As Congress holds hearings to determine whether or not it will vote to authorize President Barack Obama to use military force in the Syrian civil war, it's hard not to think of the Bush administration's arguments for military intervention in Iraq 10 years ago.
The justification at that time was to disarm then-dictator Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athist regime of alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) — namely chemical and biological weapons. Of course, long after military operations began and continued into the next decade, those weapons were never found.
However, even back then, there were accusations from several sources that Hussein had smuggled his WMDs over the border into Syria long before coalition forces began the Iraqi invasion. Today, there is now video evidence of chemical and biological weapons having been used in Syria to kill countless victims. While the blame game rages on as to who actually used said weapons, Assad forces or rebel fighters, many seem to have forgotten to ask a very important question: Where did these chemical weapons come from?
Was the Bush administration right all along? Could these indeed be the very same WMDs that intelligence agencies from around the world claimed were in Hussein’s possession which he then transferred over to Syria?
The earliest account of Hussein having hidden his WMDs in Syria came in January of 2004. Nizar Nayouf, an award-winning Syrian journalist who was granted political asylum in France, said in a letter to Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf not only that he knew Iraq’s WMDs were being hidden inside Syria, but that he could pinpoint precisely where they were being kept. According to Nayouf’s witness, described as a senior source inside Syrian military intelligence he had known for two years, Iraq’s WMDs were in tunnels dug under the town of al-Baida near the city of Hama in northern Syria, in the village of Tal Snan, north of the town of Salamija, and in the city of Sjinsjar on the Syrian border with the Lebanon, south of the city of Homs. Nayouf claimed that the transfer of Iraqi WMDs to Syria was organized by the commanders of Hussein’s Iraqi Republican Guard with the help of General Dhu al-Himma Shalish and Assef Shawkat, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin and brother-in-law, respectively.
We know for a fact that Shalish had a working relationship with Hussein long before the war in Iraq. The Syrian government awarded Shalish and his company, SES International Corporation, exclusive rights on contracts to supply the Iraqi market with goods from construction materials to detergent. According to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Shalish and SES helped the former Ba’athist regime access weapons systems by issuing false end-user certificates to foreign suppliers that listed Syria as the final country of destination. SES International then transshipped the goods to Iraq, and Shalish was subsequently sanctioned by the U.S. for procuring defense-related goods for Hussein in violation of sanctions against Iraq.
When two sources from the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) — a 1,400-member team organized by the Pentagon and CIA — spoke with the Washington Times in August 2004, they reported that Hussein periodically removed guards on the Syrian border and replaced them with his own intelligence agents who supervised the movement of banned materials between the two countries. The shift was followed by the movement of trucks in and out of Syria suspected of carrying materials banned by UN sanctions. Once the shipments were made, the agents would leave and the regular border guards would resume their posts.
A similar claim was made by Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon in December of 2005, a former Israeli military officer who served as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces from July 2002 to June 2005. “(Hussein) transferred the chemical agents from Iraq to Syria” six weeks before Operation Iraqi Freedom started, according to Ya’alon. “No one went to Syria to find it.”
Just a month later in January 2006, the Iraqi general who served as the No. 2 official in Hussein’s air force, Georges Sada, claimed Iraq moved WMDs into Syria before the war by loading the weapons into two civilian aircrafts in which the passenger seats were removed, as well as in multiple ground convoys of trucks.
“There are weapons of mass destruction gone out from Iraq to Syria, and they must be found and returned to safe hands,” Sada stated. “I am confident they were taken over [to Syria].”
Sada said he even knew the two pilots who transported the material: “I know them very well. They are very good friends of mine.” He claimed that the pilots told him Special Republican Guard brigades loaded materials onto the planes, including “yellow barrels with skull and crossbones on each barrel.” The flights, 56 in total, attracted little notice because they were thought to be civilian flights providing relief from Iraq to Syria, which had suffered a flood after a dam collapse in June of 2002.
“Saddam realized, this time, the Americans are coming,” Sada said. “They handed over the weapons of mass destruction to the Syrians.” He claimed that the Iraqi official responsible for transferring the weapons was a cousin of Hussein named Ali Hussein al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali.”
One month after that in February of 2006, Ali Ibrahim al-Tikriti, a former Iraqi general and “personal friend” of Hussein’s who defected shortly before the Gulf War of 1991, also claimed as much in an interview: “I know Saddam’s weapons are in Syria due to certain military deals that were made going as far back as the late 1980s that dealt with the event that either capitals were threatened with being overrun by an enemy nation.
“At this point Saddam knew that the United States were eventually going to come for his weapons and the United States wasn’t going to just let this go like they did in the original Gulf War,” al-Tikriti said. “He knew that he had lied for this many years and wanted to maintain legitimacy with the pan-Arab nationalists. He also has wanted since he took power to embarrass the West and this was the perfect opportunity to do so. After Saddam denied he had such weapons why would he use them or leave them readily available to be found?”
Finally, current Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper, who formerly headed the U.S. agency that processes and analyzes satellite imagery (the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency), claimed in an interview with the New York Times in October of 2003 that “satellite imagery showing a heavy flow of traffic from Iraq into Syria just before the American invasion in March” led him to believe that illegal weapons material had “unquestionably” been moved out of Iraq.
“I think personally that those below the senior leadership saw what was coming, and I think they went to some extraordinary lengths to dispose of the evidence,” said Clapper. “I’ll call it an ‘educated hunch.’ Based on what we saw prior to the onset of hostilities, we certainly felt there were indications of WMD activity. … There is no question that there was a lot of traffic, increase in traffic up to the immediate onset of combat and certainly during Iraqi Freedom.”
It’s not like Hussein didn’t have any time to carry out such a large transfer. To the contrary, the Bush administration had been trying to make a case for military intervention in Iraq almost a year before the invasion finally occurred in March 2003.
Truthfully, we’ll probably never know where these chemical weapons now being used in the Syrian civil war originated from. I also concede that all we have to go on are second-hand eye witness accounts and sources as well as a lot of hearsay and conjecture for which no amount of intelligence gathering from 10 years ago can now prove beyond a shadow of a doubt. Still, I thought it was worth re-exploring. And I’d very much still like to know indeed where these weapons came from.