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Blocking Syria's chemical network

Children, affected by what activists say was a gas attack, breathe through oxygen masks in the Damascus suburb of Saqba, August 21, 2013. RE
Children, affected by what activists say was a gas attack, breathe through oxygen masks in the Damascus suburb of Saqba, August 21, 2013. RE

By Brian Finlay and Alexander Georgieff

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, testifying recently before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was asked a crucial question: Who has been supplying Syria with its chemical weapons? "Well, the Russians supply them," Hagel responded. "Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves."

The uncertainty of Hagel's answer reveals a gaping hole in U.S. understanding of how these weapons proliferate, who helps their transfer and where they may turn up next.

Syria's deadly chemical weapons, which the United Nations report confirms were used to kill at least 1,400 people last month — and which could still spark an American military attack if Syria refuses to turn over the weapons under a U.S.-Russian plan — are made in part from dual-use chemicals. Some of these chemicals are also components of beneficial products, including life-saving medicines, cosmetics and fertilizer.

While Syria has possessed the technology to manufacture chemical weapons for decades, it does not make all the chemicals needed to produce weapons like the sarin nerve agent used recently outside Damascus. This means another source is selling Syria the needed precursor chemicals for its weapons production.

Though many point to Russia and North Korea as potential suppliers, we now know that the source is a variety of different actors — including private manufacturers in the United States and around the globe. For example, the United Kingdom authorized the export of precursor chemicals to a known Syrian front company, which raises questions about legitimate firms' willingness to sell dangerous dual-use chemicals to a country with a chemical-weapons program in the middle of a civil war.

Reports reveal that one British company tried to sell precursors to sarin — sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride — to a Syrian firm as recently as January 2012. From 2004 to 2010, two British firms exported sodium fluoride to a cosmetics company in Syria, which likely supplied Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons program.

These sales, and others like it, have allowed Assad to amass what some believe to be the world's third-largest stockpile of chemical weapons, after Russia and the United States. Syria accumulated the production technology in the 1980s from the Soviet Union and also chemical brokerage companies across Europe.

Despite building an indigenous production capability to marry chemicals to delivery systems, Syria still requires a steady supply of many dual-use products. Existing international controls monitor the sale of these precursor chemicals — especially those that fall under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). That global agreement outlines three classes of chemicals, delineating how much of the chemical can be sold for commercial purposes.

In theory, the CWC should limit the export of these products to Syria, a non-signatory state. However, Syria's desire to accumulate these chemicals, and the market incentives created by increased demand, has created a host of black marketers willing to supply Damascus.

Similar to proliferation of other weapons of mass destruction, front companies can transport the chemicals into Syria, hiding the origins and muddying the waters on the intended end-users. Experts point to illegal front companies throughout the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Iran, that are involved in an illicit Syrian supply chain.

Despite the West's rigorous export control systems, false declarations, nebulous end-users and complex supply chains create major hurdles to the effectiveness of governments' efforts. Even the most diligent companies here in the United States have been duped. In the last decade, American intelligence is aware of at least one U.S. company and one Dutch company that have sold sensitive products to Syria.

Ultimately, the chemical weapons Syria used on August 21 likely came from a variety of sources, laundered across illicit networks and front companies. Illicit networks feed on market competition and often target small companies that are desperate for lucrative contracts.

Willing to sacrifice potential reputational risks on dubious requests, these companies more often act not out of malign intent, but rather in a willing vacuum of knowledge about their end users. The result is the arming of odious regimes like that in Syria.

Combating these networks can be extremely difficult. However, the legitimate chemical industry can do its part.

First, companies can ensure proper end-use monitoring, especially when exporting to high-risk countries — ensuring that their end-user will not then export to Syria. Second, governments must find ways to better share information with industry on suspect networks involved in the illicit trafficking. Third, in a world of unbridled global competition, governments must work to bend the market forces driving good companies to become willing partners in preventing the illicit diversion of weapons technologies.

The vast majority of companies are well-intentioned and represent an untapped resource for governments to help cut off supplies of dangerous products. While this will not limit Assad's ability to use chemical weapons in the near term, by combating this illicit trade, governments can encourage industry to do its part to stop future procurements and stymie the supply of dangerous chemicals globally.

(Any opinions expressed here are the author's own)

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