Syria began in earnest to build a covert chemical weapons program three decades ago, aided by its neighbors, allies and European chemical wholesalers.
Damascus lacked the technology and scientific capacity to set up a program on its own, but with backing from foreign allies it amassed what is believed to be one of the deadliest stockpiles of nerve agents in the world, Western military experts said.
“Syria was quite heavily reliant on outside help at the outset of its chemical weapons program, but the understanding now is that they have a domestic chemical weapons production capability,” said Amy Smithson of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, an expert on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
Syria is one of only seven countries not to have joined the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which commits members to completely destroying their stockpiles.
Syria does not generally comment on its chemical weapons, but in July last year it acknowledged for the first time that
it had them. Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told a news conference the army would not use chemical weapons to crush the rebels but could use them against foreign forces.
While it is relatively easy to produce small amounts of chemicals, scaling up to megaton quantities of precursors needed for weapons of mass destruction requires long-term, industrial-grade processing facilities with advanced equipment.
The first technology and delivery systems were most probably obtained from the Soviet Union and pre-revolution Egypt, military experts believe, while chemical precursors came from European companies.
To boost its own capabilities, Damascus set up the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), an agency with a civilian figure head that was run by military intelligence.
The SSRC, attacked by rebels earlier this year, oversees chemical weapons facilities in Dumayr, Khan Abou, Shamat, and Firaqlus, according to the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies. It set up facilities for blister agent, sarin, mustard and VX nerve gas, the Center said.
The agency is now headed by one of Assad’s top advisers, national security chief Ali Mamlouk, said Brigadier General Mustafa al Sheikh, a Syrian army defector.
“The man overseeing the chemical weapons in general is Ali Mamlouk, but effective control of the weapons is becoming fragmented,” Sheikh, who served for almost two decades in chemical weapons units, told Reuters from an undisclosed location in northern Syria. “Assad himself has lost overall command and control.”
Sheikh said the arsenal is now in the hands of chemical weapons-trained loyalists of Assad’s Alawite clan, a Shi’ite offshoot sect, and is being used for limited attacks that have killed dozens of rebels.
“Most of the chemical weapons have been transported to Alawite areas in Latakia and near the coast, where the regime has the capability to fire them using fairly accurate medium range surface-to-surface missiles,” Sheikh said.
Some chemical munitions remain in bases around Damascus, and have been deployed with artillery shells. “It is a matter of time before fairly large warheads are used,” he said.
The bulk of chemical and biological weapons production technology came from “large chemical brokerage houses in Holland, Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany,” said Globalsecurity, a security information provider.
Securing raw chemicals on the international market became more difficult in 1985, when suspect sales were restricted by the Australia Group, a 40-nation body that seeks to curb chemical or biological weapons through export controls.
Some experts say Damascus obtained supplies from Russia and Iran instead, but Syria may also have turned to a network of illegal traders using front companies to sell to Iran and Iraq.