International inspectors and Western officials involved in the disposal of Syria's chemical arsenal revealed in a series of interviews to the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that they were deceived, and President Bashar al-Assad's regime has retained significant parts of its chemical arsenal.
While the US celebrated the removal of 1,300 tons of chemical weapons in a two-year mission by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) when it was completed in June, US intelligence agencies have disclosed that aside from the weapons declared by the regime and destroyed, there were many others that have been kept.
The revelation raises fears even further that Assad's main backer Iran may likewise cheat inspections that are also reliant on self-disclosure in the new nuclear deal, after it was divulged Thursday that Iran will test its own covert nuclear facilities without letting in international inspectors.
Interviews with the inspectors and Western officials reveal that the Syrian regime controlled exactly where and what was inspected, largely due to the harsh rules established for the OPCW mission. Likewise the regime could control movement on security pretenses given the fierce fighting.
The OPCW team made a decision not to go head-to-head against the regime and demand inspections or else it "would lose all access to all sites," according to one of the inspectors.
While the team could demand access to undeclared chemical weapons sites, it never did so – largely because Western governments chose to avoid a "standoff" with Assad's Iran-backed regime and ordered them to take a more hands-off approach.
In one particular case, inspectors visited a facility in Damascus they were told was not used for chemical weapons research, only to find out months later that it in fact was a weapons facility and they had been duped.
US intelligence assessments indicate Assad has retained chlorine weapons as well as even more lethal nerve agents, and he may use them if Islamist rebels threaten his strongholds. If the regime collapses, those weapons may fall into Islamic State's (ISIS) hands or to those of a rival group, or they may be transferred to the Iran-proxy terror group Hezbollah propping up Assad.
"Nobody should be surprised that the regime is cheating," said former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, calling for more rigorous inspections.
Assad's regime initially declared 23 sites containing 1,300 metric tons of chemicals for weapons. It also admitted to having over 100 missile warheads and around 1,100 aerial bombs, all of which mostly threaten Israel – it did not list short-range rockets used in local sarin attacks.
A red flag was raised for inspectors by Syria's claim of only having 20 tons of mustard agent, given intelligence expectations of hundreds of tons. The regime said it had destroyed hundreds of tons of mustard agent in fire pits before the inspections deal – even though it took other countries decades to destroy similar massive stockpiles.
Likewise, the claim that 30% of chemical weapons warheads had been detonated in exercises raised suspicions.
Tthe inspection team didn't press the regime, however, setting its goal at the 1,300 tons of declared chemicals instead of the removal of all chemical weapons due to fears that the mission would be jeopardized and no chemicals would be removed.
One team member said, "it was a question of priorities."
Inspections could only be conducted at declared sites and with 48 hours notice.
What inspectors found astounded them, as they saw chemical weapons laboratories disguised in moving trucks.
At one chemical site, bearded guards without uniform were carrying German G3 rifles often used by Iranian forces. Inspectors suspected they were from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Lied to directly
But despite their orders to avoid conflict with the regime, the OPCW inspectors decided in February 2014 to create a new team to try and determine what the Syrians were hiding, after the regime stalled on transferring declared chemicals to the port of Latakia where Western ships would destroy them.
The team met Syrian officials and top scientists in Damascus once a month to try and unearth gaps in the declared weapons.
One point they pressed was reports by US and Israeli intelligence agencies concerning chemical research facilities in Damascus managed by the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC).
In one incident in early 2013, Israeli fighter jets struck a convoy of trucks next to one of the facilities that was thought to be carrying chemical weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The team was allowed to visit a SSRC compound in Damascus in May 2014, where they were given a Powerpoint presentation and told the site wasn't used to develop chemical weapons.
But last October, just months after the visit, the Syrian regime added several facilities to the declared chemical weapons site list – including the SSRC compound visited in May.
Inspectors were then allowed to examine the site, and samples from the site revealed traces of sarin and VX nerve gases.