Assad’s fall could solve Iraqi weapons mystery

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If Syria’s regime falls, the U.S. will be in a better position to answer one of the lingering questions from the long Iraq War: Did Baghdad ship weapons of mass destruction components to Syria before the 2003 American-led invasion?

An opposition leader tells The Washington Times that a new, secular democracy in Syria would allow outside inspectors to survey and ensure destruction of what is believed to be one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the Middle East.

Western and Israeli intelligence suspect that Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria also owns weaponized nerve agents.

Spy satellites tracked a large number of truck convoys moving from Iraq to Syria in the weeks before the 2003 invasion, raising suspicions that some carried weapons of mass destruction.

The invading Americans never found stocks of such weapons in Iraq, despite two years of searching by the Iraq Survey Group.

The result spurred the political left to attack President Bush with slogans such as “Bush lied, troops died,” but nonpartisan national security figures said there was evidence that material may have been moved to Syria. There was just no way to get inside the Iranian-supported dictatorship to take a look.

Zuhdi Jasser, a Syrian-American physician who co-founded the group Save Syria Now, is working to bring an elected secular government to Damascus. He said the Assad regime, which has used brutal repression to remain in power, can fall within a year if the popular uprising comes to the capital.

“As far as making sure there is a public transparent disposal of [weapons of mass destruction], I believe so,” Dr. Jasser told The Times.

He said an emerging group, the Syrian Democratic Coalition, is preparing a pledge by pro-democracy members.

“Many of us are banking on the fact they will not protect any arsenals there and allow a transparent change so they can be welcomed into the world community and not simply exchange one fascist government for another,” he said.

Disposing of Syria’s chemical weapons “has to be part of the transition,” he said.

Research groups say the Assad regime maintains large stocks of chemical weapons, including mustard gas.

“Over the past three decades, Syria has acquired an arsenal of chemical weapons (CW) and surface-to-surface missiles, reportedly has conducted research and development in biological weapons (BW), and may be interested in a nuclear weapons capability,” said a 2003 report by the Congressional Research Service.

Iraq at one point did possess large stocks of chemical weapons and used them on Iran and the Iraqi Kurdish population.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.N. inspectors destroyed huge caches. But U.S. intelligence agencies always believed that Saddam Hussein clung to some materials because of his regime’s efforts to evade and confuse U.N. inspectors.

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