Bashar al-Assad still has ‘hundreds of tons’ of chemicals stockpiled, former Syrian weapons research chief claims

Left: Abdulhamid al-Youssef, 29, cries as he holds his twin babies who were killed during a suspected chemical weapons attack, in Khan Sheikhoun; Right: Bashar al-Assad during an interview with AFP this week

President Bashar al-Assad continues to retain hundreds of tonnes of his country’s chemical stockpile after deceiving United Nations inspectors sent in to dismantle it, according to Syria’s former chemical weapons research chief and other experts.

Brigadier-General Zaher al-Sakat – who served as head of chemical warfare in the powerful 5th Division of the military until he defected in 2013 – told The Telegraph that Assad’s regime failed to declare large amounts of sarin precursor chemicals and other toxic materials.

Syria handed over what it said was its entire chemical arsenal to the UN’s Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 2014 under a deal negotiated by the US and Russia after hundreds of people were killed in a sarin gas attack in the outskirts of the capital, Damascus.

The agreement averted US military strikes and the Obama administration declared one of the world’s biggest chemical weapons stockpiles “100 per cent eliminated”.

And Assad insisted once again this week that the regime was not in possession of any chemical weapons.

However, there has long been suspicion – which has intensified after last week’s attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun that left 86 dead – that Assad held some back.

“They [the regime] admitted only to 1,300 tons, but we knew in reality they had nearly double that,” said Brig Gen Sakat, who was one of the most senior figures in the country’s chemical programme. “They had at least 2,000 tons. At least.”

Brig Gen Sakat believes the undisclosed stockpile includes several hundred tonnes of sarin agent as well as precursor chemicals, aerial bombs that could be filled with chemical agents and chemical warheads for Scud missiles.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commander of the British military’s chemical weapons unit who is now advising Syrian NGOs, said the figure of 700 tons is higher than his own estimate of around 200 tons but called the general’s claims “plausible”.

John Gilbert, of the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said if the undeclared arsenal included fluorine-phosphorous and isopropyl, two chemical compounds which mix to make sarin, the amount was “fully possible”.

Sakat, a 53-year-old general who maintained contact with officials inside Syria after his defection in March 2013, said that in the weeks and months before the OPCW inspectors arrived the regime was busy moving its hoard.

He said tonnes of the chemicals were transported to the heavily fortified mountains outside Homs and to the coastal city of Jableh, near Tartus, where the Syrians and Russians have their largest military base.

Assad’s retention of chemical weapons has become something of an open secret in diplomatic circles.

In the intervening years evidence has mounted that Damascus was continuing to use chemicals – including some it had pledged to give up – in attacks on civilians. The OPCW submitted reports on the instances to the UN Security Council.

But after Russia, a veto-wielding permanent member of the council, intervened militarily in support of the Syrian government in September 2015 much of the political will to act was lost.

“There was absolutely no appetite in the UN or among member states to open that can of worms,” one senior UN official told the Wall Street Journal.

Brig Gen Sakat understands, however, that the regime has not been manufacturing more nerve agents since 2014. “They don’t need any more, they have all they need already,” he told The Telegraph, speaking from a country in Europe he asked not to be disclosed to ensure his safety.

Mr de Bretton-Gordon said he thought the Khan Sheikhoun attack pointed to the use of “old sarin”, or sarin that had been mixed and prepared several years ago.

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