Defected Syrian general: Assad sending chemical arms to Hezbollah

Assad ‘will not give up’ his chemical stockpile; truck convoys also carrying weapons into Iraq, Zaher al-Sakat alleges

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has been sending his chemical weapons to Hezbollah and Iraq in order to avoid giving them up for destruction as he agreed to do last month, a defected general from the Syrian Army said.

Brigadier General Zaher al-Sakat told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour Tuesday that rebel surveillance had monitored 28 trucks traveling from Jdeedet Yabous to Lebanon, where they were transferred to Hezbollah.

“They also found in the Frouqlus area more than 50 large Mercedes and Volvo trucks, also heavily guarded, moving in the direction of Iraq,” said al-Sakat, explaining that rebel units held back from attacking the trucks “so as not to spread chemical weapons or agents.”

It was unclear if the convoy moved over the border and into Iraq, he added.

Al-Sakat, who defected in March, said that Assad is determined to maintain as much of his poison gas arsenal as possible.

“The locations of most of the scientific research centers in Syria and the storage facilities are known and under surveillance; thus, he will give up those centers and facilities for sure without lying,” he predicted. “That said, however, Bashar al-Assad will not give up the chemical stockpile.”

Israel has said in the past it would take action to stop Syrian chemical or advanced, “game-changing” weapons from reaching Hezbollah. A series of airstrikes in early 2013 — widely attributed to Israel — that reportedly destroyed missile convoys heading from Syria into Lebanon as well as damaging a chemical weapons production site, apparently put those words into action.

On Tuesday, international inspectors arrived in Damascus to begin the monumental task of overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons in the middle of a civil war.

The inspectors from a Netherlands-based chemical weapons watchdog have around nine months to complete their mission, which was mandated by a Russia-brokered agreement with Syria and calls for finding, dismantling and eliminating Assad’s estimated 1,000-ton arsenal.

Their task was endorsed by a UN Security Council resolution last Friday that calls for Syria’s chemical stockpile to be scrapped by mid-2014. The deadline is the tightest that the experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have ever faced.

The inspectors’ mission was born out of a deadly chemical attack on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus on August 21. The US and its allies accuse the Syrian government of being responsible, while Damascus blames the rebels.

The chemical attack prompted the Obama administration to threaten punitive missile strikes against the Assad regime, touching off weeks of frantic diplomacy that ended with last week’s UN resolution

Al-Sakat, the defected Syrian general, claimed that Damascus has used three different kinds of chemical agents that induce injuries that vary in their severity. Initially, he said, Assad’s forces deployed nonlethal agents before moving on to land mines loaded with “incapacitating agents” that, he said, also harmed civilians. Finally, the regime resorted to using sarin and VX gas, fired in mortar shells, missiles and dropped from aircraft.

“I was given an order to use the number two stage of chemical weapons, and I knew then that this regime will end up using lethal chemical weapons against the civilians; therefore, I defected,” he said.

Last month, Al-Sakat, who commanded a chemical weapons unit attached to the Syrian army’s Fifth Division, made a similar claim in an interview with the Washington Post. In mid-September the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan reported that Assad was smuggling chemical weapons out of Syria via tunnels connecting Syrian and Lebanese villages, while the Lebanese newspaper Al-Mustaqbal reported that 20 trucks laden with equipment used in the manufacture of chemical weapons were driven across the border from Syria into Iraq.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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