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How Europe helped build the Syrian site Israel just bombed

Early on Sunday morning, the skies over Damascus lit up with explosions as Israeli jets launched airstrikes near the capital. The target was reportedly the innocuously named Center of Scientific Studies and Research in the suburb of Jamraya, which goes by its French initials CERS.

CERS, according to Western intelligence agencies, is in charge of research and development for Syria's chemical and biological weapons programs. It has long been on the radar of the Israelis: As far back as 2010, an Israeli general warned that the site "will be demolished" if it continued to transfer weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas, and it was already targeted by a suspected Israeli strike in January. While CERS is an ostensibly civilian agency, it works hand in glove with the Syrian military: In the 1990s, the U.S. Defense Department reported that the Assad regime had set up a production line to manufacture bomblets containing VX nerve agent at an underground site in the same location as CERS's Damascus facility.

How did CERS acquire the know-how to manufacture such weapons? The crucial period was in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Assad regime researched and acquired sarin gas, which it now stands accused of using in small quantities on its own people. During this period, Syria did not rely on rogue states, or even entirely on its alliance with the Soviet Union, to acquire its chemical weapons stockpile -- it simply asked European companies for the technology.

Foreign assistance was of "critical importance in allowing Syria to develop its chemical warfare capability, and ...West European firms were instrumental in supplying the required precursor chemicals and equipment," testified then-CIA Director William Webster before Congress in 1989. "Without the provision of these key elements, Damascus would not have been able to produce chemical weapons."

In order to receive European help, Syria exploited gaping loopholes in the Western anti-proliferation regime. President Hafez al-Assad established CERS in 1971 as a civilian agency dedicated to research in unthreatening fields such as solar energy, sewage treatment, and telecommunications. In reality, by the 1980s CERS reported directly to Assad, and the agency director-general was promoted to the rank of cabinet minister. CERS's true aim was to scour Europe for dual-use technology that could bolster its chemical weapons program.

The Assad regime was massively successful. CERS received financial support to purchase equipment from the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO, and it sent its engineers for training at the French government's official research agency, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). Until the early 1990s, the French government was actively encouraging French high-tech companies to do business with CERS, according to a 1992 report by Middle East Defense News (Mednews).

European companies, rather than inquiring about how their sensitive technology would be used, looked to make a quick profit by providing CERS with whatever it desired. In the mid-1980s, the West German company Schott Glasswerke provided high-durability glass instruments for what the Syrians dubbed the "Borosilicate Glass Project" --- but which was, in reality, a project to manufacture sarin gas. According to Mednews, over a dozen major German companies also supplied CERS with sensitive hardware.

By 1992, Europe had wised up to the military research being conducted by CERS -- but the damage had already been done. The Assad regime had already acquired stockpiles of sarin gas and potentially VX nerve agent. These same weapons are now causing headaches for governments across the globe: Israel's recent strike allegedly targeted ballistic missiles bound for Hezbollah, and one reason Jerusalem acted so aggressively is no doubt because it fears Assad could enable the Lebanese militant group to launch chemical weapon-tipped missiles.

But even while Syria's chemical weapons program was advancing, some European officials knew that something was not quite right. "Every day I sign off on export licenses," Mednews quoted a senior French licensing official as saying, "and I wonder whether I have not just signed my resignation."

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Would the U.S. still arm a Syrian opposition that used chemical weapons?

After a concerted effort to walk back -- or at least soften -- its "red line" on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, it looks as if the Obama administration may have just gotten off the hook. According to Reuters, U.N. human rights investigators now have evidence that rebel forces used sarin gas -- a revelation that, if confirmed, would vindicate the president's studied approach to the Syrian conflict and reduce the political pressure on him to act immediately.

In an interview Sunday with a Swiss-Italian television station, Carla Del Ponte, a former prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and a current member of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said that testimony gathered by U.N. human rights researchers reveals "strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas." She added: "This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities."

After the Obama administration reluctantly acknowledged on April 25 that the Syrian regime had most likely used chemical weapons, it looked as if the president had backed himself into a corner. In August 2012, Obama declared the use of chemical agents a "red line" for U.S. involvement in the conflict, later reiterating that it would be a "game changer."

How exactly the administration would respond was never made explicit, but most assumed it would trigger deeper U.S. engagement, whether by directly arming members of the opposition or instituting a no-fly zone. After all, the president warned in December: "If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable."

But when Britain, France, and Israel all claimed that the regime had indeed crossed the red line, the White House responded cautiously, downplaying what one official called "low-confidence assessments by foreign governments." Even after acknowledging in a letter to Congress that the U.S. intelligence community believes "with varying degrees of confidence" that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons "on a small scale," the president resolved to conduct further investigations before taking action.

The United States should not rush to judgment without "hard, effective evidence," Obama said in an April 30 press conference in which he appeared to shift responsibility for the U.S. red line to the international community. "When I said the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, that wasn't a position unique to the United States...The use of chemical weapons would be a game changer. Not simply for the United States, but for the international community," he said at one point.

Despite such efforts to blur the red line -- which the New York Times reported Saturday was never intended to trap the president into "any predetermined action" -- the White House announced that it was rethinking its position on arming the rebels, a sort of least-worst option that would shield the president from charges of inviting rogue states like Iran and North Korea to defy the United States.    

My guess is that this latest report will give the administration enough space to put plans for arming the opposition on hold. After all, what business does the United States have arming rebels who are violating international law? Even if the testimony turns out to be unreliable -- something the Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy points out is entirely possible -- it plays into the administration's fog-of-war narrative that calls for a measured and methodical approach to a crisis that is increasingly difficult to read.

How Israel's apparent success in striking Syrian missile sites over the weekend will impact the debate remains to be seen. Critics of the president, like Arizona Sen. John McCain, are spinning it as proof-positive that the United States could take out Syria's air defenses, easy peasy, like it did in Libya. The reality is no doubt more complicated than that. Armed with additional reasons to err on the side of caution, my bet is that the administration, which has shown no interest in getting dragged into another conflict in the Middle East, isn't about to change its mind.

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