German Firms Suspected of Having Exported Chemical-Weapon Materials to Assad

Germany daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung published a report on June 25 that German firms exported weapons-grade chemicals during the Syrian Civil War.

The German chemical distribution company, Brenntag AG, using a Swiss subsidiary, sold isopropanol and diethylamine in 2014 to a Syrian pharmaceutical company that has ties to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Such chemicals can be used to make nerve agents such as VX and sarin gas.

From 2012 to 2018, there have been at least nine allegations of sarin gas attacks in Syria, some of which are alleged to have been used by the Syrian government and others by those who may have had access to Syrian military stockpiles.

The U.N. concluded that the Ghouta chemical attack on August 21, 2013, which killed anywhere from 281 to 1729 people with the aid of sarin gas, was carried out by perpetrators who “likely had access to the chemical weapon stockpiles of the Syrian military.”

In the Khan Shaykhun chemical weapons attack on April 4, 2017, at least 89 people were killed, at least 11 of the causalities being children, in a sarin gas attack. The OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) and U.N. have claimed that the sarin was “most likely [to have] been made with a precursor (DF) from the original stockpile of the Syrian Arab Republic.” In a separate U.N. report, the U.N. also adds that “the Syrian air force used sarin in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, killing dozens, the majority of whom were women and children.”

The exact party responsible for most of these chemical weapon attacks remains unclear. Nevertheless, the very fact that some of the largest ones were most likely carried out by individuals with access to the Syrian government’s chemical weapon stockpile may indicate that the German firm Brenntag AG and European firms associated with it helped facilitate the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of Syrians.

The timing of the alleged sale of chemical weapons in 2014 by Brenntag AG comes at a particularly shocking moment because President Assad acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention on September 14, 2013, and agreed to the elimination of his chemical weapon stockpile. The OPCW formally declared on January 2016 that “all declared Syrian chemical weapons had been destroyed,” even winning a Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts.

Prosecutors in the German city Essen, the headquarters of Brenntag AG, are launching legal proceedings and considering opening a formal investigation.

If the investigations do confirm the findings of Süddeutsche Zeitung, this would point to a continuation of the history of Germany selling chemical weapons to the Middle East.

During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, German firms, in exchange for money, helped construct chemical weapon facilities, disguised as pesticide plants, for former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. According to the CIA, German firms “supervised the creation of what was at the time the world’s most modern and best-planned CW facility under the cover of pesticide production.” In 1984, a representative of the U.S. State Department told the German Embassy that the German firm Karl Kolb GmbH & Co. KG had delivered “chemical research and production equipment for the manufacture of large quantities of nerve gas.”

According to the Federation of American Scientists, German scientists and cadres helped with the operation to provide many different types of chemical weapons to Iraq, assisting in creating everything from mustard gas to cyanide acid. It was so extensive and effective that an Iraqi ambassador once said, “Iraq is now receiving a huge number of persistent requests from Third World countries that want to buy Iraqi chemical weapons.”

In the past, Germany has supplied chemical weapons not only to Iraq, but also to President Assad before the Syrian Civil War. The German government has acknowledged that, between 2002 and 2006, it had approved the export to Syria of more than 100 tons of so-called dual-use chemicals, which included substances that could be used to generate Teflon and sarin. According to Der Spiegel, a German weekly magazine, German sales of chemical weapons to Syria may even have preceded the 2000s, building of “Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal over the course of several decades.”

It remains unclear whether the currently suspected German firms will be appropriately punished and investigated, given that these German companies in the past that have sold chemical weapons to Iraq, such as Kolb, were able to use legal loopholes to get an acquittal. Moreover, Chancellor Angela Merkel has remained generally disinterested in investigating companies accused of helping establish chemical weapon facilities in Syria.

This alleged incident of German firms supplying chemical weapons to the Syrian government should not be an issue that only implicates Germany and Syria. Rather, the international community, particularly the U.S., must continue to push for a proper investigation and conclusion because Germany may well have played a role in helping destabilize the Middle East, killing thousands, and promoting the proliferation of chemical weapons.