Decades of Suspicions Did German Companies Aid Syrian Chemical Weapons Program?
Government documents and information from the Assad regime indicate that German companies may have helped Syria produce chemical weapons over the course of decades. So far, the Merkel administration has shown no willingness to investigate.
When it comes to war crimes and crimes against humanity, the German government is unyielding -- particularly when it comes to finding excuses for why it should do nothing when it comes to potential German perpetrators.
For more than 16 months, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has been in possession of a list containing the names of German companies thought to have helped Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his father Hafis build up Syria's chemical weapons arsenal over the course of several decades. Ultimately, it became one of the largest such arsenals in the world.
The German government, a coalition between Merkel's conservatives and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel's center-left Social Democrats (SPD), received the list from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its "extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons." Together with experts from the United Nations, the OPCW organized and carried out the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons last year.
Berlin immediately classified the list and has since kept it under lock and key. The government says that releasing the names would "significantly impair foreign policy interests and thus the welfare of the Federal Republic of Germany." It also argues that doing so would be akin to releasing "trade secrets" and as such would violate the German constitution.
It is an astonishing justification when one considers what Assad's German suppliers enabled the dictator to do. Over the years, the Syrians produced and stored poison gas weapons with an explosive power of more than 1,500 megatons. Among the weapons was the nerve gas sarin, which disrupts neurotransmitters leading to tortuous cramping and suffocation. More than 1,400 people have been killed by poisonous gas during the ongoing civil war in Syria, though it has not been conclusively proven whether the chemical weapons were deployed by the Syrian army or by opposition militias.
Foreign Ministry files make it clear that Berlin had indications that German companies may have been involved in chemical weapons production long before the OPCW delivered its list. The Institut für Zeitgeschichte (Institute for Contemporary History), which is funded by the government, regularly publishes important documents after the standard 30-year embargo has expired. The most recently published inventory, stemming from 1984, included a document that the government may have accidentally released. It includes the names of companies suspected of supplying the Syrian chemical weapons program, including the glass producer Schott, laboratory equipment producer Kolb, technology company Heraeus, the former Hoechst subsidiary Riedel-de Haën, pharmaceutical company Merck and the company Gerrit van Delden.
The paper is a memo relating to the Dec. 6, 1984 visit of the then-Israeli Ambassador to Germany Yitzhak Ben-Ari to a deputy section head in the German Foreign Ministry. Ben-Ari presented the Germans with "intelligence service findings" indicating that since the mid-1970s, scientists had been seeking to produce chemical weapons for Syria "disguised as agricultural and medical research." The ambassador said that the chemistry department of the Centre d'Etudes et des Recherches Scientifiques in Damascus, a research center that received funding from UNESCO, led the top secret program.
Ben-Ari said that a pilot facility had already been built and that, in 1982, Syria had signed contracts with European companies relating to three production lines. Ben-Ari believed that by 1985, Syria would have the capacity to produce 700 kilograms (1,543 pounds) of sarin -- enough to kill several million people.
The Foreign Ministry promised to investigate. But the list of participating German companies that the Assad regime turned over to the OPCW 16 months ago, raises doubts as to whether such an investigation ever took place. As part of the destruction of its chemical weapons arsenal, Syria was required to name all of its suppliers.
Normally in such a situation, German agencies or ministries would establish a committee of historians to explore their own histories and air out any dirty laundry they might find. The Merkel administration, though, has shown zero interest in clearing up this episode of Germany's postwar history.
The lack of motivation is hardly surprising. The issue is not only that of unscrupulous German companies. Rather, it also exposes the hypocrisy of a number of German chancellors, particularly that of Helmut Kohl, the father of reunification and long-time head of the Christian Democrats, the party currently led by Angela Merkel. Kohl was the chancellor of West Germany in 1983 when the issue of chemical weapons arose.
Three years prior, Iraq had invaded Iran, but was pushed back soon thereafter. The result was that Iraq deployed poison gas almost daily against Iranian troops. By the end of the war in 1988, thousands of Iranians had lost their lives by way of mustard gas or sarin. That same year, Saddam's henchmen deployed gas against Iraqi Kurds.
Knowingly or Unknowingly
The documents recently released by the Foreign Ministry contain much more information about the construction of chemical weapons production facilities in Iraq than they do about the efforts being undertaken in neighboring Syria. In both cases, the documents suggest that successive German governments protected companies that -- knowingly or unknowingly -- colluded with mass murderers. The practice extended from Kohl to Merkel, from Kohl's Economics Minister Otto Graf Lambsdorff to current SPD Economics Minister Gabriel.
Furthermore, those companies named by the Syrian government two years ago as suppliers to its chemical weapons program in documents handed over to the UN/OPCW commission were likely previously active in Iraq.
The company Karl Kolb GmbH & Co. KG, from the town of Dreieich in Hesse, for example. On Dec. 12, 1984, a representative of the US State Department told the German Embassy in Washington that the company had delivered "chemical research and production equipment for the manufacture of large quantities of nerve gas" to Iraq. At the time, Saddam Hussein was building the "most modern chemical weapons factory of its time," as an international team of experts pronounced in 2004, though it was disguised as a pesticide factory. Pilot Plant GmbH, a company that was closely tied with Kolb, delivered a total of four facilities at a total cost of 7.5 million deutsche marks. In the files, only the company name Kolb is mentioned.
American diplomats in Bonn -- which was the capital of West Germany at the time -- frequently pressured the German government to rein in the companies, sometimes even on a daily basis. They wanted Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher to force Kolb to withdraw its technicians and "via pressure on the company prevent Iraq from producing C-weapons."
The Cold War was still underway at the time and West Germany was dependent on its superpower ally. Furthermore, the connection of "poisonous gas" with "Germany" was one that Bonn wished to avoid: The Nazis, after all, had used hydrocyanic acid manufactured by German chemical companies to murder death-camp inmates during the Holocaust.
'Whatever it Takes'
As a result, the chancellor and his deputy took control of the issue, as internal government memos show. Foreign Ministry diplomats noted that the "minister places high value on a complete investigation" and wants "assurances that nothing more will be delivered." The file notes that Kohl too saw "grave foreign and security policy aspects" which spoke to the necessity of ensuring that deliveries to Samarra cease. He ordered his staff to "eliminate the problem, whatever it takes."
Astonishingly, however, his order was not followed.
The documents show that Kolb ignored government demands that it cease its involvement in the Samarra project. The company insisted that the equipment delivered by Pilot Plant were only suitable for the manufacture of pesticides. Furthermore, the company argued, it had adhered to all stipulations laid out for such deals, which was true.
When Israel threatened to bomb Samarra in the summer of 1984, the German government advised all companies to withdraw their personnel, which Kolb did according to diplomat notes. But the company callously sent Polish experts to replace them.
Internally and in talks with the Americans, the German government argued that their hands were tied due to laws governing foreign trade. When it came to Samarra, there was "no legal lever," a Foreign Ministry department head pronounced regretfully.
He was not wrong. The export of pesticide equipment didn't even have to be approved until 1987, despite the fact that such equipment could easily be modified for the production of chemical weapons. Legal proceedings against Kolb and Pilot Plant in the 1990s ended in acquittal due to a loophole in existing penal law, the judge found.
But why did that loophole exist? Were Kohl and Lambsdorff really caught off guard by the chemical weapons issue? Or was the murky legal situation desired so as to protect German business interests?
The Economics Ministry was responsible for export controls -- a ministry that was led by politicians from the business-friendly Free Democratic Party from 1969 to 1998. They believed their job was to do all they could to promote exports and to otherwise stay out of the way. In the Kolb case, Economics Ministry officials did what they could to prevent controls from being applied.
Still, even prior to 1984, there was plenty of information available. As early as 1978, a former intelligence official told SPIEGEL, Germany's foreign intelligence service BND had solid evidence regarding Saddam's German helpers. The official said that you would have to have been naive or unscrupulous to not recognize that Samarra was a chemical weapons facility. "There isn't a pesticide factory in the whole world where the equipment is dug into the ground or where the facilities are separated by several kilometers. On top of that, the whole thing was guarded, was located in the middle of the desert and had no infrastructure connections to other chemical industries or to highways. Also suspicious was the fact that all administrative buildings were located on the upwind side. That isn't necessary for a pesticide factory."
But BND reports to the Foreign Ministry about deliveries made by German companies were not desired by top ministry officials. "During one of my meetings with a ministry official, he showed me comments made on my report by the minister's office. In green or purple ink, Genscher had written across the first page: 'What business is that of theirs?'" Formally, Genscher was correct: The BND was not allowed to spy on German companies. But it was an approach that benefitted Saddam Hussein.
The retired BND official recalls that German intelligence also had detailed knowledge of the Syrian chemical weapons program at least since 1982. His recollections would seem to be supported by a compilation established by the BND listing goods delivered to Syria and handed to the German government last year in connection with the OPCW list.
German companies, for example, provided equipment for the manufacture of methylphosphonyl difluoride, which can be combined with isopropanol for the production of sarin. German intelligence knew about such shipments in 1983. But nothing happened.
Under American pressure, the German cabinet met in the summer of 1984 to consider the introduction of permit requirements for the export of equipment that could be used in the manufacture of chemical weapons. In preparation for a meeting on the issue between Kohl, Genscher and Economics Minister Lambsdorff, a ministry official noted that such a step could harm "foreign trade with facilities and chemical equipment, which is of particular importance for the (Federal Republic) of Germany."
Ultimately, a permit requirement was introduced. But, whether intentional or not, it quickly proved to be largely useless.
Even today, many years later, the German government's behavior with regards to chemical weapons raises questions. When Left Party parliamentarian Jan van Aken, a former UN biological weapons inspector, made an official inquiry regarding the OPCW list, he was only allowed to read the government's response in a room in parliament specially designed for reviewing top secret documents. It is an unusual procedure: In previous, comparable cases, members of the Economic Affairs Committee were informed along with the president of the Bundestag. But parliamentarians still haven't learned the names of the German companies that delivered supplies.
The companies suspected of having been involved have shown little desire to come clean. Riedel-de Haën was sold to Honeywell in 1995 and management says that they have no documents pertaining to the period before the sale. Schott und Heraeus likewise said that there are "no records" documenting business deals completed decades in the past. As such, the company said, they were unable to answer questions regarding deliveries to Syria.
Merck insisted that it "neither constructed facilities nor delivered equipment for the construction of chemical facilities." It also noted that isopropanol, which had been mentioned in the Foreign Ministry documents, "was not controlled until 2014." The company presumes that "in the past too all of the required permits were applied for and received."
Kolb had not responded to two SPIEGEL inquiries by the time this article was published.
The companies would seem to have little to fear from a legal perspective. In March, ex-biological weapons inspector van Aken filed an official complaint against the companies involved with Germany's chief federal prosecutor "due to assistance in crimes against humanity and war crimes." Furthermore, the Foreign Ministry passed along the OPCW list, including the names of the companies in question, to the prosecutor's office.
The result has been a few inquiries made with the customs office and with the foreign intelligence agency BND. But the effort was aimed more at determining whether the statute of limitations had already passed and a formal investigation has not been launched.
The government, meanwhile, has justified its refusal to publicize the list of Assad's suppliers by referencing concerns of "grave consequences" that could extend to "existential threats." Furthermore, they say it would be a violation of constitutional guarantees relating to business dealings. The rights of poison gas victims to life are apparently not as important. They are, after all, already dead.