Secretary of State John Kerry’s formal accusation today that Syria has used chemical weapons against rebel forces and civilians sounds somewhat similar to Bush Administration charges against the regime of Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq a decade ago. Saddam had used his chemical weapons numerous times against Iraqi minorities and was all but ignored by the world.
When the U.S. led a coalition of nations to depose Saddam in 2003, the belief that Iraq possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons as well as a nascent nuclear weapons program was a major justification for the invasion. Failure to locate large stocks of the weapons led to charges that President George W. Bush had lied to lead the United States into an unnecessary war.
The fact of Syrian use of chemical weapons should call the conventional wisdom about Iraq into question. The two countries were linked by their ruling Baathist parties and, as neighbors, engaged in trade, both legal and illegal, before the war. In 2006, Georges Sada, a former general of Saddam’s air force, detailed in his book, “Saddam’s Secrets,” how Saddam had secretly moved much of his WMD material to Syria before the U.S.-led invasion under the cover of providing relief to Syrian earthquake victims. Sada’s claims were detailed in Examiner in 2011. Sada’s claim was be supported by other sources as well. In 2004, a Syrian defector, Nizar Nayouf claimed that Iraqi WMDs had been hidden at three sites in Syria. Nayouf’s story appeared the Dutch paper Der Telegraaf and is summarized on WorldThreats.com. Satellite reconnaissance photos from 2010 published in Israel’s Haaretz show Syrian military facilities in the same areas that Nayouf fingered. The same sites were identified in the 2004 book “End Game” by General Thomas McInerney and Paul Vallely as well as another former Iraqi general, Ali Ibrahim al-Tikriti. If the U.S. launches airstrikes against Syria, these facilities are likely to be targeted.
The lack of large stockpiles in post-Saddam Iraq led to the myth that Saddam’s WMDs were nonexistent. In reality, Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurdish minority was documented by the BBC in 1988. Saddam also used chemical weapons in his war against Iran and after the Persian Gulf War while combating the Shiite uprising of 1991. The destruction of an Iraqi munitions plant that produced the nerve gas sarin may be responsible for Gulf War Syndrome, a neurological affliction that affects as many as 30 percent of veterans from the Persian Gulf War in 1991 according to USA Today. In 2010, Wired Magazine detailed how classified military documents released by Wikileaks revealed the discovery of many small caches of chemical weapons by coalition forces during the occupation of Iraq.
While the shelf life of nerve agents such as the sarin, one of the chemical weapons found in Iraq and recently used in Syria, is short, an undated CIA report estimated that the Iraqis had improved their sarin stocks by increasing the purity of the chemical components and building binary weapons. In binary weapons, the components of the nerve agent are not combined until the weapon is ready to be used. This could make the shelf life of the weapon “irrelevant” and allow it to be stored for years before use. This means that if Iraqi stockpiles were transferred to Syria prior to 2003 they could still be lethal.
Syria has long had development programs for weapons of mass destruction of its own. In 2008, Time reported that North Korea was helping Syria to build a nuclear reactor. Israel bombed the Syrian reactor in 2007 according to Der Spiegel. The German weekly also reported last year that Iranian officers were involved in the testing of Syrian delivery systems for chemical weapons. The Nuclear Threat Initiative notes that Syrian WMD programs may have begun as early as 1971. The NTI also noted that the U.S. believed that Syria was dependent on “foreign sources for key elements of its CW program” as late as 2010. This may have included Saddam’s Iraq.
There are a number of objections to the theory that Syria benefitted from Saddam’s WMD programs. For example, Syria sided with the Coalition forces during the 1991 Iraq war. Therefore some question whether it would have cooperated with Saddam in later years. In reality, Syria was complicit in helping Saddam subvert UN sanctions on Iraq prior to the 2003 war. Congress estimated in 2004 that Syrian-Iraqi smuggling was worth more than $3 billion.
A second question is why Saddam did not admit to transferring the weapons when he was interrogated. Apparently Saddam did not take U.S. threats seriously and was more concerned about Iran. Transferring weapons to Syria would have prevented their discovery by UN inspectors, but would have left them available in the event of an Iranian attack. Not confessing as he faced death may have been as simple as going to his death knowing that he had the last laugh on his tormenters.
As yet there is no conclusive proof that Syrian chemical weapons can be traced to Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, there is ample circumstantial evidence to take another look at the Iraqi-Syrian connection. If the Asad government falls, Syrian military files may shed light on the mystery of Saddam’s WMDs. The Syrian civil war may one day help to rewrite the history of the Iraq War.