Get ready for more red-lining from Bashar al-Assad. Despite claims from Russia and the Syrian dictator himself that he fully disarmed his chemical-weapons program, a high-ranking defector tells the UK Telegraph that Assad still has hundreds of tons of those munitions stockpiled for use by his military. General Zaher al-Sakat says that includes sarin gas, the munitions used against a village in Idlib province that provoked a military strike from the US in reprisal (via Guy Benson):
President Bashar al-Assad continues to retain hundreds of tonnes of his country’s chemical stockpile after deceiving United Nations inspectors sent in to dismantle it, according to Syria’s former chemical weapons research chief and other experts.
Brigadier-General Zaher al-Sakat – who served as head of chemical warfare in the powerful 5th Division of the military until he defected in 2013 – told The Telegraph that Assad’s regime failed to declare large amounts of sarin and its precursor chemicals. …
“They [the regime] admitted only to 1,300 tonnes, but we knew in reality they had nearly double that,” said Brig Gen Sakat, who was one of the most senior figures in the country’s chemical programme. “They had at least 2,000 tonnes. At least.”
How does Sakat know this? As one of Assad’s brigadier generals, he received orders to carry out these attacks. He claims that he ordered the deadly chemicals replaced with harmless substances, and then defected over the genocidal nature of the regime:
Sakat has said in the past that he himself was ordered to carry out chemical strikes on three different occasions before he defected. In those instances he switched out the deadly agents in the bombs for harmless chemicals.
“I couldn’t believe at the beginning that Assad would use these weapons on his people,” he said. “I could not stand and watch the genocide. I couldn’t hurt my own people.”
UN and UK experts call these claims “plausible,” although the 700-ton estimate from Sakat exceeds that of British analysts, who projected two hundreds tons left in Assad’s arsenal. Although some wondered whether the attack on Khan Sheikhoun might be a sign of new production, Sakat says it’s not necessary. “They have all they need already.”
So what’s next? Russia wants to slow everyone down by pushing for an international investigation into the Idlib attack, and Syria has invited the OPCW to inspect Khan Sheikhoun … belatedly:
Russia called for international inspectors to visit Idlib, where the U.S. accused Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad of carrying out a deadly chemical weapons attack against his own citizens.
Syria’s government invited the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to visit the site of the April 4 incident and the airbase that the U.S. later bombed, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. Representatives of United Nations Security Council members, the European Union and the Middle East should travel with OPCW inspectors to ensure a “transparent” investigation, he said at a meeting with his Qatari counterpart Mohammed Al Thani Saturday in Moscow. …
“Within the framework of the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the UN, we will insist on the immediate dispatch of inspectors both to the site of the incident and the airbase where our western colleagues claim missiles were loaded with chemical substances,” Lavrov said.
That may not turn out as well as Russia hopes, though:
The OPCW reported to the United Nations last year that its inspectors detected the presence of previously undeclared chemical warfare agents in Syria. The group had earlier certified that Syria disposed of its stockpiles and was dismantling product facilities under a deal Russia helped broker with the U.S. in 2013.
The OPCW has been ringing the alarm bell on Syrian chemical weapons attacks since at least last August, to little avail until the last two weeks. Donald Trump’s airstrike on Shayrat air base has changed those calculations, and now Russia and Syria need some temporary cover — and the OPCW is the only place they can turn.
How has the reprisal strike been received among Syrian diaspora here in the US? Yesterday morning, the local CBS Minneapolis affiliate interviewed a Syria ex-patriate and asked the question directly. Mazan Halabi isn’t a Trump fan at all, but ends up grudgingly praising the airstrike. “We were really surprised,” Halabi says, concluding that while bombings are bad in general, “there was nothing [else] that was going to stop Assad from killing our families.”