Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile is reported to be one of the largest in the Middle East. According to a study prepared by French intelligence agencies, Damascus is understood to possess over 1,000 tons of chemical agents and precursors. This stockpile is thought to include several tens of tons of VX, several hundred tons of mustard agents, and several hundred tons of sarin. The Washington Post reports that the majority of the initial substances for Syria’s VX and sarin are stored separately, not in their mixed, final form.
The U.N. mission that investigated the August 21st chemical attack in the Ghouta area of Damascus concluded that sarin was the nerve agent employed, although it did not indicate who was responsible. The U.S. government has stated flatly that the attack was launched by Syrian government forces.The U.N. mission also found that the attack was made with artillery rockets. The investigators found evidence pointing to a variant of the M14 artillery rocket as well as to the 330 mm caliber artillery rocket.
In addition to artillery rockets, Syria’s arsenal of chemical-capable delivery vehicles includes missiles and aerial bombs. French intelligence agencies report that Syria’s chemical-capable missiles include the SS-21 short-range ballistic missile as well as several variants of the SCUD ballistic missile, including the SCUD-B and the SCUD-C.
The U.S.-Russian Agreed Framework and Syria’s CW Infrastructure
Despite the size of Syria’s stockpile, and its recent use against civilians, developments since the August 21st attack have been encouraging. In September, the United States and Russia jointly developed a framework for destroying the stockpile. The framework calls for eliminating the stockpile “in the first half of 2014,” as well as for the “unfettered right” of inspectors to examine any location in Syria. These points were incorporated into a UN Security Council resolution on Syria adopted on September 27th.
The challenges facing the inspectors will nevertheless be considerable. Inspectors will need to work in the midst of a volatile civil war while trying to determine where throughout the country the weapons have been dispersed. In order to accomplish this task, they will require the close cooperation of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), which built and oversees the stockpile.
According to the U.S. government, the SSRC is responsible for both the development and production of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons, and for their delivery vehicles. According to the Wall Street Journal, the SSRC’s elite Unit 450 has spent months scattering Syria’s CW munitions across the country to as many as 50 sites in an effort to protect them from possible U.S. attack. A report released recently by the Los Angeles Times puts the total number of storage and production sites at roughly 45. While the Syrian government’s cooperation so far has been encouraging, the number of sites underscores the need for vigilance as inspectors carry out their mission. Furthermore, it is still not clear how deep the inspectors will go into the SSRC’s procurement operation, which is discussed below.
Origins of Syria’s CW Program and the Current Procurement Operation
Declassified U.S. intelligence documents indicate that before 1983, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia provided Syria with chemical agents, delivery systems, and relevant training. By the mid-1980s, Syria had begun a quest for self-sufficiency, according to a study by the Congressional Research Service. However, U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Syria’s CW effort is still not self-sufficient, and that it relies on “foreign sources for key elements of its CW program, including precursor chemicals.”
The SSRC is in charge of procuring these elements, using front companies and subsidiaries to do so. Below is a list compiled by the Wisconsin Project of entities reported to be linked to procurements on behalf of the SSRC. The list is not comprehensive:
Expert Partners. Listed by the European Union as a “proxy” for the SSRC; deals in dual-use goods prohibited by the EU to Syria.
Megatrade. Listed by the European Union as a “proxy” for the SSRC; deals in dual-use goods prohibited by the EU to Syria.
Handasieh General Organization Engineering Industries. Listed by the United States as acting on behalf of the SSRC; linked to the SSRC’s efforts to acquire equipment and technology for SCUD missiles.
Business Lab. Listed by the United States as acting on behalf of the SSRC, and as attempting to procure pinacolyl alcohol, which can be used to prepare a nerve agent; listed by the European Union as a front company for the SSRC for the acquisition of sensitive equipment.
Industrial Solutions. Listed by the United States as acting on behalf of the SSRC; listed by the European Union as a front company for the SSRC for the acquisition of sensitive equipment.
Mechanical Construction Factory (MCF). Listed by the United States as acting on behalf of the SSRC, and as acquiring equipment for producing solid propellant for rockets and missiles; listed by the European Union as a front company for the SSRC for the acquisition of sensitive equipment.
Higher Institute for Applied Sciences and Technology (HIAST). An SSRC subsidiary, HIAST provides training to SSRC engineers; it has also played a minor role in SSRC procurement in the past.
Environmental Studies Center (ESC). Intended recipient of chemical detection equipment and coats for chemical protection shipped from North Korea; “appears to be linked” to HIAST, according to U.N. experts.
Further investigation of these and other SSRC affiliates will provide important insight into how Syria developed its chemical weapons stockpile.