Colum Lynch reports: Twelve years ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government embarked on a top-secret mission to produce large batches of mustard gas, a crude World War I-era blister agent that Syria manufactured as part of a broader chemical weapons deterrent against militarily superior enemies, including Israel.
Between 2004 and 2007, Syria made some 385 metric tons of sulfur mustard, enough to fill thousands of artillery shells. But Syria has admitted to building only 15 Scud missiles capable of delivering 5 to 6 metric tons of the chemical agent, leaving a yawning gap that has left weapons inspectors questioning whether Syria may have retained a stockpile of tactical chemical munitions it has never acknowledged. That’s the conclusion of a highly confidential, 75-page report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reviewed exclusively by Foreign Policy.
Syria’s claims raised a number of red flags. The OPCW’s inspectors, as members of the watchdog’s Declarations Assessment Team (DAT), initially expressed skepticism over Syria’s claim that it only intended to fill Scud missiles with sulfur mustard; the blister agent “is most effectively delivered through small-caliber [tactical] munitions,” including artillery projectiles and battlefield rockets, they noted, not through medium-range missiles.
“The discrepancy between the amount of sulfur mustard produced and the capacity of its designated munitions could indicate that some munitions and/or delivery means for sulfur mustard have not been declared,” the DAT report stated.
The United States and its allies also expressed alarm over the potential for hidden Syrian stockpiles of forbidden weapons.
“Syria has engaged in a calculated campaign of intransigence and obfuscation, of deception, and of defiance,” Kenneth Ward, the U.S. representative to the OPCW, said at a meeting of the group’s executive council in July. “We … remain very concerned that [the chemical warfare agents] and associated munitions, subject to declaration and destruction, have been illicitly retained by Syria.”
The Assad regime claims it destroyed almost all the munitions. Syria said Branch 450, a secret military department responsible for filling chemical munitions, destroyed the vast majority of the stockpile — some 365 metric tons’ worth of sulfur mustard — in May 2012, about two months before Syria publicly acknowledged for the first time the existence of its chemical weapons program. The remaining 20 metric tons were disposed of under U.N. supervision after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brokered a deal in September 2013 to eliminate the country’s remaining chemical weapons. [Continue reading…]