July 24, 2012, 8:04 am

The Unresolved Mystery of Syria’s ‘Iraqi’ Chemical Weapons

LONDON - The apparent confirmation by the Syrian regime that it has chemical weapons at its disposal hardly came as a surprise.

Despite the studied ambiguity of statements on Monday by Jihad Makdissi, a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, the underlying message was clear.

As my colleagues Neil MacFarquhar and Eric Schmitt write: "Though it has for many years been an open secret that Syria possessed a large cache of such weapons, the government has traditionally tried to retain some strategic ambiguity to keep its enemies guessing."

They quote unclassified reports by the Central Intelligence Agency that Syria has amassed huge supplies of mustard gas, sarin nerve agent and cyanide over the past four decades.

That still leaves one intriguing unknown: does the Syrian arsenal include a hoard of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction secretly smuggled out by Saddam Hussein in the days before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of his country?

There were persistent claims, then and since, that the Iraqis transferred such weapons across the common border with Syria in the run-up to the war.

The existence of undeclared Iraqi W.M.Ds was President George W. Bush's casus belli in 2003. The failure to find them after the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime led to the conclusion that the U.S. and its British allies had cherry-picked and massaged intelligence reports of alleged hidden weapons in order to justify the war.

Claims of a secret transfer to Syria of chemical and other weapons have, broadly speaking, been embraced by those who supported the 2003 invasion and dismissed by those who opposed it.

Any discovery of a hidden Iraqi weapons cache that might turn up in a post-Assad Syria would necessarily have a retrospective impact on the history of the 2003 conflict.

James Clapper, the director of U.S. National Intelligence and formerly the director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, in 2003 cited satellite imagery suggesting materials had been moved out of Iraq in the months before the war.

Other more or less credible claims have followed, from international inspectors to Saddam-era dissidents.

My own evidence, for what it is worth, is purely anecdotal. As I drove east from Damascus in mid-March 2003 to cross the border into Iraq, my Iraqi Kurdish companion said he had spoken to Kurdish truck drivers who regularly used the road.

They reported an unusual build-up of traffic out of Iraq in previous days. Closed convoys of unmarked trucks, which other drivers were forbidden from approaching or overtaking, had been streaming across the border into Syria.

My companion was a former Kurdish peshmerga militia leader. A survivor of thallium poisoning by agents of Saddam Hussein, he was returning from Europe in time for the impending war.

What did he make of the truck drivers' tales? Were the convoys carrying weapons? Who knew? The story died in the general plethora of war preparations.

A post-war report by the Iraq Survey Group concluded that stockpiles of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were destroyed after the 1991 Gulf War and that by 2003 the Saddam Hussein regime had not fulfilled its eventual intention to resume secret production.

An addendum to the report by its author, Charles Duelfer, the C.I.A's senior weapons inspector, reached no firm conclusions about whether W.M.D-related material was shipped out of Iraq before the invasion.

"It was unlikely that an official transfer of W.M.D. material from Iraq to Syria took place," the addendum said. "However, ISG [the Iraq Survey Group] was unable to rule out unofficial movement of limited W.M.D-related materials."

The debate is likely to rest there until the departure of President Bashar al-Assad's regime. When, or if, he goes, outsiders might at last be able to examine his arsenal and finally resolve a mystery of the 2003 war.