WASHINGTON — Syria’s top leaders amassed one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons with help from the Soviet Union and Iran, as well as Western European suppliers and even a handful of American companies, according to US diplomatic cables and declassified intelligence records.
While an expanding group of nations banded together in the 1980s to try to block the Syrian effort, prohibiting the sale of goods that would bolster the growing chemical weapons stockpile, the archives show that Syria’s governing Assad family exploited large loopholes, lax enforcement, and a far greater international emphasis on limiting the spread of nuclear arms.
Now, as President Obama confronts enormous difficulties in rallying a reluctant Congress and a skeptical world to punish the Syrian government with a military strike over its apparent use of deadly nerve agents last month, he appears to be facing a similar challenge to the one that allowed the Assads to accumulate their huge stockpile.
While countries around the world condemned Syria for adding to its arsenal as most nations were eliminating their own chemical weapons, few challenged the buildup, and some were eager to profit from it. “It was frustrating,” Juan C. Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism in the George W. Bush administration, recalled Friday.
“People tried. There were always other understandably urgent priorities — Iran’s nuclear program, North Korea,” Zarate said. “It was an issue that was always there, but never rose to the top of the world’s agenda.”
Proliferation experts said President Bashar Assad of Syria and his father before him, former President Hafez Assad, were greatly helped in their chemical weapons ambitions by a basic underlying fact: often innocuous, legally exportable materials are also the precursors to manufacturing deadly chemical weapons.
Soon after Obama came to office, newly installed officials grew increasingly alarmed by the ease with which Assad was using a network of front companies to import the precursors needed to make VX and sarin, deadly chemical poisons that are internationally banned, according to leaked diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks, the antisecrecy group.
Sarin gas has been identified by the United States as the agent loaded atop small rockets on Aug. 21 and shot into the densely populated suburbs of Damascus, killing more than 1,400 people, according to administration officials.
The growth of Syria’s capability was the subject of a sharply worded secret cable transmitted by the State Department under Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s name in the fall of 2009.
It instructed diplomats to “emphasize that failure to halt the flow” of chemicals and equipment into Syria, Iran, and North Korea could render irrelevant a group of anti-proliferation countries that organized to stop that flow. The cable was included in a trove of State Department messages leaked to WikiLeaks in 2010.
Another leaked State Department cable on the Syrians asserted that “part of their modus operandi is to hide procurement under the guise of legitimate pharmaceutical or other transactions.”
Publicly, US officials contend that they have done much since then to limit the flow of raw materials that feed Syria’s chemical weapons industry, in particular Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center, which has been identified as a government enterprise for weapons development.
Israel struck a missile convoy outside the center in January, US intelligence officials have said, on suspicions that weapons were headed for delivery to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“For several years, the Treasury Department, working with our partners across the U.S. government, has taken steps to expose and disrupt the Syrian regime’s WMD proliferation activities,” David S. Cohen, the Treasury undersecretary in charge of sanctions, said in an e-mailed statement. “We will continue to use all of our authorities to undermine the Syrian government’s WMD proliferation efforts within Syria as well as around the world.”
‘It was an issue that was always there, but never rose to the top of the world’s agenda.’ — Juan C. Zarate, Former Bush terrorism adviser
The diplomatic cables and other intelligence documents show that, over time, the two generations of Assads built up a huge stockpile by creating companies with the appearance of legitimacy, importing chemicals that had many legitimate uses, and capitalizing on the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
A Russian general responsible for dismantling Soviet chemical weapons, who died a decade ago, was identified by a colleague as the man who helped the Syrian government establish its program.
As early as 1991, under the first Bush presidency, a now declassified National Intelligence Estimate concluded that “both Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union provided the chemical agents, delivery systems and training that flowed to Syria.”
The same report concluded that Syria most likely possessed 1,100-pound aerial bombs containing sarin — larger than the warheads mounted atop rockets that killed so many in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21.
In a few instances, American companies became players in Syria’s efforts to add to the sophistication of its stores.
One of the best-known cases in the United States involved a Waterville, Maine, company once known as Maine Biological Laboratories. The company and several top executives were found guilty of allowing a series of shipments to Syria in 2001, including restricted biological agents.