Several national and international investigation authorities have received a thoroughly compiled and rigorously researched bulletin on the chemical weapon armory the Syrian regime tried to conceal. The Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) and the Syrian Archive expose in this 90-page bulletin how the Syrian regime betrayed the OPCW and other actors on the destruction of its chemical weapon stockpile it had committed itself.
French newspaper Le Monde gives a summary of the key findings:
"The veil that has long obscured the Syrian regime's chemical weapons program, allowing it to escape its commitments to the international community in this area, is beginning to tear. On Monday, October 19, two NGOs at the forefront of the fight against impunity in the Syrian conflict, Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) and Syrian Archive, submitted to several national and international investigative bodies a report of depth and of unprecedented precision on the operation of this program, which has caused the death of hundreds of civilians since 2011.
This 90-page document, of which Le Monde, the Washington Post, the Financial Times and the Süddeutsche Zeitung have obtained an exclusive copy, reveals how the authorities in Damascus played off the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) , the body believed to have dismantled the Syrian chemical arsenal.
The report is based on analysis of open sources, on the use of data extracted from a United Nations register and above all on the testimonies of some fifty Syrian officials who have defected in recent years. Most were employed by the Center for Scientific Studies and Research (CERS), the state agency responsible for the development of Syrian conventional and unconventional weapons, which gives their words particularly valuable value.
These sources depict the architecture, until then little known, of this military-industrial complex and describe the stratagems deployed by the Syrian authorities to mislead the OPCW sleuths and maintain an offensive capacity in the chemical field: transfer of a part of the stockpile of weapons and lethal substances in the bases of the Republican Guard, the regime's elite unit; stalking, incarceration and, in some cases, disposal of employees deemed "dubious"; and establishment of a secret channel for the import of products entering into the composition of nerve agents, such as sarin.
It was this substance that had been used one night in August 2013 against Ghouta, the rebellious suburb of Damascus, leading to the death by suffocation of 1,200 of its inhabitants. The outrage over the attack, an obscene violation of the "red line" drawn by then US President Barack Obama, prompted the United States, France and the United Kingdom to plan retaliatory bombings. But, due to a last-minute arrangement between Washington and Moscow, this military intervention plan was put on hold.
Under this agreement, endorsed by the United Nations and approved by Damascus, the OPCW was tasked with destroying the Syrian stockpile and production system of chemical weapons. The organization was supposed to have fulfilled its mission in two stages: in 2014 for the existing chemical arsenal and in 2018 for the 27 production sites mentioned in the statement submitted by Damascus to the OPCW. "Mission accomplished," the United States and Russia had proclaimed, for once in unison on the Syrian issue.
But, in Western chanceries and even within The Hague-based organization itself, many suspected Damascus of having deliberately under-declared the importance of its arsenal. In fact, chemical attacks against areas controlled by the anti-Assad rebellion continued after 2013, notably in Khan Cheikhoun, in April 2017, where 200 people perished, again suffocated by sarin. The OSJI and Syrian Archive report, which takes a startling dive into the mysteries of a death factory, helps us understand why.
"Our research shows that Syria has a continuing robust chemical weapons program," said Steve Kostas of OSJI. OPCW member states must hold Syria to account for its continued violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention and must call for increased efforts to bring those responsible for these crimes to justice. "
The result of three years of work, the report was transmitted to five different institutions: the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team; the Impartial and Independent International Mechanism, a structure emanating from the United Nations which collects evidence of crimes committed in Syria; the US Department of Justice; the FBI; and the Federal Prosecutor of Germany, who recently received a complaint against the Syrian regime in connection with the attacks in Ghouta and Khan Sheikhoun.
The most important piece of information in the report is a takeover of a scoop from the Syrian news site Zaman Al-Wasl, which had gone unnoticed in the Western press at the time of its publication in November 2017. In the night of September 25, 2013, five days before OPCW investigators landed in Syria, the chemical weapons reserves of the 1000 Institute, one of the main divisions of the ESRB, located in Jamraya, on the northern outskirts from Damascus, were moved to the warehouses of the base of the 105th Republican Guard Brigade, located a few kilometers away.
This revelation is based on a letter from the director of the 1000 Institute, dated September 19, 2013, ordering the head of security of this branch of the ESRB to orchestrate the transfer of arms. A document that Zaman Al-Wasl had obtained and which Le Monde authenticated with a former member of the Syrian intelligence services.
According to deserting officers consulted by the news site, the maneuver was carried out by some 50 soldiers of the Alawite faith, from the coastal strip, the stronghold of the Assad clan. As it moved from the hangars of the 1000 Institute - it was included in the Damascus declaration to the OPCW - to those of the Republican Guard, this chemical stockpile became undetectable. And therefore untouchable. According to the report, other similar clean-ups were organized around the same time.
The ESRB was founded in the early 1970s by President Hafez Al-Assad, father of the current head of state, with a view to civilian scientific research. During this decade and the next, while the studies developed by the center took on an increasingly military color, the CERS benefited from the aid of several foreign countries, including France and West Germany, such as the tells the book by journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, Les paths de Damas (Robert Laffont, 2014).
According to the report, the ESRB's chemical program began in the mid-1980s, under the supervision of the Air Force's intelligence service, the most feared branch of the Syrian security apparatus. The pre-revolutionary picture drawn up by the defectors interviewed by the OSJI and Syrian Archive is that of a maze of branches, institutes and units, which testifies as much to the bureaucratic debauchery specific to the Baathist system, as to a concern for partitioning, intended to prevent leaks and penetration by foreign espionage services.
Historically, the chemical weapons manufacturing process was jointly piloted by the 3,000 institute and the 4,000 institute. The first, located in Barzeh, a neighborhood in the north-west of Damascus, near the CERS headquarters, was responsible for the production of chemical agents. The second, initially located on the edge of Aleppo (north) and moved in 2012, after the conquest of the east of the metropolis by the rebels, in Masyaf, in the region of Hama (center), was in charge of the design. ammunition (shells, bombs, rockets, etc.) and the laying of the chemical charge. Experts from Iran and North Korea, two regimes allied with Damascus, were associated with the work.
The OPCW's mission, which began in 2013, has kicked off this anthill. The CERS was also shaken by several waves of strikes (American, French and Israeli) on its infrastructure, following the attack on Khan Cheikhoun in 2017, then that of Douma, in 2018. But the regime was able to resist these ramblings. According to investigators, branch 450 of the 3000 Institute, the nerve center of the Syrian chemical program, headed by General Ali Wanus and officially disbanded in 2013, remains, for example, operational, probably under a different name.
The testimonies of the ESRB defectors reveal new entities, which were not previously known. This is particularly the case for two workshops for the production of barrel bombs filled with chlorine: one labeled branch 410 of the 2000 institute, located in Jamraya, and the other labeled branch 797 of the 4000 institute, located near Masyaf. Another discovery: a production site of binary bombs, a weapon whose chemical components only become toxic when combined, type M4000, near Aleppo, closed in 1998. The weapons released from these units would have been used in the sarin and chlorine attack on the town of Latamné, in March 2017.
According to several former CERS employees, the Israeli bombings of April 2018 on the infrastructure of the 4000 Institute, located in this region, affected only the administrative buildings. According to these same sources, another air attack on Project 99, a Scud missile construction factory, hidden in the Taqsis mountains, between Homs and Hama, also failed: the equipment had been transferred shortly before to Tartous. , a town on the coast.
Sometimes the Syrian regime itself takes care of removing sensitive facilities. According to a defector, in 2012, in the wake of the move of the 4,000 Institute, the Damascus aviation dropped two one-ton bombs on a building in Al-Safira, near Aleppo, where Kornet anti-tank missiles. The general staff feared that the rebels would seize these weapons, which had allowed Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement allied with Damascus, to inflict great damage on the Israeli army, during the conflict between them in 2006 .
Staff supervision has also contributed to the resilience of the ESRB. To stem the defection of employees and the dissemination of secret information, security procedures have been tough. Travel abroad and moves within the country were subject to a permit. "It was enough to surprise an employee with knowledge outside his field of activity for him to be arrested or fired," said a witness at the time.
Two generals, Bassam Al-Hassan, the eye of Bashar Al-Assad inside the ESRB, and Youssef Ajeeb, the center's security manager, are overseeing the hunt for allegedly disloyal officials, who in their eyes are likely to pass to opposition or to flee abroad. "Several employees were killed, died in prison or else disappeared," said another witness. According to the report, already in 2010 an engineer from the center, Ayman Al-Hibli, was executed by the regime for collaborating with the Israeli enemy.
Sources debriefed by investigators detail three other cases of elimination within the ESRB since 2011. Among them is Mahmoud Ibrahim, a former director of the 4000 Institute, considered the father of the Syrian ballistics program. He was reportedly killed in 2015, either on suspicion of his loyalty, or because he opposed the growing Iranian influence over the center.
The latest revelations in the report concern the mechanisms for supplying the ESRB with chemicals. Searching the Comtrade database, a gigantic trade register maintained by the United Nations Statistics Division, investigators discovered that between 2014 and 2018, 69 categories of products potentially under sanctions were exported to Syria from from 39 different countries, including 15 European.
It is mainly isopropanol, a precursor of sarin, the marketing of which is authorized below a concentration of 95%, but prohibited beyond. OSJI and Syrian Archive have identified companies based in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland facing legal sanctions for violating import restrictions imposed on Syria. Three Belgian companies were convicted in February 2019, the manager of one, Anex Customs, was sentenced to one year in prison. An investigation was also opened in the Netherlands.
To break the supply chain of the ESRB, it will take many other advances of this kind. The production of sarin not only requires isopropanol, but also methylphosphonyl difluoride, an organophosphorus compound known by the acronym DF, and hexamine, an anticorrosive. The latter is produced locally without difficulty. As for the DF, no one knows, for the moment, how the Syrian regime obtains it and where it stores it. This is one of the many mysteries that continue to hang over the ESRB, the Syrian war crimes laboratory."