Forwarded from The Jerusalem Post of May 6, 1997

SYRIA'S DEADLY SECRET

Daniel Leshem

A former aide to Russian President Yeltsin
has been helping Damascus produce nerve gas.

Israeli intelligence analysts have expressed concern and amazement at the rapidity and ease with which the Syrians have been able to obtain the know-how to produce VX nerve gas. Secretly assisted as it has been by Russian chemical experts, the Syrian military R&D and industrial complex known as the Scientific Studies and Research Center - which, despite its apparently innocent scientific front, is responsible for nonconventional weapons development and production - obviously had no trouble getting the required expertise, technology and materials from Russian sources. That ought to be a cause for grave concern to the US as well as Israel, especially in light of the recent ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention by the US and its expected ratification by Israel. (Unlike Syria, Egypt, Libya and Iraq, Israel has signed the controversial convention.)

Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich, the senior Russian military chemical expert reported to have assisted Syria, is not just another underpaid Russian officer or scientist looking for an additional source of income. Until early 1995 when he was dismissed on suspicion of smuggling nerve gas precursors (i.e. materials) to Syria, and fraud, Kuntsevich had been Russian President Yeltsin's personal adviser on chemical disarmament, and practically Russia's highest official authority on the subject.

In April 1991 he and a few of his colleagues were awarded the Lenin Prize by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for their achievements in the secret development of a new binary chemical warfare agent intended to circumvent Chemical Weapons Convention limitations. Kuntsevich admitted last year in an interview with the New York Jewish weekly The Forward that shipments to Syria of small amounts of nerve gas components had indeed taken place, although according to him these shipments were only intended for "research purposes" and authorized by the Russian government under previously undisclosed terms of a treaty with Syria.

The materials shipped to Syria were intended for the production of the Soviet/Russian version of the VX nerve agent - code-named Substance 33 or V-gas. In interviews with The Wall Street Journal and other papers in recent years Russian scientist Vil Mirzayanov (who emigrated to the US after getting into trouble in Russia for divulging state secrets regarding the development and production of new chemical weapons), cautioned the US against believing that Kuntsevich's successors would be any better. According to Mirzayanov, Russia's "chemical generals" are all eager to fraudulently use US money, intended for chemical disarmament, to help modernize their chemical-weapons arsenal, and no less eager to raise hard currency through covert or black-market export deals with rogue states and possibly even terrorist groups. American arms control officials and analysts would be well advised to investigate the possibility that, as Kuntsevich claims, the shipment of nerve gas precursors to Syria was part of a secret deal. Such a deal might have been made in the early '90s or late '80s during a visit to Syria by the then-commander of the Russian Chemical Corps, Gen. Pikalov.

IT SHOULD be noted that in recent years the US discovered that Russia intended to deceive it (as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency) by attempting to nll Iran a gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment facility under a secret annex to the nuclear reactor deal signed between Russia and Iran. The sale of this enrichment facility was canceled due to heavy US pressure. Furthermore, Russia is known to be currently assisting the Iranians in developing two or three long-range ballistic missiles and to be transferring 2,000 km.-range SS-4 ballistic-missile technology to Iran, in contravention of both the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and official Russian pledges to abide by the Missile Technology Control Regime.

The SS-4 ballistic missile is renowned for the part it played in the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s. The Russians are believed to be transferring to Iran technological knowhow and components which might help the Iranians develop other long-range ballistic missiles and possibly help them produce the SS-4 as well. These military deals with Syria and Iran illustrate that, although the Cold War is over, the Russians cannot necessarily be trusted.

(c) Jerusalem Post 1997

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Daniel Leshem is a strategic affairs analyst.


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