x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Assad ‘has lied about Syria’s chemical arsenal’

A former chemical warfare commander who defected from Bashar Al Assad’s army has joined US officials in expressing doubts over the accuracy of Syria’s declaration of its stockpile of chemical weapons. Phil Sands and Suha Ma'ayeh report

Bashar Al Assad, in a picture uploaded to his Facebook site on Wednesday. New claims have emerged that Mr Al Assad’s regime has hidden some of his chemical weapons, transferring some of its stockpile just hours after Russia and the US concluded a deal for Syria to dismantle the weapons to avoid a US military strike. Facebook via AFP
Bashar Al Assad, in a picture uploaded to his Facebook site on Wednesday. New claims have emerged that Mr Al Assad’s regime has hidden some of his chemical weapons, transferring some of its stockpile just hours after Russia and the US concluded a deal for Syria to dismantle the weapons to avoid a US military strike. Facebook via AFP

AMMAN // A former chemical warfare commander who defected from Bashar Al Assad’s army has joined US officials in expressing doubts over the accuracy of Syria’s declaration of its stockpile of chemical weapons.

Brigadier General Zaher Saket, a former officer in the Syrian army’s 5th division, warned of possible discrepancies between what Syria had declared to the United Nations and its actual chemical arsenal.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is overseeing the decommissioning of the weapons on behalf of the UN, has publicly referred to 23 sites declared by Syria, although its inspectors could only visit 21 of those sites because of safety concerns.

Gen Saket said units under his command had moved chemical munitions between 32 different sites, but there were additional secret locations his forces did not deploy to, he said, saying the real number was closer to 45 sites.

“From the information I have, I do not believe the regime has given a full declaration of its factories, labs, stockpiles and chemical weapons ‘safe houses’ to the OPCW,” he said, in an interview in Jordan’s capital, Amman.

Gen Saket also claimed that the Assad regime transferred some of its stockpile just hours after Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the US secretary of state John Kerry had concluded a deal for Syria to dismantle its chemical weapons to avoid a US military strike.

“Twenty-eight large trucks carrying chemical weapons were moved in the 48-hour period after the Lavrov plan deal was announced,” Gen Saket said.

The full 700-page document submitted to the OPCW-UN mission by Syria has not been made public and Gen Saket, who defected in March, stressed he had not seen the file.

“I do not know exactly what the regime told the OPCW so I cannot say conclusively if it is missing information or if it was actually true, but we do know the inspectors have not been to all of the chemical weapons sites so far and that is a concern,” he said.

In its submission to the OPCW, Syria declared that its 23 geographical sites housing chemical weapons contained 30 production, filling and storage facilities and three chemical weapons-related facilities, according to documents cited by the Reuters news agency. The regime also had eight mobile filling units.

Gen Saket’s comments echo US scepticism, with American intelligence officials suggesting Syria could be trying to hold on to chemical munitions, despite agreeing to the complete destruction of its arsenal. Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, said on Tuesday that officials continued to examine Syria’s declaration.

“More work of course remains to be done to ensure that the Syrian government’s list of declared sites is comprehensive and that the process remains on track, particularly as we enter the destruction phase, which looks very complicated,” she said in a UN Security Council meeting.

“We obviously bring scepticism born of years of dealing with this regime, years of obfuscation in other contexts, and of course a lot of broken promises within the context of this current war,” she said.

CNN later cited unnamed US intelligence officials as saying there were indications – although not definitive evidence – that Syria was trying to retain a secret cache of chemical weapons.

“There are various threads of information that would shake our confidence,” one US official said, according to CNN. “They have done things recently that suggest Syria is not ready to get rid of all their chemical weapons.”

Sigrid Kaag, the head of the joint OPCW-UN mission, declined to comment on whether it shared suspicions Syria was hiding weapons

“The mission is operating on the mandate provided and it works on the basis of the Syria declaration provided to the OPCW,” she told reporters after the Security Council briefing on Tuesday.

Gen Saket said it would be extremely difficult to conclusively track down and decommission all of Syria’s chemical munitions, with thousands of artillery shells and missiles held by military units.

Efforts had already been made by the regime to move chemical warheads out of their usual storage facilities, he said, referring to “surveillance information” he was privy to.

September’s deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal, orchestrated by the US and Russia came after poison gas attacks on August 21 in eastern and south-western suburbs of Damascus that killed hundreds of people.

Mr Al Assad denied his forces were involved but agreed to give up his chemical weapons to prevent an impending US military strike.

The OPCW says it has made progress in destroying chemical-weapons factories in Syria, meeting its deadlines, despite facing difficult conditions in a country torn apart by war.

In addition to closing production facilities, Syria says it has destroyed 99 chemical warheads.

A detailed plan for the destruction of remaining chemical weapons is to be set by November 15, with a proposed deadline of mid-2014 for the complete eradication of Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities.

However according to a report yesterday by Reuters, the OPCW is facing a funding shortfall, with enough money to continue its Syria operations only until the end of this month.

psands@thenational.ae