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German companies ‘helped build Syria’s chemical stockpile’

Berlin has hushed up attempts to investigate and ignored warnings by partners, including Israel, Der Spiegel reports

Syria's President Bashar Assad (photo credit: AP Photo/SANA, File)
Syria's President Bashar Assad (photo credit: AP Photo/SANA, File)

German companies were likely instrumental in building Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, and the German government has endeavored to prevent these companies’ dealings from coming to light, according to a damning report in German newspaper Der Spiegel.

The German daily reported late Friday that Berlin has had for the past 16 months a list of companies provided by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which allegedly supplied the Syrian regime with technology and materials used to develop and build up its chemical weapons stockpile.

But instead of investigating those companies, the government has classified the document and refused to give any details on its contents, saying releasing the information would “significantly impair foreign policy interests” as well as violate the companies’ constitutional rights to trade secrecy.

The paper speculated that the government had several reasons to do so: Besides embarassing Germany on the global stage, releasing the report would cause internal strife on issues of government regulation of trade, as well as reflect badly on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own ruling party and its former leader, ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Photo credit: John Macdougall/AFP)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Photo credit: John Macdougall/AFP)

Der Spiegel alleged that German businesses’ complicity in chemical weapons manufacturing — whether knowingly or otherwise — goes back decades, with historical government documents indicating heavy involvement by German companies in building up Saddam Hussein’s stash during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s. These weapons were used by Hussein to kill many thousands of Iranians as well as Iraqi Kurds.

One document from 1984 details a visit to the Foreign Ministry by then-Israeli Ambassador to West Germany Yitzhak Ben-Ari, who warned the government that Syria was being aided by European companies, possibly German ones as well, in developing it chemical arsenal.

Israel has over the years had particular concern over Syria’s development of chemical agents, with Damascus’s enormous stockpile considered a strategic threat in any future war.

Though the government, under Kohl, promised to investigate, it is doubtful that serious action was ever taken.

When pressed on such issues, Der Spiegel stated, the implicated German companies have either claimed ignorance, insisted that their services were used to develop pesticides and other peaceful applications only, or — in the case of decades-old allegations — maintained that records no longer exist.

In the past year the UN and the OPCW have overseen the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons cache.

The UN Security Council last year reached a rare agreement by Syria to eliminate the government’s chemical weapons program. The deal was reached under threat of US airstrikes after images of civilian victims laid out after an attack on a Damascus suburb as part of Syria’s civil war shocked the world. President Bashar Assad’s government denied involvement and blamed rebel groups.

The organizations have said all 1,300 tons (1,200 metric tons) of Syria’s declared chemical weapons have been removed, and 97 percent have been destroyed.

Earlier this month UN diplomats said the destruction of 12 chemical weapons facilities in Syria is expected to start later January, and the work should be complete by the end of June 2015.

AP contributed to this report.

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