“The Russian government was in some kind of trouble,” Vil Mirzayanov, a dissident Soviet chemist from Russia’s chemical weapons program, said of the diplomatic solution that pushed Syria to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on October 14. “Ultimately, there are people that can reveal the old connections. All these chemical weapons of Syria, they are a version of Russian chemical weapons. The Russian government probably felt there was only one solution, so to cover their ass they pushed Syria to join the convention.”
Syria’s entrance into the CWC was met with a geo-political sigh of relief. U.S. military intervention in Syria’s civil war had been averted. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the CWC’s investigative and enforcement arm, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Russians, the major force behind the initiative to transfer Syria’s chemical stockpiles into international control, were hailed for their diplomatic maneuvering. Ironically, the Russians, the heroes behind Syria’s public denunciation of their chemical weapons program, were responsible for the establishment of Syria’s chemical weapons program. Loopholes Russian negotiators inserted into the CWC made it possible.
The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction, or the Chemical Weapons Convention, was the accumulation of 20 years of negotiations by the UN Conference on Disarmament. After the disastrous results of the use of chemical agents during WWI and WWII, the international community drafted numerous resolutions against their use. As the owners of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the global community, the U.S. and Russia were major stakeholders in the negotiations. With the lofty goal of eliminating chemical weapons worldwide, the CWC entered into full force at the UN in April 1997.
“I was well informed in how to create loopholes in this convention,” Vil Mirzayanov said in an interview the day after Syria joined the CWC. “I participated in meetings on how to do that.” For 26 years, Vil Mirzayanov worked as a chemist for the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology, the center of Russia’s chemical weapons program. After helping to develop a new wave of chemical warfare agents that were virtually undetectable by foreign inspectors, known as Novichok, Mirzayanov blew the whistle in 1994. “I came to the conclusion that mostly chemical weapons are against the civilian population. After that I decided that it was not good to work on this program anymore. Especially after Russia developed a new generation of more poisonous and more powerful chemical agents and weaponized them.”
After a year of persecution within Russia for divulging state secrets, Vil Mirzayanov immigrated to the United States, where he continued to sound the alarm about Russia’s chemical weapons program. It went unheeded. In 1997, both the U.S. and Russia ratified the CWC; the threat of chemical war had superficially subsided. Until August 21, 2013 when Syria unleashed the worst chemical weapons attack in nearly two decades. According to Mirzayanov, the loopholes inserted into the CWC by Russian negotiators made that chemical weapons attack possible. Article XI of the CWC, Economic and Technological Development, was the curtain that Russia hid behind to export a new generation of phosphate based chemical agents to rogue nations.
According to Article XI of the CWC, the ban on chemical weapons and the monitoring of their precursors will not interfere with their production and use for purposes outside of war. The article gives the signatories of the convention the right to, “develop, produce, acquire, retain, transfer, and use chemicals.” In addition, the CWC encourages the, “fullest possible exchange of chemicals, equipment and scientific and technical information,” and prohibits countries from using the CWC to, “restrict or impeded trade and the development and promotion of scientific and technological knowledge in the field of chemistry for industrial, agricultural, research, medical, pharmaceutical or other peaceful purposes.”
“Well, what does development mean?” Vil Mirzayanov said when speaking about the loophole he had a personal hand in developing. “No one can tell you what it means exactly. You can continue to synthesize new components and you can continue to test them. This is a very bad loophole because it allows for the development of new kinds of chemical agents.” The new generation of chemical agents that Russia developed while Boris Yeltsin pushed the Russian Parliament to ratify the CWC was done without fear of international interference. Russia’s development of phosphate based chemical weapons was disguised by their dual-use application for civilian purposes. The CWC, which grew out of the use of chlorine and phosgene gases during WWI and WWII, enabled its Signatories to engage in a new phase of chemical war—one that involved far deadlier chemical agents.
Despite public denial, Syria has long been known as the holder of the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the Middle East. On August 21, 2013, Bashar al-Assad deployed these weapons against his own citizens in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus, a rebel stronghold. Surface to surface rockets containing Sarin, a nerve agent, killed 1,429—most were civilians. Russia’s initial reaction to the chemical attack by its longtime ally was to launch a public campaign blaming the rebels. In an Op-Ed piece published by the New York Times on September 11, Vladimir Putin claimed Syrian opposition forces unleashed the chemical weapons to provoke international intervention. In response to a smaller scale chemical weapons attack in Syria in March, Russia conducted an investigation under the guise of the OPCW and submitted a 100-page document to the UN that held the rebels responsible. When this approach failed, Russia launched its diplomatic initiative to transfer Syria’s chemical arsenal to international control.
Sarin is a debilitating nerve agent that is fatal in even low quantities. It attacks the nervous system and those who are exposed go through an excruciating process before death that includes loss of control over bodily functions, convulsions and eventually asphyxiation. Sarin is one of a series of binary chemical agents that Russia developed while negotiating the CWC. It is outlawed in the CWC as a schedule I—the most deadly—chemical weapon. However, Sarin can be produced on the spot by mixing together its precursor chemicals, most notably methylphosphonyl diflouride and isopropanol, or rubbing alcohol. As early as December 2012, reports emerged that Syria was taking steps to create Sarin from precursors and loading them into missiles.
In 1994, the same year Vil Mirzayanov was imprisoned for blowing the whistle on Russia’s Novichok program, Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich was smuggling precursor chemicals for nerve gases into Syria. Gen. Kuntsevich was a leader in Russia’s chemical weapons program. He was in charge of Russia’s Shikany 2 military chemical facility, won the Lenin Prize in 1991 for developing binary chemical agents for the USSR, and oversaw the Novichok program where Mirzayanov worked. Kuntsevich, also, served as an advisor to Boris Yeltsin on chemical disarmament, was in charge of Russia’s chemical and biological weapons conversion programs, and was a lead negotiator for Russia on the CWC. “He was a typical military bureaucrat,” Mirzayanov recalled. “A very dishonest guy.”
Kuntsevich’s transfer of chemical weapons components to Syria became the subject of a Russian Security Services investigation—an investigation that was ultimately dropped after Kuntsevich revealed to the press that the smuggled precursor chemicals were part of a legal trade agreement between Russia and Syria. Mirzayanov chuckled when he spoke of the incident. “They were probably mad because he figured he could make a few bucks on the side. Russia was sending tons and tons of these chemicals to Syria, so Kuntsevich figured he could sell some himself and put some money in his pocket.” The precursor components for nerve agents were transferred into Syria under the cover of environmental protection. The chemical agents were reportedly to support the Pan-Arabian Ecological Center stationed near Damascus. Kuntsevich was assigned to the program as a representative. “He was working on environmental protection problems, but he has no idea what is that,” Mirzayanov said. “That program had to do with chemical weapons activities.”
After his brief period in the media, Kuntsevich drifted away from the public eye. In 2002, he died under mysterious circumstances on a flight from Aleppo-Moscow. Rumors abound that his death was a targeted assassination by intelligence agencies attempting to curtail Syria’s chemical weapons program. The Kuntsevich incident was a rare verifiable glimpse into Russian culpability for Syria’s CW capabilities. The decades long relationship has also been cited in Special Intelligence Estimates released by the CIA in the 1980s and 1990s; Russia was named the source of the chemical agents, delivery systems and training that enabled the development of Syria’s CW program.
Russia is not the only source for the precursor chemicals that allowed Syria to produce Sarin and other nerve agents. Companies in the U.S., U.K., Germany and France also supplied the needed precursors for Sarin as late as 2012. However, Russia is the only country that supplied the on-going military equipment, supplies, technical knowledge and support to make Syria’s CW program operational. “There’s no secret the Assad regime has had significant stockpiles of chemical weapons,” Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel said in response to Congressman Joe Wilson’s questions during the Sept. 4, 2013 House Foreign Relations Committee. “The Russian’s supplied them.”
The Putin administration offered not just the diplomatic support but also the funds and personnel to avoid U.S. military intervention in Syria. In September, Syria filed the appropriate paperwork, self-reported 23 chemical weapons sites, and opened their doors to inspectors from the OPCW. On October 14, Syria officially entered into the CWC. Russian experts were involved in every phase of Syria’s entrance into the UN convention. Russian Foreign Minister Segio Lavov reported in an interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant that Russian experts were ready to be involved, “in all aspects of future activities—in inspections and in administrative structures that might be set up to coordinate activities between the UN and the OPCW on-site.” In addition to personnel, Russia has offered to fund the OPCW inspection and dismantlement of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenals.
The UN resolution that paved the way for Syria’s entrance into the CWC authorized member states to, “acquire, control, transport, transfer and destroy chemical weapons.” Public Integrity reported, the Russian chemical weapons demilitarization plant at Shchuch’ye is being discussed at the UN as the final resting place of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenals. The diplomatic solution brought Syria’s chemical weapons program full circle. The CWC that Russian negotiators manipulated to enable the continued operation of their chemical weapons program has also enabled Russia to reclaim the chemical weapons program that they helped to create in Syria.
“Without Russia, they cannot do anything,” Mirzayanov said of the positive aspects of Syria’s entrance into the CWC. “The loopholes are for continuation of development in testing new generations of chemical weapons. That’s on Russian soil, so it’s a Russian problem not a Syrian problem. But, Russia will continue these policies,” Mirzayanov warned. “They know the loopholes and they’re very dangerous loopholes.”