On August 21, 2013, the red line the Obama administration set for a military intervention in Syria was irrevocably crossed—President Bashar al-Assad dropped chemical weapons on a Damascus suburb killing 1,429 of his own citizens. The military intervention threatened by the United States has been complicated by a lack of support from the UN National Security Council, namely Russia, who has indicated that it will veto any military action proposed against the Assad regime. As Obama prepares to travel to Russia for a G-20 summit hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in early September, both the U.S. and Russia are deploying warships to the Mediterranean. The conflict in Syria has the potential to transform into a Cold War-esque military showdown between the U.S. and Russia—it has been brewing since the early 1990s.
In the early 1990s, the Clinton administration was focused on securing support from Congress for the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty aimed at eradicating chemical weapons by 2004. In 1994, Russia’s top negotiator for the treaty, Lt. Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich, became the center of a Russian security services investigation for selling precursor components for nerve gas to Syria. Kuntsevich served as an adviser to Boris Yeltsin on chemical disarmament and was the head of Russia’s chemical and biological weapons conversion programs. Previously, he was in charge of Russia’s Shikany 2 military chemical facility and won the Lenin Prize in 1991 for developing binary chemical agents for the USSR. He was Chairman of the committee on safeguarding and dismantling chemical and biological weapons, in 1993, when he smuggled 1600 pounds of nerve gas components into Syria and conspired to transfer 5 metric tons of chemical weapons components in 1994. Russian security services revealed their investigation into Kuntsevich as he was running for a seat in Russia’s Parliament, the Duma, with Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party. He was fired by Yeltsin and dropped from the ballot.
In a series of exclusive interviews with The Forward’s Edward Schilling in 1996, Kuntsevich revealed that the investigation into his dealings with Syria was political fall-out caused by in-fighting amongst Russia’s “Chemical Generals” over how to spend the approximately $400 million in U.S. aid allocated annually to help Russia dismantle its chemical and biological weapons arsenals. Kuntsevich, speaking to “save his own skin”, claimed he wanted to use the funds appropriated under the Nunn-Lugar Act of 1991 for their intended purpose. His colleagues, however, wanted to use the money to bolster the operating budget for Russia’s clandestine chemical and biological weapons program. Kuntsevich affirmed that he transferred precursor chemicals to Syria, which he stated were legal shipments done in accordance with an unnamed treaty between Syria and Russia to aid the Pan-Arabian Ecological Center stationed near Damascus.
Ironically, the man that arranged Kuntsevich’s notorious interviews with The Forward, dissident Soviet scientist Vil Mirzayanov, was imprisoned by Kuntsevich in October and November of 1992. Mirzayanov was arrested for blowing the whistle on Moscow’s break-through development of a family of nerve gases known as “Novichok” that could avoid detection by U.S. sensors—Kuntsevich oversaw the “Novichok” program where Mirzayanov worked. Mirzayanov immigrated to the U.S. a short time later and forcefully warned that U.S. aid provided under the “Cooperative Threat Reduction” Initiative of the Nunn-Lugar Act was being used to fuel chemical weapons research. He, also, warned of the loopholes that Kuntsevich and colleagues had inserted into the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that enabled Russia to legally manufacture and export Nerve Agents, such as “Novichok”. Congress ratified the CWC in 1997. Nunn-Lugar appropriations for Russia continued until 2012 when Russia refused to renew the agreement, cutting off U.S. monitoring power of Russia’s Weapons of Mass Destruction in the midst of the Syria crisis. U.S. taxpayers provided Russia an estimated $8 billion over the 21-year course of the program.
Russia’s military support for the Assad family is long-standing and has continued throughout the Syrian uprising. In the 1970s and 80s, 90% of all USSR arms exports were to Syria. The majority of Syria’s missile systems and weapons arsenals come from the former Soviet Union. Russia has continued to serve as Syria’s primer arms supplier, and provided Bashar al-Assad with an estimated $1 billion in advanced military equipment in 2011—the start of the Syrian uprising. The aid has included an air-defense system and anti-cruise missiles designed to protect Syrian installations from missile strikes from the air and sea. In February 2013, Finnish authorities launched an investigation into Russian attempts to smuggle arms to Syria through a port in Helsinki. There are repeated reports of Russian ships being detained in international waters for attempting to transport arms to Syria. In 2002, Lt. Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich died under mysterious circumstances on a flight from Aleppo-Moscow. He reminds us of the undeniable fact that the military aid Russia supplied to Syria included the technology and equipment needed to create chemical warheads.