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.
Suspicions lingered during the administration of President Clinton, who ordered five days of airstrikes on Iraq in 1998 to destroy what he said were remaining stockpiles that could fall into the hands of terrorists. Mr. Bush offered a similar rationale for war in 2003.
“Their mission is to attack Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and its military capacity to threaten its neighbors,” Mr. Clinton told the American people.
Among those who suspect a Syrian connection is retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr., who is now the most senior U.S. intelligence officer.
He told The Times in 2003 that U.S. satellites documented waves of truck traffic out of Iraq and into Syria.
“I think personally that those below the senior leadership saw what was coming, and I think they went to some extraordinary lengths to dispose of the evidence,” said Gen. Clapper, who then headed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and now is director of national intelligence. “I’ll call it an educated hunch.
“I think probably in the few months running up prior to the onset of combat that … there was probably an intensive effort to disperse into private homes, move documentation and materials out of the country,” he said. “I think there are any number of things that they would have done.”
On the activity on the Syrian border, Gen. Clapper said: “There is no question that there was a lot of traffic, increase in traffic up to the immediate onset of combat and certainly during Iraqi Freedom. … The obvious conclusion one draws is the sudden upturn, uptick in traffic which may have been people leaving the scene, fleeing Iraq and, unquestionably I’m sure, material as well.”
Such suspicion also found its way inside the Iraq Survey Group, the joint Pentagon-CIA organization formed to hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Charles Duelfer, who headed the Iraq Survey Group, filed a final addendum in 2005 to his exhaustive report. He said his investigators found “sufficiently credible” evidence that material for weapons of mass destruction was shifted from Iraq to Syria.
“[The Iraq Survey Group] was unable to complete its investigation and is unable to rule out the possibility that [weapons of mass destruction were] evacuated to Syria before the war,” he said.
“Whether Syria received military items from Iraq for safekeeping or other reasons has yet to be determined,” Mr. Duelfer said. “There was evidence of a discussion of possible … collaboration initiated by a Syrian security officer, and [the Iraq Survey Group] received information about movement of material out of Iraq, including the possibility that [weapons of mass destruction were] involved. In the judgment of the working group, these reports were sufficiently credible to merit further investigation.”
He said all senior Iraqis then in custody denied knowledge of any weapons of mass destruction moving into Syria.
“Nevertheless,” the inspector said, “given the insular and compartmented nature of the regime, [Iraq Survey Group] analysts believed there was enough evidence to merit further investigation.”
Libya’s new transitional government has set a precedent for allowing Western arms inspectors into the country.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based at The Hague, is an independent group that monitors compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention.
It filed its most recent report on Libya on Friday, saying all of Libya’s newly declared quantities of sulfur mustard and related chemicals are stored at the Ruwagha depot in southwestern Libya and are to be destroyed by April.
The same scenario could play out in a post-Assad Syria, along with detective work to determine, once and for all, whether any weapons components came from Iraq in 2003.
Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, told The Times that inspectors could enter Syria “only if the new regime joins the Chemical Weapons Convention, thereby making Syria an OPCW member state and legally subject to our verification measures.”