A Belgian trial for sanctions violations, and an ongoing UN investigation into the Syrian government's alleged use of chemical weapons, could both raise uncomfortable questions about the provenance of precursors used in Syria's chemical weapons programme.
The UN's Office for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has previously determined the Syrian government used chemical weapons even after it claimed to have turned over its stockpiles nearly five years ago. Most recently, the OPCW detected traces of sarin gas after an attack by the Syrian government on rebels in the northern city of Khan Sheikhoun in 2017. The OPCW is currently investigating claims that the government used a nerve agent – possibly sarin – in eastern Damascus last month. How the Syrian government can keep manufacturing chemical weapons is a matter of contention.
Since 2013, the European Union has imposed sanctions aimed at making it more difficult for the Syrian government to obtain precursor chemicals for manufacturing weapons such as sarin.
But a trial for three Belgian firms set to begin in Antwerp later this month may highlight the difficulty of enforcing such sanctions. The firms are accused of shipping isopropanol, or isopropyl alcohol, to Syria. The chemical is commonly used in household and commercial cleaning products but it can also be used to make sarin, and was found in Khan Sheikhoun.
The shipments took place between 2014 and 2016 and the prosecution is the first under these EU sanctions. The proceedings could reveal further information about companies supplying precursors to Syria, potentially as intermediaries for European firms.
The charges were first reported last month as part of a joint investigation between a Belgian weekly news magazine and a Syrian rights organization.
The Syrian Archive began an investigation into the Syrian Government’s chemical weapons development shortly after the Khan Sheikoun attack, using UN trade data to track shipments of chemicals. Prior to 2013, the Syrian government never admitted to possessing chemical weapons, but investigators believe it may have HAD stockpiles of ricin, VX gas and Sarin, along with some of the necessary precursors to manufacture them. After the Syrian government gave the OPCW access to some of its facilities in 2013, the UN body oversaw the destruction of more than 100 tonnes of isopropanol inside Syria.
The investigation, which focussed on Belgian companies, suggested other companies – including ones in Turkey, Lebanon and the UAE – had also delivered the same chemicals recently, and in much greater quantities than the Belgian firms.
“Our main focus was EU countries because of the sanctions, because we are here and we thought it would be much more impactful if we targeted the companies here that are transferring those chemicals to Syria,” said Hadi Al Khatib, director of German-based nonprofit Syrian Archive.
His group partnered with a journalist from Belgium's Knack magazine to determine that the firms were being investigated over shipments of 96 tons of isopropanol to Syria. More than six times that amount entered Syria from in the same period, suggesting that EU sanctions have limited impact.
“It’s widely used, but that’s a big number knowing that [isopropanol] showed up in sample analysis in Khan Sheikhoun,” Mr Al Khatib said.
Lebanon has long been a convenient workaround for the Syrian government when it comes to skirting sanctions. A Lebanese intermediary company which exports chemicals to Syria is beyond EU jurisdiction, explains UK-based lawyer and expert on EU sanctions Maya Lester. “If they are not people who hold funds in EU, or want to hold funds in the EU, [the sanctions] may not have a real impact.”
UN sanctions against Syria would have broader reach but are difficult to implement as they require Security Council approval, which Assad-allied Russia would likely veto.
US sanctions could be more effective, Ms Lester said, because they can target any global transactions made in dollars and the US has a larger global network to enforce its decisions.
The French government expanded its own sanctions in January to include three Lebanese firms it says helped provide materials to the Syrian Scientific Research Center, a branch of the Syrian government believed to be involved in chemical weapons production. The French government imposed a six-month freeze on any French assets held by the companies.
Having retained lawyers, the company directors remain tight-lipped.
“We are working on the matter,” said Amir Katranji, a Syrian national whose Lebanon-based company Electronics Katranji Trading (EKT) was sanctioned by the French government in January.
EKT and Mr Katranji’s father have been on a US Department of Commerce list since 2007 for alleged links to networks building improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr Katranji declined to discuss the matter further, as did Sami Ballout, the owner of ABC Shipping, another of the companies targeted by the French sanctions.
“We only know what we read in the newspapers,” Mr Ballout said, denying any knowledge of wrongdoing.
Further information about other companies that may have handled the shipments could come out during the trial.
“With Lebanon, it’s not very surprising,” said the Syrian Archive’s Mr Al Khatib. "With the UAE, Turkey, Korea, Malaysia, it’s something that is really concerning – it’s so much more than what Belgium has done.”
The group’s investigation will now look to those shipments, seeking to identify the companies responsible.
Even though importers often find a way to work around sanctions, this doesn’t mean the effects of sanctions are not being felt. “It slows down the normal trade, puts the cost up, and if anyone violates it, they get hammered,” said Ross Denton, a London-based lawyer specializing in international trade. “There’s probably a very well-run industry [in Syria] for sourcing this stuff.”
Merely identifying transfers of isopropanol without proper government authorisations does not itself prove intent to break the law, according to one expert. Representatives of the Belgian firms have said they were unaware of the restrictions, and may not have realized who the final recipients of shipments were. “Isopropanol is not viewed as a traditional key chemical weapons precursor for sarin synthesis,” said John Hart, the head of the Chemical and Biological Security Project at SIPRI, a Stockholm-based think tank. “One dichotomy is not to mistake an administrative violation for positive proof or prohibited activity.”