The total absence of environmental chemical pollution in the wake of the US, British and French strikes against Syria’s chemical sites on Saturday, April 14, is one sign that their 105 cruise missiles never got near Bashar Assad’s stocks of chemical weapons.
The list of targets outlined in the subsequent Pentagon briefing sounded impressive: the Barzeh Research and Development Center in the greater Damascus area – hit by 76 missiles, 57 U.S. Tomahawks and 19 joint air-to-surface missiles; the Him Shinshar chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs – struck by 22 weapons, 9 US Tomahawks, 8 Storm Shadow missiles, three naval cruise missiles and two Scout land attack cruise missiles; and the Him Shinshar chemical weapons bunker facility, 6km away from the storage facility – demolished by 7 Scout missiles.
But however impressive, they missed the mark. No poisonous gas clouds over Damascus and Homs meant that the buildings targeted were empty, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report. The chemical agents, materials and equipment for the development and manufacture of chemical weapons had been cleared out of those buildings in good time and relocated to safe hideouts. And there were no casualties, because all the officers, soldiers and civilian staff, including scientific researches employed there had also been evacuated, just like Syria’s air bases from which the aircraft and manpower were scattered out of harm’s way before the US, French and British missiles struck. (See DEBKA Weekly 796: While US and Allies Mass Strength, Russian, Iranian and Syrian Forces Scatter.)
Assad pulled the same stunt four years ago on the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Its monitors announced cautiously in 2014 that they had completed the dismantling of all the Syrian chemical weapons “known to them.” In reality, Assad had secreted 100-130 tons out of a total of 1,300 he was known to possess. Then, in early May 2015, OPCW inspectors found traces of sarin and the VX nerve agent at a military research site in Syria that had not been previously declared.
And so, after pulling the wool over the eyes of international inspectors, the Syrian army was able to carry out 90 chemical weapons attacks in the past three years, using chlorine, sarin and mustard gas against civilians. Chlorine is a common industrial chemical which is not barred under international agreements. Syria’s elite Republican Guard is the only unit armed with VX. The president controls the button for approving its use. If he dies or becomes incapacitated, this authority passes to his brother Gen. Maher Assad, commander of the 4th armored division. The night before the Western missile strike on Saturday, the Assad regime, according to our sources, still possessed stocks of mustard gas, sarin, and VX nerve gas, and he still does. The western missile offensive failed to reduce Assad’s capabilities for continuing his chemical warfare at will. And although a small number of Syrian, Iranian, Hizballah and Russian military facilities were also targeted, they suffered no casualties, indicating that they too had been cleared of personnel and equipment. The three allies insisted that the attack was in no way intended to produce regime change in Damascus. Washington, London and Paris therefore missed their chance of gaining political or military clout for the next chapter of the Syrian conflict, while also failing in the narrow goal of crippling the Syrian dictator’s ability to wage chemical warfare.