It’s the question that has dominated the postwar Iraq debate: Where are Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction? Do they exist, or did none remain in Iraq’s arsenal after they were used on the Kurds? If they do, why have American inspection teams not found them in the nearly yearlong period since the war ended?
One of the most troubling and intriguing theories has been the idea that Hussein smuggled them to Syria or some other nation before the war began. Now Nizar Nayyouf, an exiled Syrian journalist now living in Paris, claims to have contact with a Syrian military intelligence official who is confirming that theory.
Speaking to the British television station ITN Friday, Nayyouf said that his source says he knows three sites where Iraq’s WMDs are kept.
“It has been confirmed that the Iraqi weapons which were smuggled into Syria through the intermediary of Colonel Zu Alhima Shalish are now located in three different places,” the Syrian source reportedly wrote in Arabic to Nayyouf. “The first of these places is a tunnel on the mountain slope near the village of Baida, which is situated two kilometers from Misyaf. This place is under the jurisdiction of Department 489, which deals with coded messages and documents.”
“The second of these places is a factory owned by the air force in the village of Tal Sinan, which is situated between the two cities of Hamma and Salmiyah. The third of these places is the town of Shinshar, which is situated 40 kilometers to the south of Hums and 3 kilometers to the east of the Damascus-Hums highway. There are underground tunnels there, which belong to Brigade 661 of the air force. This is a reconnaissance force. These tunnels are several meters deep.”
Nayyouf’s source contends that the weapons, likely missile parts and chemicals, were transferred in large wooden boxes and barrels, under the supervision of Colonel Zu Alhima Shalish and his nephew Assef, who works for the Albashair Company, which is owned by the Assads and has offices in Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad. The source says that this company was also responsible for the smuggling of Iraqi oil to Syria and providing weapons to Saddam’s regime.
The source also shared one more interesting detail: the weapons were smuggled across the border to these sites in ambulances.
“The persons who were responsible for such actions know of course that American satellites will see the big cars, and maybe they will estimate that something is dangerous,” Nayyouf said. “So they put them in ambulance cars–when I see ambulance cars of course I will think everything is ok, people are being carried to hospital, to other countries, no one will suspect.”
The British Foreign Office and the Central Intelligence Agency confirmed to ITN that they are aware of the allegations.
The first question that comes up from hearing this rumor is, Why would Saddam ship weapons to a state he had never liked and often had disagreements with?
“Syria decided to [position itself] against the Coalition, against the attack,” Nayyouf told ITV. “It has a problem with the U.S. and U.K. because of that. In my opinion, when Saddam discovered that he will lose everything, including the weapons, he decided to send them to Syria in order not to lose them for nothing. And Syria, according to my information, Syria agreed with the regime of Saddam before he collapsed. They sent intelligence men inside Iraq to help the Iraqi resistance.”
Then next natural question is, What did Syrian President Bashar Assad have to gain? Why would he take an action that would put him squarely in the American crosshairs?
“Firstly money,” Nayyouf told ITV. “The Syrian regime like to be in federation of mafias. I think this description is right…. This business man doesn’t understand anything except money, like any mafia man, not for political reasons.”
Nayyouf added that, “Like Saddam’s regime [Assad] must be punished. But I hope we don’t see an American army in Damascus.”
The idea of Syria taking Iraq’s weapons is theoretically possible, but highly unlikely, says Joseph Cirincione, senior associate and director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“We got into a lot of trouble in Iraq by listening to exiles and dissidents,” he says, speculating that some dissidents may exaggerate or invent claims for attention, money, asylum, or influence. He says that he doesn’t want to dismiss an exile’s reports that Syria has Iraq’s weapons, but that he would want to see a great deal more supporting evidence before considering this source credible.
Cirincione just completed work on a Carnegie Endowment report concluding that the Bush administration had systematically misrepresented the weapons threat from Iraq.
“It is unlikely that Iraq could have destroyed, hidden or sent out of the country the hundreds of tons of chemical and biological weapons, dozens of Scud missiles and facilities engaged in the ongoing production of chemical and biological weapons that officials claimed were present without the United States detecting some sign of this,” the report states.
Cirincione believes that Iraq’s ability to produce chemical weapons on a large scale was destroyed by the 1991 Gulf war and by U.N. sanctions and inspections.
Carnegie’s report, entitled “WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications,” urges the Bush administration to discard its policy of unilateral preventive war. However, the report also states that Iraq still apparently maintained an active program to produce missiles capable of flying beyond the range permitted by the U.N. Security Council. And it states Iraq could have been able to resume banned programs, such as biological weapons production, quickly in the future.
Detailed and fascinating as Nayouf’s information might be, it won’t actually change anything unless the CIA, MI6, or some other intelligence agency can produce some corroborating evidence. If ITV and NRO readers know about this information, then it’s safe to assume Assad knows it’s out there as well, and those weapons, if they exist in Syria, have presumably been moved. Perhaps that other NRO, the National Reconnaissance Office, can show ambulances moving objects to that site from before the war, or from that site now. Or perhaps a source on the ground could detect traces of the chemicals stored there.
But until that happens, the situation regarding Saddam’s weapons in Syria will be a mirror image of the situation before the Iraq war…suspicions, rumors, and circumstantial evidence, without a smoking gun.
–Jim Geraghty, a reporter for States News Service in Washington, D.C., is a contributor to NRO.