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16 September 2013

Syria's chemical weapons: the use of illicit procurement

The US, UK, France and other countries have assessed that chemical weapons were used indiscriminately against civilian populations in Syria on 21st August 2013. While no verifiable conclusions can be drawn regarding the perpetrators, delivery vehicle, or the exact number of casualties, it is likely that the attack was conducted by forces associated with Assad’s regime.[1] On the 14th September 2013, the US and Russia reached an agreement that would see Syria join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), declare and destroy its chemical stockpiles and production facilities.[2]

Flag of Syria

While many uncertainties remain at this stage, it is timely to consider some of the broader issues relating to Syria’s Chemical weapons programme which are relevant to preventing other countries acquiring such weapons. These include Syria’s apparent dependency on the international market place, and the methods used by Syrian entities to procure related technologies. This article will present evidence of Syrian illicit procurement activities, and ask what conclusions can be drawn.

Controls on Chemical Weapons-related Technology

The dependency of many chemical weapons programmes on the international market place provides the international community an ability both to curtail their development, and to gather intelligence regarding the agents that a particular programme is likely to be producing. Syria’ chemical weapons programme is not an exception: the country has largely depended on imports. This has aided international authorities in understanding the nature of Syria’s chemical weapons programme.

Chemical weapons manufacture requires large amounts of chemicals described as ‘precursors’ which are processed through specialist manufacturing equipment to produce chemical weapons agents. These agents can then be delivered to their targets by a number of different methods including missiles, manned aircraft, unmanned aircraft, artillery shell, or release from canisters.

The Australia Group (AG) was established in the 1980s as a response to the massive chemical weapons use by Iran and Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. The group consists of likeminded states which have an interest in harmonising export controls to prevent the use of goods in chemical and biological weapons programmes. The AG has prepared Common Control Lists which encompass chemical weapons precursors, chemical and biological dual-use manufacturing equipment, related technology and software, biological agents, plant pathogens and animal pathogens.[3] There are also some related controls in terms of delivery vehicles. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), for example, controls missiles. The UK is a member of both the AG and the MTCR.

These control lists are implemented through national export control systems of AG members and other states choosing to include them in their national legislation. The AG also works to share information between members on chemical and biological weapons development efforts in countries around the world.

The dual-use problem – that the majority of chemical weapons precursors have legitimate uses in industrial applications – presents a key difficulty in reaching a judgement as to whether chemicals can safely be exported. A significant issue relates to the confidence that government and the exporting industry has that the goods will be used for peaceful applications.

Countries of Chemical Concern[4]

Most countries have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) which prohibits the manufacture, storage and use of chemical weapons and sets out requirements for the destruction of existing arsenals. However, there are several countries of concern that exporters should be aware of:


Possible active programme


Likely programme


Possible active programme

North Korea

Active programme


Active programme

In the UK, license applications are assessed on a case by case basis in accordance with the Consolidated Criteria. Licenses should not be issued if exports could:

  • Contravene the UK’s international commitments (ie breach arms embargoes or sanctions);
  • Be used for internal repression or the abuse of human rights;
  • Provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions in the destination country;
  • Be used aggressively against another country;
  • Adversely affect the national security of the UK or allies;
  • Be to a destination where the behaviour of the buyer country raises concerns with regard to its attitude to terrorism or respect of international law;
  • Be diverted or re-exported under undesirable conditions;
  • In the case of developing countries, seriously hamper the sustainable development of the recipient country.

The first of these criteria, relating to international commitments, in the UK case could be seen to relate to Britain’s status as a CWC signatory, and an Australia Group member. The CWC requires that signatory states do not export Schedule 1 chemicals, the most sensitive chemicals, to non-state parties to the CWC.[5]

The UK’s AG membership goes further. The group’s guidelines, amongst other things, state that:[6]

4) To fulfil the purposes of these Guidelines, the evaluation of export applications will take into account the following non-exhaustive list of factors:

  1. Information about proliferation and terrorism involving CBW, including any proliferation or terrorism-related activity, or about involvement in clandestine or illegal procurement activities, of the parties to the transaction;
  2. The capabilities and objectives of the chemical and biological activities of the recipient state;
  3. The significance of the transfer in terms of (1) the appropriateness of the stated end-use, including any relevant assurances submitted by the recipient state or end-user, and (2) the potential development of CBW;
  4. The role of distributors, brokers or other intermediaries in the transfer, including, where appropriate, their ability to provide an authenticated end-user certificate specifying both the importer and ultimate end-user of the item to be transferred, as well as the credibility of assurances that the item will reach the stated end-user;
  5. The assessment of the end-use of the transfer, including whether a transfer has been previously denied to the end-user, whether the end-user has diverted for unauthorized purposes any transfer previously authorized, and, to the extent possible, whether the end-user is capable of securely handling and storing the item transferred;
  6. The extent and effectiveness of the export control system in the recipient state as well as any intermediary states;
  7. The applicability of relevant multilateral agreements, including the BTWC and CWC.

5) In a manner consistent with its national legislation and practices, the Government should, before authorizing a transfer of an AG-controlled item, either (a) satisfy itself that goods are not intended for re-export; (b) satisfy itself that, if re-exported, the goods would be controlled by the recipient government pursuant to these guidelines; or (c) obtain satisfactory assurances that its consent will be secured prior to any retransfer to a third country.

In September 2013, Syria agreed to the US and Russian plan to accede to the CWC and destroy its existing stockpiles and means of production. Syrian joined the convention on 14th September. The US-Russian plan suggests that Syria will declare its arsenal and inspectors will verify this claim by November. Destruction of the production equipment will take place in November 2013, with a view to completing the destruction of the entire arsenal by early 2014.[7]However, while Syria’s intentions to comply with the CWC and implement the US-Russia framework are uncertain concern regarding Syria’s programme will likely remain.

Syrian Procurement Activities

The victims of the attack last month in Damascus exhibited symptoms consistent with the use of the nerve agent Sarin. This has view has been expressed by UN inspectors in their report.[8] Syria is assessed in many open sources to have a chemical arsenal consisting of Sarin alongside a number of other chemical agents such as VX nerve agent, and Mustard Gas.

At the centre of Syria’s programme is a research centre, the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC). The SSRC is a government entity and is heavily involved in Syria’s WMD programmes, most notably its chemical weapons and missile programmes. The SSRC may also be active in the biological weapons area and also was linked by efforts to construct a nuclear reactor with North Korean assistance.

There is little public information regarding Syrian chemical procurement activities. In the past, the programme has benefitted from significant outside help. Notably, there were allegations in the 1990s that a retired Russian general shipped precursor chemicals and equipment.[9]

A 2012 unclassified assessment by the US Government assessed that ‘Syria remains dependent on foreign sources for key elements of its CW program, including precursor chemicals’.[10] Similarly, private government assessments presented at a 2006 Australia Group information exchange indicated that Syria lacked the capability to produce precursors, and more broadly that ‘Syria’s chemical industry was dependent on imports’.[11] Another assessment at a similar meeting in 2008 noted that Syria ‘maintains some dependence on precursor imports’.[12]

Given such conclusions, an assessment of open sources suggests the on-going importance of two sources of technology:

  • Cooperation with Iran
  • The international market place

Cooperation with Iran

There have been a number of allegations over the past decade regarding Syria’s cooperation in the Chemical area with Iran. Iran has been alleged by a number of governments to possess both a chemical weapons capability, and also a more developed chemical industry.[13] A number of articles in open sources alleged Iranian-Syrian cooperation at a number of levels.

Presentations at a 2006 AG meeting confirm government concerns regarding Iran’s assistance to Syria in the construction of facilities and in the transfer of precursors.[14] A record of a 2008 meeting indicates that ‘reliable information’ suggested that in 2007, ‘Syria conducted a scientific exchange with Iran that included training Syrian students at the University of Tehran’.[15]

International Market Place

Publically available sources also suggest that Syria is still dependent upon imports from the international market-place. A presentation at a 2008 Australia Group meeting noted that ‘Syria appears focused on importing precursors and precursors of precursors, including hydrochloric acid, monoethylene glycol, diisopropylamine, hydrogen fluoride, monoisopropylamine, and sodium sulphide’.[16] A 2006 presentation also expressed concern regarding potential interest in MEG, a precursor to a precursor used to produce VX and mustard gas.[17]

Syria’s Procurement

Specific concern regarding Syria’s attempts to procure equipment and precursor chemicals provide further insights, both into Syria’s demands, and methods:

  • In 2007 South Korea denied a license application for the export of triethanolamine to Syria.[18]
  • In 2007 US State Department cables express concern regarding possible SSRC procurement efforts of ‘large quantities of chemicals’ from Italy.[19]
  • A 2008 cable indicates that a similar message of concern regarding ‘large quantities of chemicals’ was also delivered to Greece.[20]
  • In 2009 cables allege that two Indian firms were planning to supply chemical weapons related equipment to Syrian entities. This included Australia Group-controlled ‘glass-lined reactors, heat exchangers and pumps’. Both firms also received visits from Syrian institutions in mid-September 2008.[21]
  • Cables also express concern that Syria may have been looking to procure pinacolyl alcohol from Chinese entities in July 2009.[22]Pinacolyl alcohol is not produced widely, nor used widely in industrial processes. It is also used as a precursor for Soman, a chemical agent which open sources do not suggest that Syria has developed.
  • 2013 reports allege that the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs rejected 14 license applications since 1998 for equipment which had a potential use in chemical and biological weapons. These licenses included those for ‘a vacuum pump, valves and a bioreactor’, and totalled 1.7 million Swiss Francs (£1.15 million).[23]

While the dual-use dilemma may mean that these exports were not in fact destined for use in Syria’s chemical weapons programme, the SSRC is known to have utilised front companies as a principle modus operandi.[24] Similarly, the Swiss report from 2013 indicates that ‘the Syrian recipients acted as representatives of bogus companies’ with at least one being linked to the SSRC.[25]

Cables shed some light on the efforts taken by companies wittingly involved in these trafficking operations. Cables discuss the risk posed by two Indian companies, both by witting attempts to circumvent India’s export controls, and through diversion occurring within their supply chain. The cable notes concern that:[26]

  • The entities may attempt to circumvent controls by applying for export licenses using the names of a subsidiary company.
  • As one of the firms had done in the past, ‘by shipping products through carrying and forwarding agents who then forwarded the products on to the recipient countries of concern’.
  • Goods could be packaged in a manner to disguise their contents using ‘inner and outer containers’.


Overall it is apparent that international controls have acted to constrain some of the aspects of Syria’s programme, notably procurement from the international market place. However, Syria has nonetheless succeeded in constructing a diverse chemical arsenal, using illicit procurement methods to circumvent export controls and acquire equipment and precursors, and allegedly with Iranian assistance.

Syria’s accession to the CWC and the joint framework put together by the US and Russia to work towards the verifiable dismantlement of Syria’s arsenal and production capability is undoubtedly a positive step. However, it is unlikely to have an impact on licensing of chemical related items to Syria in the UK or elsewhere until Syria has both demonstrated the intention to comply with the treaty, and the verified tangible steps to dismantle Syria’s capability have been taken.

The Syrian case highlights the importance of the international market place and illicit procurement methods to those seeking to covertly develop chemical weapons capabilities. It also highlights the importance of an aware and informed industry in preventing the spread of dangerous unconventional weapons capabilities.


[1] Joint Intelligence Organisation, ‘Syria: Reported Chemical Weapons Use’, 29 August 2013,

[2] Office of the Spokesperson, ‘Framework for Elimitaion of Syrian Chemical Weapons’, US State Department Website, 14 September 2013,

[3] ‘Australia Group Common Control Lists’, Australia Group Website, undated,

[4] For more information see the Alpha Country Profiles.

[5] ‘Chemical Weapons Convention Guidance’, Website

[6] ‘Guidelines’, Australia Group Website, July 2012,

[7] Wyn Bowen, ‘Explainer: How Will Syria’s Chemical Weapons Be Destroyed’, The Conversation, 16 September 2013,

[8] ‘U.N Report Photo Shows Confirmation of Sarin in Syria Attack’, Reuters, 16 September 2013,

[9] Anthony Deutsch & Khaled Yacoub Oweis, ‘Syra’s Chemical Weapons Programme Built with Outside Help to Counter Israel’, Huffington Post, 28 August 2013,

[10] Director of National Intelligence, ‘Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, Covering 1 January to 31 December 2011’,

[11] US Embassy Paris, Australia Group: 2008 Information Exchange (IE)’, 17 April 2008, Cable Number:  08PARIS735,

[12] US Embassy Paris, Australia Group: 2008 Information Exchange (IE)’, 17 April 2008, Cable Number:  08PARIS735,

[13] ‘Iran Chemical Profile’, Nuclear Threat Initiative Website


[15] US Embassy Paris, Australia Group: 2008 Information Exchange (IE)’, 17 April 2008, Cable Number:  08PARIS735,

[16] US Embassy Paris, Australia Group: 2008 Information Exchange (IE)’, 17 April 2008, Cable Number:  08PARIS735,

[17] US Embassy Paris, Australia Group: 2006 Information Exchange (IE)’, 20 June 2006, Cable Number:  06PARIS4218,

[18] US Embassy Paris, Australia Group: 2008 Information Exchange (IE)’, 17 April 2008, Cable Number:  08PARIS735,

[19] US Embassy Rome, ‘Australia Group: GOI Response to Demarche On’, 21 December 2007, Cable Number: 07ROME2505,

[20] US Embassy Athens, ‘SHIELD S15-A-06: Demarche Delivered on Syrian Efforts to Procure CW-Useful Chemicals’, 7 January 2008, Cable Number: 08ATHENS,

[21] Secretary of State, ‘SHIELD S04B-08: Syria Arranging to Acquire CW’, 30 December 2008, Cable Number: 08STATE135048,

[22] Secretary of State, ‘SHIELD S15-09: Syria Seeking Controlled CW Precursor From China’, 9 July 2009, Cable Number: 09STATE71261,

[23] ‘Syria Wanted to Buy Swiss Weapon Technology’,, 2 September 2013,

[24] US Embassy Paris, Australia Group: 2008 Information Exchange (IE)’, 17 April 2008, Cable Number:  08PARIS735,

[25] ‘Syria Wanted to Buy Swiss Weapon Technology’,, 2 September 2013,

[26] Secretary of State, ‘SHIELD S04D-08: Preventing Indian Firms From’, 27 February 2009, Cable Number: 09STATE18867,