It is widely believed by the U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities that the evidence Saddam Hussein deployed weapons of mass destruction is hidden in Syria, among Damascus’ own substantial arsenal of unconventional weapons.
On April 13, 2003, President George W. Bush said Syria possesses Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and warned the Assad regime to cooperate with the U.S.-led war against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The U.S. demanded that Syria give up its stash of Iraqi WMDs and fugitive WMD scientists. Officials said the flight of Iraqi biological and nuclear components and scientists to Syria could turn that country into the next WMD threat to the United States and its allies in the Middle East and Europe.
The Bush administration has been examining a range of sanctions with which to pressure Damascus to surrender Iraqi WMDs and scientists.
“We will examine possible measures of a diplomatic, economic or other nature as we move forward,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on April 14. “We are in touch with Syrian authorities and will make them aware of our concerns and we’ll see how things unfold as we move forward.” Powell did not elaborate regarding sanctions, but the U.S. already embargoes military sales to Syria.
U.S. officials said the extent of the Iraqi-Syrian WMD connection was revealed by Jaffar Jaffar, regarded as the father of Iraq’s nuclear program, after he fled to Syria and then to an unidentified Arab country where he surrendered to U.S. authorities.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed this on April 14, when he said Syria had conducted a series of chemical-weapons tests. Later, his aides explained the tests sought to exploit the transfer of Iraqi expertise on the weaponization of WMD agents that would enable Syria to develop a second- or third-generation chemical-warfare capability. “I would say that we have seen chemical-weapons tests in Syria over the past 12, 15 months,” Rumsfeld said.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has denied knowledge of Iraqi WMDs hidden in his country – not that he could dare to reveal any without dooming himself by becoming the first Arab leader to surrender Islamic weapons of mass destruction to the United States.
On April 24, 2003, The New York Times reported that a captured Iraqi scientist who worked in Iraq’s chemical weapons program for more than a decade had led U.S. investigators to material that proved to be the building blocks of WMDs. The scientist also said Iraq had secretly sent unconventional weapons and technology to Syria, starting in the mid-1990s. A U.S. military team said the scientist was credible.
The paper also reported that the scientist told investigators that Saddam’s government had destroyed some stockpiles of WMDs as early as the mid-1990s, but had transferred others to Syria and had shifted efforts to developing WMDs that are undetectable by international inspectors.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon disclosed in a television interview in December 2002 that Syria is hiding Saddam’s WMDs.
“What we believe, and I say that we have not yet confirmed it conclusively, is that weapons he wants to hide – chemical and biological weapons – have indeed been sent to Syria,” Sharon said. “Saddam Hussein wanted to hide his weapons, and I think that the Americans know that.”
Later, a senior Israeli intelligence official said Sharon had played down evidence of Syrian complicity in concealing Iraq’s WMD capability, said to have included mobile biological facilities as well as chemical munitions.
The official said the U.S. had already examined evidence provided by Israel. “We have solid evidence,” the official said. “This is not a hunch or speculation.”
On March 31, 2003, a senior Israel Defense Forces intelligence officer told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Iraqi chemical and biological weapons are probably hidden in Syria.
“It is possible Iraq transferred missiles and weapons of mass destruction into Syria,” Intelligence Research Department head Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser told the committee, Israel Radio reported. He said this would explain why U.S.-led forces scouring suspect sites in western Iraq had found nothing so far.
According to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Syria has the largest and most advanced chemical-warfare capability in the Middle East, including chemical warheads for Scud ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, chemical gravity bombs for delivery by aircraft, and chemical warheads for artillery shells. It has an estimated CW stockpile in the hundreds of tons, including Sarin, VX, and mustard gas.
It appears – for now – that Syria is keeping its own WMDs and any it is sheltering for Iraq under close control and is not about to transfer some to Hezbollah in Lebanon. While it is in Syria’s interest to keep Israel on the defensive by encouraging Hezbollah radicalism, it is not in its interest to invite massive Israeli retaliation for a WMD attack. According to Dr. Boaz Ganor, head of the Herzliya-based International Policy Institute for Counter-terrorism, it is not Hezbollah’s ideology of working toward Israel’s destruction that will dictate its next move:
“In my opinion, Hezbollah’s ideology, or its intentions, are not relevant. There is one key player – Syria. What will determine the level of security in the North is not the ideology of Hezbollah and not even the desire of the Lebanese government, but rather the interests of Syria.”
Besides Hezbollah, Ganor notes that Syria cultivates other terrorist groups that are committed to Israel’s destruction, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
“But in the present constellation, when world focus is on Syria, it would not be rational for Damascus to transfer WMDs to these groups and invite a massive U.S. response,” he said. “Under the present U.S. administration, such action by Syria would be considered a casus belli.” He did not discount the possibility of U.S. military intervention under such circumstances.
We know that, in addition to building massive underground bunkers in Baghdad, Saddam also prepared escape routes from Iraq for himself, his family and his top officials. From the number of high Iraqi officials – including weapons scientists – who have turned up in Damascus, it is not unreasonable to assume that this escape route was functioning before and during the Iraq war. It is the same well-traveled route used in the other direction by Palestinian would-be suicide bombers to reach Iraq from Lebanon, where Hezbollah helped to organize their “solidarity missions.” If Syria harbored Saddam’s personnel, why not his WMDs? If Saddam could hide his air force from the U.S. with his erstwhile enemy Iran during the first Gulf War, why not hide WMDs with friendly Syria this time?
While the Bush administration pursues the implementation of the road map in hopes of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and works to rebuild a post-Saddam Iraq, it must not lose focus on the looming danger represented by Syria.
One hopes Assad will continue to act rationally in Syria’s self-interest. The question is whether Syria’s terrorist proxies will let him do so in an atmosphere of growing Islamist volatility – surrounding a potential Armageddon-size store of weapons of mass destruction.