sale of chemical weapons to Syria.

In late 1996, Defense News reported that Israeli officials at the December 1996 meeting of the U.S.-Israeli joint Political Military Group claimed that Russian scientists were helping Syria with the production of chemical and biological weapons, including sarin and VX nerve gases and anthrax. The Jerusalem Post reported that Israel has received intelligence reports for over two years that Syria had obtained the Russian version of VX.

In its 1993 report on Syria’s chemical weapon program, the DIA concluded that Syria would continue to produce chemical weapons, and that it would continue to require outside sources for equipment and precursor chemicals. Recent events and statements by Syrian officials indicate that this trend is continuing with no sign of abating.