The Buzz

North Korea, Iran and Syria: The Chemical Weapons Axis of Evil?

An article published by Jane’s in September 2007 would sketch out a very different explanation, which is generally accepted today with slight variations: Syrian and Iranian engineers had been loading mustard gas, a chemical weapon which causes horrifying blistering on skin contact, into a Scud-C ballistic missile when a fueling pipe burst. The resulting combustion not only produced the deadly blast, but released stocks of sarin and VX nerve agents throughout the facility, worsening the death toll.

On February 27, an article in the New York Times revealed that the United Nations had produced a two-hundred-page report detailing the transfer of components for the production of chemical weapons from North Korea to Syria. While it is uncertain whether the UN report will be released to the public, the Times details transactions after Syria supposedly destroyed its chemical-weapons facilities, including acid-resistant tiles in January 2017 (useful in chemical-weapon facilities), as well as special high-resistance valves and thermometers “known for use in chemical weapons” in August 2016.

Although these transfers do not amount to “definitive proof” because the components could theoretically have civilian applications, it is clear that Syria and North Korea resorted to extensive obfuscation through shell companies and ships registered in China or Malaysia to “circumvent sanctions.”

Of course, any lingering doubts over whether Syria was faithfully adhering to its agreement to destroy its chemical-weapons stocks were surely dispelled after Syrian warplanes dropped munitions loaded with sarin gas on the village of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017. Furthermore, 2018’s intensification of chlorine gas-attacks shows that the Syrian government continues to practice chemical warfare against its civilians in rebel-held areas. However, chlorine gas has attracted relatively little attention; it cannot be regulated because it is produced with common industrial chemicals, and though attacks typically harm dozens of people at a time, the number of deaths is typically “only” in the single digits.

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Nonetheless, the Times article highlighted the key role North Korea has played in transferring chemical and other weapons to Syria, in exchange for badly needed cash or barter payments, a role dating back to the 1980s and ’90s. However, this mutually beneficial relationship between pariah states has occasioned a curious number of hair-raising accidents—which may not in fact be accidental.

Blowing the Doors Off the Syrian Chemical-Warfare Program

At 4:30 in the morning on July 25, 2007, a fiery explosion tore through a heavily guarded building a dozen miles southeast of Aleppo, Syria. The building was part of a complex known as al-Safir, one of five constructed by the Syrian government to produce and store chemical weapons. Al-Safir particular specialized in Sarin and VX, extremely lethal nerve agents that among other terrible effects disrupt the muscle responses necessary for breathing.

The shock of the blast was so great it blew off the facility’s heavy metal doors. Choking clouds of gas flooded through the surrounding complex, which measured five miles by two miles.

Some accounts claim that as many as two hundred were wounded or killed in the accident. Local medical staff could not cope with the disaster and it became necessary to summon outside help to the classified facility.

Publicly, the Syrian government claimed that the facility had been a conventional arms depot, and that temperatures exceeding fifty degrees Celsius had caused munitions to cook off in a chain reaction. But that didn’t square with the timing of the explosion during a cool desert night.