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Is Russia Aiding Syria to Hide Its WMD?

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Russia’s chemical weapons deal with Syria may not just be a slick move to strengthen Assad. It may be the present-day activation of an old Soviet plan titled “Operation Emergency Exit” designed to cleanse a Third World ally of incriminating material.

Assad has already begun moving his chemical weapons onto Russian ships, according to Kamal al-Labwani, who is a prominent Syrian opposition figure that stands against the Assad dictatorship and the Islamists. The Clarion Project interviewed him in April 2012.

Labwani says that Assad is also hiding chemical weapons in vegetable-filled trucks with the intention of transferring them to parts of Lebanon dominated by Hezbollah. Immediately after the Russian-brokered deal was announced, the Clarion Project was told by an informed source that there was intelligence that Assad was already in the process of sending WMD-related materials to the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.

The Iraqi government, a supporter of Assad, has denied reports that it is also housing Syrian WMD. General Salim Idris, a rebel military leader, claims that Syrian materials have gone to Iraq, as does an anti-Assad newspaper in Lebanon. The paper says that at least 20 trucks crossed into Iraq without inspection.

As the highest-ranking defector from the East Bloc, Ion Mihai Pacepa, was privy to the deepest secrets of the Soviet Union when he the chief of Romania’s foreign intelligence service. He defected in 1978 and remains in hiding.

In August 2003, he wrote that he had first-hand knowledge of a secret Soviet plan named Operation Sarindar, or in English, “Operation Emergency Exit.” Its objective was to cleanse a Third World ally of chemical weapons in order to prevent the discovery of Russian complicity and to help frame the West as the aggressor.

“All chemical weapons were to be immediately burned or buried deep at sea. Technological documentation, however, would be preserved in microfiche buried in waterproof containers for future reconstruction,” Pacepa disclosed.

The plan was first enacted in Libya, and he was told by the most senior leaders that one was drafted for Iraq. Syria, an ally of the Soviet Union and now Russia, would certainly meet the same standard.

Pacepa believes that “Operation Sarindar” was carried out by Russia ahead of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He points to the presence of Russian advisors in the run-up to war as evidence, especially former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primkaov, who had long ago told Pacepa about the contingency plan.

There is a body of intelligence suggesting that Iraqi WMD materials went to Syria, probably along with other incriminating items. The Russian role in that possible clean-up operation is less talked about.

Intelligence expert John Loftus said in 2006, “every senior member of a Western, European, or Asian intelligence service whom I have ever met all agree that the Russians moved the last of the WMDs out of Iraq in the last few months of the war.” Loftus adds credibility to the theory, as he is a lifelong Democrat that opposed the Bush Administration.

Then-Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for International Technology Security John A. Shaw has come out publicly about the intelligence he saw related to Russian activity in Iraq before the U.S. invaded. Shaw monitored the movement of weapons in and out of the region.

His account is detailed in Shadow Warriors by Kenneth Timmerman. On February 10-12, 2004, Shaw and other top officials from the U.S., United Kingdom and the Ukraine held a private meeting that included Ukrainian and British intelligence chiefs.

According to Shaw, the Ukrainians provided an immense amount of detail about Russian Spetsnaz units in Iraq, including the dates and locations of secret Russian meetings and the names of Russian officers involved. A contact of Shaw’s operating a network of sources in the region provided important corroboration.

Skeptics are right to point to the conclusion that Iraq had no WMD by Charles Duelfer, the U.S. official who led the Iraq Survey Group. Though he concedes there are some “loose ends” on the question of a transfer to Syria and that “a lot of material went to Syria,” he is confident in his conclusion.

In February 2009, I asked him about the Ukrainian intelligence and he said he never saw it. This substantiates a part of Shaw’s story about the U.S. intelligence community’s mishandling of the intelligence.

The point isn’t whether Iraqi WMD existed or not. The point is that there is strong ground to believe that Russia’s Operation Sarindar was enacted in Iraq, as it was before in Libya. And therefore, Kamal al-Labwani’s claim that the Russians are already helping Assad to hide his WMD makes perfect sense and fits in with the classified information provided by Pacepa. 

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org