by Stephen Bryen
[Author’s Note: The article below was written before Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that Syria turn over its chemical weapons, and before Vladimir Putin took up Kerry’s offer and got the visiting foreign minister of Syria to all but accept the deal in principle. At this juncture, supposing that the details of an international supervisorship of Syria’s chemical weapons can be worked out, the threat of war in the Middle East has been reduced significantly and the possibility of U.S. retaliatory strikes vitiated. So we can say that a crisis has been avoided for the time being, but as they say the devil is in the details and the possibility of another use of chemical weapons cannot be ruled out. As many commentators have noted, the so-called Syrian “rebels” probably have access to some crude chemical weapons they could have got from al-Qaeda or other sources, and they will not be under any supervisorship by an international force. Similarly who knows what is in the hands of Hezbollah. Consequently, the bigger picture is to halt the supply of materials that make it possible for countries such as Syria or Iran to have chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. As my article below suggests, we have done far less than enough to head off WMD threats. In Putin’s smart reaction to Kerry’s offer, take note that Putin did not deny that Syria has chemical weapons. Nor did he say they did not use them. He said it was time for them to give them up. So we can say that, as clumsily as it was done, the U.S. has achieved some kind of partial deterrence. But to bring it home, a broader agreement is needed to really control the export of precursor materials and delivery systems and to make sure that whoever does make such exports, including from our own shores and the territories of our allies, pays a price –a high price. After all, that is what is meant by deterrence. –SDB ]
It has received very little attention in the United States, but it is now clear that the British government authorized the sale of nerve gas precursor materials to Syria, and granted 5 export licenses to a British company authorizing the transactions. The London Daily Mail, in an exclusive story (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2415081/Britain-sent-poison-gas-chemicals-Assad-Proof-UK-delivered-Sarin-agent-Syrian-regime-SIX-years.html) , says these export licenses were issued between 2004 and 2010.
A 2012 license was also issued by the British government for the same precursor materials, but it is claimed by the UK government that the chemicals were not delivered.
The British government has, so far, refused to release the names of the two British companies supplying the material on the grounds of “client confidentiality.” Likewise the government has refused to disclose the amount of the banned material, sodium fluoride, delivered to Syria. Furthermore the so-called end-user, a Syrian cosmetics company, name is also being protected by the British government.
Sodium fluoride is the key component of the nerve gas Sarin. Sarin, originally developed by Nazi chemists and industrialized by them in 1939 is also produced by other countries, including Russia (previously the Soviet Union).
One needs to recall that British companies supplied Saddam Hussein with chemical precursor materials in a similar manner. It is not known if Britain has also shipped chemical weapons precursor materials to other countries, such as Iran.
One of the issues that arises from these “discoveries” is either to accept that the British export licensing system is either incompetent or corrupt, or the UK government has covertly authorized such agencies to approve such export licenses. The fact that so far the UK government is resisting full disclosure and won’t reveal either the names of the supplier companies, the name of the recipient company, or the volume of material exported, leads to serious suspicion of the behavior of the UK authorities.
It is beyond dispute that the Russians have supplied chemical weapons delivery systems to a number of countries including Iraq and Syria.
An excellent assessment of chemical weapons warheads in the Syrian arsenal which were used in the recent Sarin attack can be found here (http://www.rusi.org/analysis/videos/ref:V522D9DF12E360#.Ui3M4j_Nl4v) provided by the Royal United Services Institute. RUSI is an independent institute originally founded by the Duke of Wellington in 1831.
Following the RUSI assessment, there is the suggestion that sometime after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian government stopped supplying the chemical precursor materials to Syria, maybe even the chemical warheads. If true it would help explain why the Syrians would go to the trouble of buying the precursors from other sources.
Looking beyond the Russian source of supply of rockets and rocket launching equipment, one can see in the RUSI video clear evidence that the launch heavy lifters and trucks are Western, not Russian in design.
The sale of chemical precursors is not limited to the UK. U.S. firms have also sold sensitive materials, including chemicals to make cyanide and biological materials for WMD’s (see http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/world/middleeast/with-the-world-watching-syria-amassed-nerve-gas.html?pagewanted=all). There is plenty of evidence that U.S. authorities knew about all of this, and Wikileaks shows that “cables” were sent out to our allies pointing out these transactions. But it also clear that these “efforts” were not followed up by vigorous action by the U.S. government and, perhaps excepting the most recent 2012 transaction from the UK to Syria, U.S. protestations, if that is what they can be called, were largely meaningless. At the end of the day there is a lot of hand wringing and complaining about weapons of mass destruction, but no real willingness to put a stop to them.
We are now seeing that countries such as Syria and Iran have no trouble getting hold of whatever they want for their WMD programs. It is very unlikely that the Syrians will go along with Secretary Kerry’s proposal to “get rid” of their chemical weapons in a week’s time. A more serious approach, to the Russians and to our allies, is to cut off such supplies in future. This can be achieved, and if done right could have far more beneficial results with more long term benefits than some other alternatives to the present crisis.