Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-AssadAFP photo

Syria’s leaders amassed one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons with help from the Soviet Union and Iran, as well as Western European suppliers and even a handful of American companies, American diplomatic cables and declassified intelligence records reveal, according to the New York Times.

According to the report that was published over the weekend, while an expanding group of nations banded together in the 1980s to try to block the Syrian effort, prohibiting the sale of goods that would bolster the growing chemical weapons stockpile, the archives show that Syria’s governing Assad family exploited large loopholes, lax enforcement and a far greater international emphasis on limiting the spread of nuclear arms.

Now, as President Barack Obama confronts enormous difficulties in rallying Congress and a skeptical world to punish the Syrian government with a military strike over what is said to be its apparent use of deadly nerve agents last month, he appears to be facing a similar challenge to the one that allowed the Assads to accumulate their huge stockpile in the first place, according to the newspaper.

While countries around the world condemned Syria for adding to its arsenal as most nations were eliminating their own, few challenged the buildup, and some were eager to profit from it.

Proliferation experts said President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria and his father before him, former President Hafez Al-Assad, were greatly helped in their chemical weapons ambitions by often innocuous, legally exportable materials which are also the precursors to manufacturing deadly chemical weapons.

Soon after Obama came to office, newly installed officials grew increasingly alarmed by the ease with which Assad was using a network of front companies to import the precursors needed to make VX and sarin, deadly chemical poisons that are internationally banned, according to leaked diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks cited by the New York Times.

Sarin gas has been identified by the United States as the agent loaded atop small rockets on August 21 and shot into the densely populated suburbs of Damascus, killing more than 1,400 people.

The growth of Syria’s ability was the subject of a sharply worded secret cable transmitted by the State Department under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s name in the fall of 2009. It instructed diplomats to “emphasize that failure to halt the flow” of chemicals and equipment into Syria, Iran and North Korea could render irrelevant a group of anti-proliferation countries that organized to stop that flow.

The cable was included in a trove of State Department messages leaked to WikiLeaks in 2010.

Another leaked State Department cable on the Syrians asserted that “part of their modus operandi is to hide procurement under the guise of legitimate pharmaceutical or other transactions.”

Publicly, American officials contend that they have done much since then to limit the flow of raw materials that feed Syria’s chemical weapons industry, in particular Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center, which has been identified as a principal government enterprise for weapons development. Israel allegedly struck a missile convoy outside the center in January on suspicions that weapons were headed for delivery to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“For several years, the Treasury Department, working with our partners across the U.S. government, has taken steps to expose and disrupt the Syrian regime’s WMD proliferation activities,” David S. Cohen, the Treasury undersecretary in charge of sanctions, said in a statement quoted by the New York Times.

“We will continue to use all of our authorities to undermine the Syrian government’s WMD proliferation efforts within Syria as well as around the world,” Cohen said.

The diplomatic cables and other intelligence documents show that, over time, the two generations of Assads built up a huge stockpile by creating companies with the appearance of legitimacy, importing chemicals that had many legitimate uses and capitalizing on the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As early as 1991, under the first Bush presidency, a now declassified National Intelligence Estimate concluded that “both Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union provided the chemical agents, delivery systems and training that flowed to Syria.”

The same report concluded that Syria most likely possessed 500-kilogram aerial bombs containing sarin — larger, it appears, than the warheads mounted atop rockets that killed so many in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus on August 21.

The most detailed and highly classified cables in the WikiLeaks trove underscore that, while Syria has the ability to make chemical weapons, it relies heavily on other nations for getting precursor ingredients that can also be used for medicine, according to the New York Times.

Crucial chemicals and the missiles to deliver them have come not just from nations long allied with the Assad government, like Iran and Russia, but also from China (sometimes operating through North Korea) and a variety of Western nations, the cables and other documents show. In a few instances, American companies became players in Syria’s efforts to add to the sophistication of its stores.

A March 2006 State Department cable from the American Embassy in Damascus quoted by the New York Times described how Syrians seemed to be exploiting trade with the West. In another leaked cable, the Netherlands discussed how monoethylene glycol, an important raw material used to manufacture urethane and antifreeze, was shipped by a Dutch concern to the Syrian Ministry of Industry, considered a front for the Syrian military.

The Dutch outlined how the chemical could also be used as a precursor for sulfur mustard, and possibly for VX and sarin, in the leaked document.