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 and its precursor chemicals.
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 tonnes, 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 tonnes. At least.”
Brig Gen Sakat believes the undisclosed stockpile includes several hundred tonnes of sarin and so-called precursor chemicals used to make the nerve agent, as well as 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 tonnes is higher than his own estimate of around 200 tonnes but called the general’s claims “plausible”.
John Gilbert, a senior science fellow at the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said the amount was "fully possible" if the undeclared arsenal included fluorine-phosphorous and isopropyl, two chemicals which produce sarin when mixed.
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.
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.
“Eighty-six people were killed in the attack, which is not a lot for sarin. If you look at Halabja (the 1988 chemical attack carried out by Saddam Hussein’s forces against the Kurdish city) we think just five tonnes of sarin was used and more than 5,000 people died,” he said.
“Sarin degrades fairly quickly and becomes less toxic over time, so we could be looking at an attack using old sarin.”
Brig Gen Sakat believes the regime has also experimented with mixing different gases – like sarin and tear gas – in order to create a mélange of symptoms that would make the cause hard to identify.
The Syrian government has repeatedly denied bombing Khan Sheikhoun with chemicals, saying its air strikes hit a warehouse the opposition had been using to store toxic materials.
However, British investigators with the OPCW reported on Thursday that samples from victims tested positive for sarin, a nerve agent the rebels are not known to possess.
Brig Gen Sakat said it was not an accident the town was chosen for such an attack and that the regime’s use of chemicals is “always strategic”.
The northern rebel-held town links other opposition areas around Homs, Hama, and most importantly Idlib, the largest urban area under their control. “If you can take Khan Sheikhoun, or force its residents to surrender, you can take the road that connects them,” he said. And chemicals can terrify people into surrendering, he added.
He said Assad became more brazen after the US failed to act when he crossed Barack Obama’s “red line”.
“He experimented and realised everyone was silent to all his crimes: the barrel bombing of civilians and even chemical ones,” Brig Gen Sakat said. “He began acting in the face of the UN and the international community.”
He confirmed that only the head of the army, namely Assad, has the authority to order nerve gas attacks because of the potential fallout.
However, those involving chlorine and other less-deadly chemicals can be signed off by senior local commanders trusted by the regime, usually those from the same Alawite sect as the president.
In the months before he defected, Brig Gen Sakat said he was personally ordered by his commander, Gen Ali Hassan Amar, to carry out three chemical attacks.
They took place in October 2012 on the southern town of Sheikh Maskeen, in December 2012 on nearby Harak, and in January 2013 on Busra al-Harir – all places where demonstrations had been taking place against Assad.
He was told the people “needed to be reorientated”, but Brig Gen Sakat knew the intended target was civilians supportive of the rebellion.
He was told to prepare phosgene, which at high concentrations damages the lungs within seconds and causes death by suffocation. But under the cover of darkness he switched it for water and diluted bleach which would cause no real harm.
It was during this time his son Mohammed, an officer at a military academy, was arrested. The mukhabarat, or secret police, made him sign papers admitting to crimes he had not committed, Brig Gen Sakat said.
“I thought that it was a way to pressure me maybe, or to scare me in order not to become a defector. Maybe that was the plan of the regime,” he told The Telegraph.
Brig Gen Sakat paid for his son’s release and a month later Mohammed was returned, weighing just 7½ st and bearing the signs of torture.
But the attacks were claiming few victims and after the third time the regime became suspicious. It was then he decided to escape to Jordan and then on to Turkey, where he joined the opposition Free Syrian Army.
“I couldn’t believe at the beginning that Assad would use these weapons on his people,” he said.
Syria’s chemical weapons programme was started in the early 1980s with the aim of defending against enemy states such as its neighbour, Israel. “I could not stand and watch the genocide. I couldn’t hurt my own people,” he said.
Brig Gen Sakat has had several attempts on his life since defecting and has given few interviews since leaving Syria.
He now works documenting chemical attacks from outside the country, sharing evidence and information from local activists with the OPCW.
He said he does not think Assad will give up the remaining stockpile as long as he is in power.
“He will not let go of the chemical weapons while he is leader of Syria,” the general said. “If he is forced to leave, he might confess to where some of it is hidden only so it doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.”