Top defector claims Assad moving chemical weapons

Former general tells Washington Post of regime convoys heading for Iraq and Lebanon; Israel, US skeptical

This 2001 file photo shows a safety vehicle passing a compound filled with 170-gallon containers of mustard and blister agent at the Deseret Chemical Depot in Tooele, Utah. (photo credit: AP/Douglas C. Pizac/File)
This 2001 file photo shows a safety vehicle passing a compound filled with 170-gallon containers of mustard and blister agent at the Deseret Chemical Depot in Tooele, Utah. (photo credit: AP/Douglas C. Pizac/File)

A chemical weapons specialist who defected from the Syrian army says Damascus has been moving chemical weapons to Iraq and Lebanon to avoid international inspections.

Brig. Gen. Zaher al-Sakat, who changed sides in March, made the assertions in an interview published Monday with David Ignatius of the Washington Post.

The claims follow a number of similar allegations from Syrian rebel groups and others aligned with the opposition. The US is skeptical over the charges, according to the report, and an Israeli general said last week he did not believe Lebanese terror group Hezbollah was interested in the weapons.

Syria is believed to possess around 1,000 tons of chemical toxins, and has agreed to destroy them under a joint Russian-US proposal designed to avert a US military strike.

Al-Sakat, who commanded a chemical weapons unit attached to the Syrian army’s Fifth Division, claimed that rebel spotters had identified a convoy of specially-fitted Syrian trucks moving from Homs towards the Iraqi border.

He also indicated that a truck convoy that headed toward Lebanon from the Mezze military airport, near Damascus, could also have been transferring chemical weapons. Before it reached Lebanon, al-Sakat said, the convoy headed north to Kfer Yabous before continuing west on a Hezbollah smuggling route.

Last week, a Saudi newspaper published a report based on Syrian opposition sources saying that the Assad regime is smuggling chemical weapons to Hezbollah through tunnels connecting Syrian and Lebanese villages.

The Al-Watan report could not be confirmed by other sources and appeared in a Saudi establishment daily staunchly supportive of the Syrian opposition and which has called for a Western military strike against Syria.

The regime has chosen three destinations for its weapons, the daily claimed: Iraq, under the supervision of Iran’s Al-Quds Force and with the agreement of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki; Hezbollah in Lebanon; and Russian warships docked in Syria. Previously, the transfer of the internationally banned weapons was undertaken using vegetable trucks, according to Al-Watan.

Salim Idris, the commander of the opposition Free Syrian Army, has claimed numerous times over the past several weeks that the Assad regime is busy hiding its chemical weapons in Lebanon, Iraq and in multiple locations throughout Syria.

Last Monday, Free Syrian Army spokesman Fahed Al-Masri claimed that the Assad regime completed two transfers of chemical weapons to Hezbollah three months ago, storing the weapons in four locations in northern and central Lebanon.

“We have video recordings and irrefutable documents proving the truth of this,” Al-Masri said.

On Monday, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah categorically denied rebel claims that his group had received chemical weapons from the Assad regime.

President Assad pledged in an interview broadcast Monday to honor an agreement to surrender Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, but he said that rebels might try to block international arms inspectors from doing their work.

Assad’s comments came as world leaders gathered in New York for the annual UN General Assembly, where the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war was high on the agenda.

The Syrian leader told Chinese state TV that Damascus is dedicated to implementing the agreement reached between Russia and the US to surrender its chemical weapons to international control. Syria’s stockpile, he said, is “in safe areas and locations and under the full control of the Syrian Arab Army.”

Assad cautioned, however, that the rebels might block inspectors from reaching some of the locations, in order to frame the government.
The US-Russian deal has dealt a blow to the rebels, who had hoped a US-led military strike would turn the war in their favor.

The civil war has killed more than 100,000 people since the uprising began in March 2011.

Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, head of IDF Northern Command, said Wednesday that Israel now believes Hezbollah does not want Assad’s chemical weapons.

Speaking to Yedioth Ahronoth, Golan said that in exchange for sending troops to help Assad against the rebels, Hezbollah requested advanced munitions such as anti-aircraft and ground-to-ground missiles, which could change the balance of power vis-a-vis the IDF. But “as far as we can tell,” he said, the group does not want chemical weapons.

Israel has conducted airstrikes inside Syria at least three times this year, in what sources said were attempts to block shipments of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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