General Zaher al-Sakat tells Richard Spencer that he was ordered three times to use chemical weapons against his own people in Syria - but he could not go through with it.
Few thought that the Syrian regime’s promise to destroy its chemical weapons would be the end of the story. Brigadier-General Zaher al-Sakat, a former chemical weapons chief in President Bashar al-Assad’s own army, certainly did not.
Gen Sakat says he was ordered three times to use chemical weapons against his own people, but could not go through with it and replaced chemical canisters with ones containing harmless bleach.
He also insists that all such orders had to come from the top – President Assad himself – despite insistent denials by the regime that it has never used chemical weapons.
Now he also claims to have his own intelligence that the Syrian president is evading the terms of a Russian-brokered deal to destroy his chemical weapons by transferring some of his stocks to his allies – Hizbollah, in Lebanon, and Iran.
Gen Sakat spoke to The Sunday Telegraph last week, his first interview with a western newspaper, as Mr Assad confirmed for the first time what he and much of the rest of the world already knew – that regime possessed a huge arsenal of chemical weapons, and the delivery systems to go along with them.
The Syrian leader’s admission came in the form of written declarations on Friday and Saturday to the United Nations’ Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. It was an extraordinary and unexpected outcome of the wrangling between the United States and Russia which followed the murderous attack on the Damascus suburbs of East and West Ghouta a month ago.
But now attention is turning to whether Mr Assad will comply with the deal’s terms – and whether it will lead to a wider opportunity to bring the warring parties together. On that score, both sides’ backers, pleased with progress so far, profess less optimism.
Gen Sakat’s personal history gives new insight into the extent to which, it is said, the Assad regime gradually turned to the use of chemical weapons, despite angry public denials, after rebels encroached on Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s two biggest cities, in the summer of last year.
As chief scientific officer in the army’s fifth division, he ran chemical weapons operations in the country’s southern Deraa province, where the uprising began in March 2011. He says he witnessed the first uses of violence against peaceful protesters – and the first use of “dirty tricks”, placing weapons in the mosque where the protests started to suggest the protesters were armed.
Gen Sakat said the regime wanted to “annihilate” the opposition using any means, and said he received his first orders to use chemical weapons in October last year. On three occasions, he said he was told to use a mixture of phosgene and two other chlorine-based agents against civilian targets in Sheikh Masqeen, Herak, and Busra, all rebel-held districts.
However, under cover of darkness, he said he had replaced the canisters containing the chemicals with ones containing water mixed with dilute bleach which would give off a similar chlorine smell.
At first, his trick worked. “They were completely convinced that this was the same poisonous material,” he told the Sunday Telegraph in an interview. “In this way I saved hundreds of lives of children and others.”
But after the third occasion, in January, his bosses became suspicious at the lack of deaths in his “attacks” and he began to plot his escape to Jordan, where he has been based since the spring.
Gen Sakat believes chemical weapons have now been used 34 times, rather than the 14 occasions cited by international intelligence agencies. But he agrees with a variety of assessments that differing substances and concentrations are used, which would account for the differing death rates, with some attacks killing very few or none.
Although phosgene has been banned internationally since the 1920s, it is much less potent than sarin, the chemical now known to have been deployed in Ghouta. The army was concerned not to use the most dangerous chemicals in the far south because of its proximity to Israel, Gen Sakat said.
In other parts of the country, notably the Damascus suburbs, Homs and Aleppo, the regime was subsequently accused of using small quantities of stronger chemicals, culminating in the attack on Ghouta, where UN inspectors found traces of sarin across wide areas. The US, and the rebels themselves, believe that more than 1,400 people were killed there.
Now the world waits to see whether Mr Assad will comply with the Russian-led deal to dismantle his nuclear stocks which saw American missile strikes postponed indefinitely.
Last week, more details emerged of the behind-the-scenes negotiations which preceded the deal, and which make it seem like much less of a victory for Mr Assad. He will no doubt be aware of the subsequent fates of the two most recent Arab leaders to have abandoned their chemical weapons at the West’s command – Saddam Hussein and Col Muammar Gaddafi.
The proposal for Mr Assad to hand over his weapons had been discussed previously between the United States and Russia, so that the suggestion by John Kerry, the secretary of state, that it might be a way out of the missile crisis was less off-the-cuff than it appeared.
Russia then enforced the deal on Mr Assad, despite Moscow’s public claims that it was the rebels rather than the regime which perpetrated the Ghouta massacre.
In another sign of Moscow’s apparent scepticism, President Vladimir Putin said last week he was not “100 per cent sure” Mr Assad would comply, and the Kremlin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, said on Saturday it was making contingency plans if he were to fail to do so.
"I am speaking theoretically and hypothetically, but if we become convinced that Assad is cheating, we can change our position," he said.
Gen Sakat says the deception has already begun.
"Before the Lavrov deal, they were already mobilising them to move to Lebanon and even Iraq," he said. "There have already been weapons handed over to Hizbollah."
Both the political opposition and the armed rebels have complained that the deal lets Mr Assad off the hook, making their claims that Mr Assad is now trying to hide his chemical weapons stocks convenient.
Their claims cannot be verified, but they cite a variety of sources for their allegations.
American newspapers have already reported western intelligence agencies’ allegations that Unit 450, the central command-and-control structure of the chemical weapons programme, has been dispersing the arsenal to different sites inside the country.
"We, along with many other international sources learned, through documents and other evidence about the transfer of Syrian chemical weapons to Hizbollah in Lebanon nearly three months ago," Fahad al-Masri, a spokesman for the western-backed Free Syrian Army said.
He said the rebels had a network of informers inside the regime’s chemical weapon apparatus, who sympathised with the rebels but were being prevented by threats to their lives from defecting. He said the FSA had also been shown intelligence estimates by western governments which said the same thing.
He said the weapons were being stored at four sites under the direct control of Hizbollah.
Gen Sakat says he has his own sources: a network inside the country of activists who are specifically monitoring the programme. One member, calling himself Abu Mohammed, told The Telegraph he had hacked into Unit 450 computer systems and read orders, including some relating to the transfer to Hizbollah.
Gen Sakat said a team of his activists had observed a column of more than 20 vehicles, some identifiable as belonging to the programme, heading towards the Lebanese border. He also alleged that other stocks were being transferred through Iraq to Iran.
"They saw these shipments start before Lavrov appeared and mentioned the deal," he said.
International agencies are monitoring the possible transfer of weapons to Lebanon closely, and Israel has declared this its own “red line” – and it has already bombed Syria twice since the start of the uprising, including Unit 450’s presumed base north of Damascus.
Israeli intelligence sources would not comment on the allegations. But one retired Israeli Major-General and former attache to Washington, Gadi Shamni, said: “I am positive they’re already trying to move things from one location to another to hide it.
"It will be very hard to cheat in one week. But November is a very long time away – in winter, the sky is cloudy, and visibility is low. US satellites cannot be very effective – it’s a very problematic issue and the Syrians understand it very well."