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 U.S. 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 Barack 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 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.”
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 anti-secrecy 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.