NICOSIA – Syria maintains an arsenal of chemical weapons that is considered one of the biggest in the Middle East, but its makeup and size remain guesswork, as few facts have emerged.
Britain, France and the United States have accused the Syrian regime of having unleashed poisonous gas against its civilians in Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21, killing hundreds.
On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington has proof the regime of President Bashar Assad used sarin, a lethal nerve gas that kills in minutes developed by Nazi scientists in 1938.
“In the last 24 hours, we have learned through samples that were provided to the United States and that have now been tested from first responders in East Damascus, hair samples and blood samples have tested positive for signatures of sarin,” Kerry told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
U.S. President Barack Obama said he will seek congressional approval for a punitive strike on Syria.
Washington says its preliminary figures show that 1,429 people — including 426 children — were killed in last month’s alleged chemical attack.
The Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed political opposition group, says at least 1,460 people were killed. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which draws its information from a network of activists in Syria, says it only counts victims identified by name, and that the current total stands at 502.
France said Sunday it will soon declassify secret defense documents detailing Syria’s chemical arsenal in defiance of international conventions.
A government source made the comment after the Journal du Dimanche weekly said French intelligence agents had compiled information showing that some of the weapons had been stockpiled for nearly 30 years.
The arsenal included over 1,000 tons of chemical agents, the paper said.
According to the Sunday newspaper, the arsenal included sarin and mustard gas. The secret documents showed that Syrian scientists had also worked to develop a powerful agent that was far more toxic that sarin.
Syria has denied unleashing chemical gas and blamed rebels fighting to topple Assad’s regime.
Key ally Russia also said last month it has proof that rebel fighters had employed sarin in March near Aleppo, in northern Syria.
The Syrian regime acknowledged for the first time on July 23, 2012, that it had chemical weapons and threatened to use them in case of Western military intervention, but never against the Syrian population.
The government and the armed opposition accuse each other of having used chemical weapons in the 28-month conflict.
Syria is one of the few countries not to have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and is believed to have a large stockpile of sarin and other nerve gases.
The Syrian program was launched in the 1970s with the help of Egypt and the Soviet Union.
In the 1990s, Russia provided support, followed by Iran since 2005, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an independent organization that tracks data on weapons of mass destruction.
An analyst at the nonproliferation and disarmament program of the International Institute for Strategic Studies says Syria has the biggest chemical weapons program in the Middle East. The group says the program was launched with the goal of counterbalancing Israel’s alleged nuclear program.
The analyst says important information on the program has been collected following the defection of several Syrian military officers, but that the information is far from complete.
According to a specialist at the Monterey Institute for International Studies in the United States, Syria has “hundreds of tons” of diverse chemical agents.
A French specialist at the Foundation for Strategic Research said in July 2012: “Their armory of chemical agents is quite strong. The Syrians have managed to master the synthesis of organophosphorus — that’s the last generation, the most efficient and most toxic of chemical weapons. In this family, one finds sarin and VX, as well as . . . mustard gas.”
On Jan. 30, the Israeli Air Force bombed a ground-to-air missile battery and adjacent military complex near Damascus that was suspected of holding chemical weapons, with Israel saying it feared their transfer to Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah, according to a U.S. official.
According to The New York Times, the raid could have damaged Syria’s main research center into biological and chemical weapons.