Syrian President Bashar Assad still possesses hundreds of tons of chemical agents which he hid from the international community, a former Syrian general who specialized in chemical warfare told the Telegraph Friday.
Brig. Gen. Zaher al-Sakat, who defected from Assad’s forces in 2013 and currently resides in an undisclosed European country, told the newspaper the Syrian leader had deceived United Nations inspectors sent into the country to destroy his chemical stockpiles.
Assad had agreed to turn in his entire chemical weapons inventory in 2013 when the US threatened military action after hundreds were killed in a deadly chemical attack on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus.
But Sakat, who was head of chemical warfare in the Syrian army’s Fifth Division, has long claimed that Assad secretly held on to much of his stash. And after an April 4 suspected chemical attack killed at least 87 people, the defector has said the regime still has hundreds of tons of chemicals at hand.
“They admitted only to 1,300 tons, but we knew in reality they had nearly double that,” Sakat told the Telegraph. “They had at least 2,000 tons. At least.”
Sakat said that according to his contacts inside Syria, Assad has not manufactured new weapons since 2014, but “they don’t need any more, they have all they need already.”
Sakat has said in the past that he himself was ordered to carry out chemical strikes on three different occasions before he defected. In those instances he switched out the deadly agents in the bombs for harmless chemicals.
“I couldn’t believe at the beginning that Assad would use these weapons on his people,” he said. “I could not stand and watch the genocide. I couldn’t hurt my own people.”
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the former commander of the UK’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Regimen, said Sakat’s claims of Assad’s retained stockpiles were “plausible.”
He told the Telegraph that the recent alleged chemical strike on the town of Khan Sheikhoun appeared to use old sarin gas.
“Eighty-six people were killed in the attack, which is not a lot for sarin,” he said. “Sarin degrades fairly quickly and becomes less toxic over time, so we could be looking at an attack using old sarin.”
Assad this week said the reports on the recent chemical strike were “a “fabrication” to justify a US strike on his forces.
The Syrian president insisted his forces had turned over all their chemical weapons stocks years ago and would never use the banned arms.
“Definitely, 100 percent for us, it’s fabrication,” he said of the incident.
Assad said evidence for the attack came only from “a branch of Al-Qaeda,” referring to a former jihadist affiliate that is among the groups that control Idlib province, where Khan Sheikhoun is located.
Images of the aftermath, showing victims convulsing and foaming at the mouth, sent shockwaves around the world.
But Assad insisted it was “not clear whether it happened or not, because how can you verify a video? You have a lot of fake videos now.”
“We don’t know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhoun. Were they dead at all?”
He said Khan Sheikhoun had no strategic value and was not currently a battle front.
“This story is not convincing by any means.”
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has begun an investigation into the alleged attack, but Russia on Wednesday blocked a UN Security Council resolution demanding Syria cooperate with the probe.
And Assad said he could “only allow any investigation when it’s impartial, when we make sure that unbiased countries will participate in this delegation in order to make sure that they won’t use it for politicized purposes.”
He insisted several times that his forces had turned over all chemical weapons stockpiles in 2013. “There was no order to make any attack, we don’t have any chemical weapons, we gave up our arsenal a few years ago,” he said.
“Even if we have them, we wouldn’t use them, and we have never used our chemical arsenal in our history.”
The OPCW has blamed Assad’s government for at least two attacks in 2014 and 2015 involving the use of chlorine.
The Khan Sheikhoun incident prompted the first direct US military action against Assad’s government since the war began, with 59 cruise missiles hitting the Shayrat airbase three days after the suspected chemical attack.