PARIS – Syrian President Bashar Assad personally ordered the development and production of nerve gas in order to use it against his own people in early 2009, two years before the country’s civil war erupted, the French investigative website Mediapart has revealed.
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Mediapart’s investigative series is based on interviews with former senior officials in Syria’s chemical weapons program who defected to France, as well as documents smuggled out of CERS, a Syrian scientific research organization under Assad’s direct control. These documents were examined and verified by both French intelligence and allied intelligence services, and were the basis for France’s statement to the UN Security Council, despite Russia’s denials, that the Syrian government had used nerve gas in its bombing of the town of Khan Sheikhoun this past April.
The series is slated to be published over the course of the weekend, but Haaretz received the material in advance. Among other things, it states that in July 2011, immediately after the first soldiers deserted the Syrian army for the rebels, Assad ordered Department 3000, the unit responsible for chemical weapons at CERS, to adapt shells, grenades and mortar shells to hold nerve gas so that it could be used against rebels, demonstrators and the civilian population.
But preparations to bomb civilians were already being made back in late 2009, when seven Syrian air force bases received large quantities of nerve gas which CERS engineers later adapted for use in bombs and grenades that could be launched from helicopters.
One of the people Mediapart interviewed served as the director of Department 3000’s research section until the civil war began. He was recruited out of high school due to his high marks in science in general and chemistry in particular. He was then sent to college and graduate school, first in Syria and then in the West, while also attending army courses meant to increase his motivation to produce large quantities of chemical weapons. The courses stressed the advantage such weapons would give Syria in attempting to recapture the Golan Heights from Israel.
“I’m not an Alawite; I have no clan attachment” to the Assad regime, he said. Nevertheless, he added, he was very loyal to the chemical program, because he was told over and over that it was the only way to pressure Israel to return the Golan to Syria in any future negotiations.
“I knew a war wouldn’t permit us to obtain this objective,” he explained, so it was important to create a balance of deterrence against Israel by developing and producing nerve gas. That idea struck him as very logical, so the regime’s tactic seemed to make a lot of sense.
Only many years later, he said, did he understand that the primary goal was to prepare to respond to a possible coup by launching chemical attacks on the Syrian population itself. That penny dropped when he was told to prepare miniaturized chemical weapons and equip specific airbases with them.
"The runways of the chosen airbases weren’t long enough to enable our Sukhoi-22 bombers or MiG-23s to take off,” he explained. “At one base, effectively, there were only helicopters ... Another base, in Suwayda, in the south of the country, was so close to the border that the Israelis could have destroyed it with mortar shells had they thought it endangered them.”
Consequently, he said, it was clear these weapons weren’t intended for bombing Israel.
The former official said he had told his direct supervisor there was no sense in stocking chemical weapons at those particular bases and in that manner. He also wrote to the intelligence chief, Ali Mamluk, who is responsible for CERS, to tell him “that we’d received an absurd order.” At that point, he said, he didn’t yet understand “that the idea of using sarin against the opposition came from him.”
When engineers from Department 3000 persisted in asking questions, the regime took swift action. In September 2012, a month before Assad’s first use of chemical weapons within Syria, Bashar Hamwi – the director of the chemical weapons development program, who had worked to make the miniaturized chemical weapons but raised questions about the job he had been tasked with – was kidnapped from his office.
Another unit head in Department 3000 whom Mediapart interviewed said he suddenly found his name posted on rebel forums and websites as a target for assassination.
When he began refusing to obey orders, that interviewee said, the government found a convenient solution: “The regime leaked my name to the public, undoubtedly hoping I’d be eliminated by the opposition. At that point, I understood that it would be better if I and my family left the country.” They went via relatives in the Gulf and requested asylum in Europe.
The interviewees said that Department 3000 developed a nerve gas whose composition was unique, and can therefore be easily identified in the field. The gas is based on sarin, a deadly liquid that is odorless and colorless. But it also contains diisopropyl methylphosphonate (DIMP), a byproduct created from the synthesis of sarin gas, and methenamine, which is used to catalyze the synthesis process. The latter two components leave traces that remain for a long time in the ground, as well as in the victims’ blood and urine.
In April 2013, during the regime’s gas attack on the town of Saraqib, three grenades were tossed from a Syrian helicopter. One exploded but caused no casualties; the second killed and wounded dozens of people; and the third failed to explode.
That third grenade is now in the possession of French intelligence, which, according to Mediapart, found that it contained 100 milliliters of sarin with an estimated purity of 60 percent. The compound’s other ingredients were methenamine and two byproducts of sarin synthesis, including DIMP. In other words, it contained the special nerve gas formula developed by the Assad regime.
The interviewees said that Department 3000 has undergone many organizational changes since the civil war began. It is headed by one of the regime’s diehard loyalists, Zuhair Fadhloun, who decided to change the unit’s name to Department 5000 and detached it from the unit’s former bases in the Jamraya region, which were responsible for fitting missiles with chemical warheads. Those bases have twice been bombed by Israel, in January and May 2013.
In addition, the Syrian air force intelligence units that were responsible for storing and guarding the nerve gas at air force bases were transferred from the air force to the new Department 5000. These units, formerly known as units 417 and 418, are now part of CERS, under the code names 451 and 452. This change was made for a number of reasons, including on the assumption that CERS suffers from much less corruption than the army and the air force do.
The documents obtained by Mediapart show that CERS currently employs 9,000 people. Of these, 5,500 work on developing missiles, bombs and shells. The new chemical weapons unit employs 350 engineers, who are divided between the development division (5100) and the production division (5600).
The production division is scattered across several bases in the desert east of Damascus.
Some of those bases were destroyed as part of a 2013 agreement brokered by Russia to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons. Others, however, were not.