Bashar Al-Assad Personally Ordered Nerve Gas Program For Use Against His People: Scientists

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gestures during an exclusive interview with AFP in the capital Damascus on February 11, 2016. Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad ordered the development of chemical agents, including sarin, to use against opponents years before the outbreak of the country's six-year civil war, according to exiled Syrian scientists.

Scientists involved in the country's chemical weapons programme told French investigative news site Mediapart that the Assad regime ordered the equipping of seven military bases with storage facilities for chemicals needed to create sarin gas.

The nerve gas was later added to modified munitions that could be fired from helicopters, the report says.

The site also obtained smuggled documents from the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (CERS) that Assad directly controls.

French intelligence verified the evidence and it was the center of France's statement at the U.N. Security Council that accused Damascus of using chemical agent in the April bombing of Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern province of Idlib.

In 2011, when Syrian soldiers began to desert to rebel forces, Assad told a CERS unit known as Department 3000, to modify shells and grenades to contain nerve gas to use against opponents of the regime.

A former director of the unit who oversaw research into chemical weapons use told Mediapart he was loyal to the program because he was told it was the only way to pressure Israel into returning the Golan Heights, a territory that Israel captured from Syria in the Six-Day War.

"I'm not an Alawite; I have no clan attachment," he said, according to Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, which obtained the Mediapart investigation ahead of its official release.

"I knew a war wouldn't permit us to obtain this objective," he said, viewing the chemical weapons as a deterrent against Israel, rather than to be used against civilians.

The former officials said that Department 3000 developed a nerve gas based on sarin—a colorless, odorless gas—with methenamine, a catalyst for the nerve agent, that would kill its victims.

French intelligence is now in possession of a grenade that failed to explode in an April 2013 attack, the scientist says, and which contained 100 millimeters of sarin at a purity of 60 percent, as well as methenamine. The grenade's contents corroborate the officials' accounts.

The United Nations and Western nations have accused Assad of using chemical weapons against civilian populations in opposition-held areas on several occasions throughout the civil war that broke out in March 2011. Damascus denies ever using chemical weapons.

Read more: Assad Regime Is Still Making Chemical Weapons in Syria

In 2013, the regime admitted possessing more than 1,000 tons of chemical material that could be used in weapons. Later that year, Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and agreed to the removal of its chemical stockpile from the country.

The removal came in the aftermath of the regime's infamous sarin gas attack on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August 2013. The U.S. government estimated that the attack killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. The United Nations, the U.S., which supports the Syrian opposition, and Russia, a key ally of the Assad regime, facilitated the deal.

But according to a report from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Syrian regime is continuing to produce chemical weapons in contravention of the deal to hand over all of its stockpile for destruction.