Syrian President Bashar al-Assad circumvented a 2013 deal to dismantle his chemical weapons stockpile by failing to declare the full extent of his arsenal, Syria’s former chemical weapons research chief told The Telegraph on Saturday.
Brigadier-General Zaher al-Sakat, who served as the head of chemical warfare in a top Syrian military unit before defecting in 2013, said that Assad had not declared large amounts of sarin and its precursor chemicals. Sarin is the toxic nerve agent believed responsible for the deaths of scores of Syrian civilians in a chemical attack earlier this month.
While Syria claimed that it had turned over its entire chemical weapons stockpile to the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), per the terms of a deal brokered by Russia, “they [the regime] admitted only to 1,300 tons, but we knew in reality they had nearly double that,” Sakat said. “They had at least 2,000 tons. At least.”
Sakat, 53, said he defected after being ordered to use chemical weapons on Syrian civilians. He had loaded warheads with water and diluted bleach instead of phosgene, a chemical that attacks the lungs and causes death by suffocation. When his son was arrested and he felt that the Assad regime was suspicious of his activities, Sakat fled to Jordan and then Turkey, where he joined the opposition Free Syrian Army.
“I couldn’t believe at the beginning that Assad would use these weapons on his people,” Sakat explained. Syria began developing chemical weapons in the 1980s with the aim of using them against enemy states, including its neighbor Israel. But when Assad used the chemicals on his own citizens, Sakat declared, “I could not stand and watch the genocide. I couldn’t hurt my own people.”
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of the British military’s chemical weapons unit who is currently assisting Syrian NGOs, said that he estimated that Assad retained 200 tons of chemical weapons, but felt that Sakat’s estimate of 700 tons was “plausible.”
Another expert, John Gilbert, a senior science fellow at the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said that the general’s estimate is “fully possible” if two chemicals that produce sarin when combined–fluorine-phosphorous and isopropyl–were part of the undeclared stockpile.
According to Sakat, the Assad regime moved around its chemical arsenal when OPCW inspectors came to Syria to inventory the stockpiles as part of the 2013 agreement. They were brought to fortified mountains not far from Tartus, where Syria and Russia have a major military base, according to the general.
While the amounts of chemical weapons Assad kept weren’t known, OPCW continued reporting on the use of chemical weapons by the regime, even some which Assad had pledged to surrender.
Sakat, who has stayed in touch with members of the regime since his defection, says that he doesn’t believe that Assad manufactured additional chemical weapons since the deal was agreed to because “they don’t need any more, they have all they need already.” He spoke to The Telegraph from an undisclosed location in Europe.
Using chemical weapons earlier this month in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, in Syria’s northern Idlib province, was a “strategic” decision geared towards discouraging the rebels. “If you can take Khan Sheikhoun, or force its residents to surrender, you can take the road that connects them,” Sakat said. Chemical weapons can terrify rebels into surrendering, the general explained.
The Wall Street Journal reported in July 2015 that American intelligence officials confirmed that Assad remained in possession of chemical weapons, despite the agreement. One of the factors given for the deal’s ineffectiveness was Syria’s ability to control the sites that inspectors could visit.
Hisham Melham, a columnist for the Lebanese paper Annahar, observed in The Atlantic last week that “it seems that U.S. officials knew for some time that Assad had squirreled away a secret reserve of sarin agents and was waiting for the right moment to use them.”
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