There is mounting evidence that at least some of Saddam Hussein’s missing weapons of mass destruction are in Syria, smuggled there by the Iraqi dictator for safekeeping before the beginning of the war. Part of the stockpile the coalition forces have so far failed to find in Iraq was probably destroyed; part is likely still hidden. But a massively lethal amount of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons is stored alongside Syria’s own stockpiles of WMDs.
Perhaps more worrisome, there are indications these weapons are not under the control of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Rather, in a potentially catastrophic palace intrigue, his sister, Bushra, and her husband, Gen. Assaf Shawkat, the No. 2 in Syria’s military intelligence organization, the Mukhabarat, are said to have made the storage arrangements with Saddam as part of a bid for power.
On Jan. 5, 2004, Nizar Nayouf, a Syrian journalist who recently defected to France, said in a letter to the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf that chemical and biological weapons were smuggled from Iraq into Syria before the war began, when Saddam realized he would be attacked by the U.S. Nayouf claimed to know three sites where Iraq’s WMDs are kept: in tunnels under the town of al-Baida in northern Syria, part of an underground factory built by North Korea for producing a Syrian version of the Scud missile; in the village of Tal Snan, adjacent to a Syrian Air Force base; and in Sjinsjar, on the border with Lebanon.
Speaking to the British television station ITN on Jan. 9, Nayouf quoted a Syrian military intelligence official as confirming the three sites.
Nayouf’s claims had in fact been substantiated by the U.S. intelligence community two months before. In a briefing to defense reporters on Oct. 30, 2003, officials of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency in Washington released an assessment that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were transferred to Syria in the weeks before the war began.
The officials said the assessment was based on satellite images of convoys of Iraqi trucks that poured into Syria in February and March 2003. According to Middle East Newsline, quoted by WorldTribune.com, most of the intelligence community concluded that at least some of Iraq’s WMDs, along with Iraqi scientists and technicians, was smuggled to Syria.
NIMA chief James Clapper, a retired Air Force general and a leading member of the U.S. intelligence community, told reporters he linked the disappearance of Iraqi WMDs with the large number of Iraqi trucks that crossed into Syria before and during the U.S. invasion. The assessment was that these trucks contained missiles and WMD components banned by the United Nations Security Council.
“I think personally that the [Iraqi] senior leadership saw what was coming and I think they went to some extraordinary lengths to dispose of the evidence,” Clapper said. He said he is certain that components connected to Iraq’s biological, chemical, and nuclear programs were sent to Syria in the weeks prior to and during the war.
David Kay, the recently resigned head of an American WMD search team in Iraq, confirmed that part of Saddam’s weapons was hidden in Syria, Britain’s Sunday Telegraph reported on Jan. 25, 2004. Kay said he had uncovered conclusive evidence shortly before last year’s U.S. invasion.
“We are not talking about a large stockpile of weapons, but we know from some of the interrogations of former Iraqi officials that a lot of material went to Syria before the war, including some components of Saddam’s WMD program,” Kay said.
Gal Luft, a former analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, confirmed Iraqi WMDs are hidden in Syria, but not by the regime.
“Certain individuals are taking money and hiding weapons,” he told UPI on Feb. 7, 2003, but this is “not government-sanctioned.” Judith Yaphe, a former senior CIA Middle East analyst, agreed, suggesting the WMD smuggling operation is “palace intrigue.” She said in the same UPI report that Bashar Assad’s sister, Bushra, “is the brains. She’s much smarter and more effective than Bashar, and she was disappointed at being passed over and not seeing her husband elevated.”
Dr. Dany Shoham of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies is a former lieutenant colonel in the IDF Intelligence Corps who specializes in weapons of mass destruction, particularly bio-chemical warfare. He says it is “likely” at least some of Saddam’s WMDs were hidden in Syria before the war.
“I’d say there are three possibilities: that these weapons were destroyed by the Iraqis before the war; that they were hidden in Iraq; and that they were smuggled out,” Shoham said. In all probability, some were destroyed, some are still hidden, but some lethal amount was smuggled to Syria for safekeeping.
“Syria is the No. 1 candidate,” Shoham continued, “because of its long, common border with Iraq, because a number of Iraqi bio-warfare scientists fled to Syria before the war, and because Syrian President Bashar Assad had a much closer relationship with Saddam than his late father, Hafez.”
“What is strange,” said Shoham, “is that, since Saddam was captured – and even before – the Americans did not relate to the Syrian option. It is as if the U.S. doesn’t want to reveal the fact that Iraqi WMDs are hidden there. It could be that the U.S. cannot yet confirm this – but another possibility is that the Bush administration knows the answer and has decided it is not yet time to reveal it. For whatever reason, it may still be too classified. If there is some political bias involved, the U.S. presidential election campaign might account for it.”
If Syria is indeed safeguarding at least some of Saddam’s WMDs, now that Saddam is history and Iraq has started along the road to democracy, what is likely to happen to these weapons?
“It is not likely that Syria will share them with Hezbollah in Lebanon,” said Shoham. “It is in Syria’s interest to maintain the current relative quiet” along Lebanon’s border with Israel, he said, noting the tension in Syria’s relationship with the U.S., which is about to impose sanctions on Damascus due to its support of terrorism.
“The Syria-Iran interface is very strong and active,” he noted. “On the other hand, it is well to keep in mind that Syria has its own large arsenal of WMDs.”
Assuming the U.S. did detect the smuggling, why didn’t it stop it? The Bush administration certainly received advance warning. In December 2002, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced on television that Saddam had hidden chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction in Syria.
“We believe, and I say it has not been completely verified, that weapons he [Saddam] wants to hide – chemical and biological weapons – have been smuggled into Syria,” Sharon said on Israel’s Channel 2.
A senior Israeli intelligence official said afterward the Iraqi WMDs included mobile biological facilities mounted in trailer trucks, as well as chemical munitions. He said the U.S. had examined evidence provided by Israel. “We have solid evidence,” the official said. “This is not a hunch or speculation.”
Israel’s warning was repeated some three months later. On March 31, 2003, a senior Israel Defense Forces intelligence officer, Intelligence Research Department head Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Iraqi chemical and biological weapons are probably hidden in Syria, Israel Radio reported.
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 Syria is not about to transfer WMDs to Hezbollah in Lebanon, since it is not in its interest to invite massive Israeli retaliation for a WMD attack. According to Dr. Boaz Ganor, head of Israel’s International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism, 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.
The White House has maintained it lacks hard evidence to back Nayouf’s reports of Iraqi WMDs smuggled to Syria.
“I want to be very clear: We don’t, at this point, have any indications that I would consider credible and firm that that has taken place. But we will tie down every lead,” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters in Washington on Jan. 10, 2004.
Another former Israeli Intelligence official said Washington’s unwillingness to believe the Israeli reports is basically political, having to do with the president’s re-election campaign: “The Bush administration does not want to confront the Syrians, even though they are bad news and working all along with Saddam,” he said.
Perhaps the Bush administration feels constrained during a re-election campaign about taking on another despot possessing WMDs, while it still has forces on the ground in Iraq. But the same justification that powered regime change in Iraq still exists – it has just moved to the dictatorship next door.