At the same time the Syrian regime of Bashir Al-Assad began the brutal repression that would quickly spin the country into civil war—and culminate with the use of chemical weapons against its own citizens-- Syrian officials were officially registering a deal with the United Nations agency sponsoring the world's largest carbon-trading scheme for an industrial complex known for years as a “dual-use” facility in the government's production of the same weapons of mass destruction.
The project aimed to dramatically reduce nitrous oxide emissions from a complex operated by the General Fertilizer Company (GFC), a Syrian government-owned firm outside the city of Homs that among other things is the country's largest producer of nitric acid—which, when highly refined, is a major component in the fuel of Scud missiles.
As part of the outcome, the United Nations agency, known as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), would provide carbon-trading certificates -- about 187,000 of them -- each representing the equivalent of a ton of repressed emissions. In the current carbon trading market, they would be worth about $133,000.
The project was officially registered by the CDM in April 2010. The emissions reduction activity was originally due to begin in August, 2011, and the payoff—the emissions reductions certificates--were supposed to start rolling out in January, 2012.
But as the violence escalated dramatically in Syria—including in the province surrounding Homs, where a small-scale chemical weapons attack by the regime is alleged to have taken place as early as December, 2012—construction of the GFC project was postponed.
Nonetheless, the scheme is still on the books, awaiting a go-ahead when, and if, the violence subsides, according to an official at the Japanese company that is jointly responsible for the scheme with the Assad government.
A spokesman for the CDM, which also gives final authorization to the acceptance of projects, would not discuss the dual use issue when questioned by Fox News, pointing instead to the GFC project's registry page as the source of available information. Documents on the page make no mention of the dual-use issue.
A “dual-use” facility of any kind by definition can have both civilian and military uses, and the General Fertilizer Company in Syria is known not only for nitric acid production but agricultural fertilizers of various kinds.
Whether the GFC facility figures on a list of its chemical weapons arsenal provided by the Assad regime late last week to the independent Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is not yet known. The formal review of the list by international officials is scheduled to start this week.
Nonetheless, the company was named little more than three weeks ago, on September 8, 2013, as part of Syria's “dual use infrastructure” relating to “chemical weapons facilities” in a research paper from the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, a private-sector Israeli think-tank specializing in studies on terrorism, counter-terrorism and national security.
The paper itself was self-described as the first part of a project “intended to evaluate the threat of proliferation of Syrian chemical weapons to local and regional terrorist organizations and beyond.” The authors at the institute declined to discuss their work when approached by Fox News.
Other references to the Syrian fertilizer facilities at Homs in connection with the chemical warfare effort go back in anti-proliferation literature to at least 2000.
Homs itself—a city and surrounding region that has been the scene of sharp fighting between the Assad regime and anti-government insurgents -- is well known as an area where Scud missiles are produced. In 2007, Israeli media cited intelligence sources in reporting that Syria had a missile testing site at Homs that included a “previously undisclosed chemical warhead facility.”
The relationship between Syria's Scud missiles and its chemical weapons activities had been underlined even earlier, in 2005, when a Scud of the type that used the nitric acid fuel system was recovered in Turkey and reported by Israel news media as being fitted with equipment for air-chemical burst weapons. Scuds and chemical weapons were also reportedly involved in a mysterious explosion that took place at a Syrian military site in Aleppo in 2009, where a number of Iranian and North Korean technicians were allegedly killed.
The whole issue of dual-use facilities is a “bedeviling problem” in the struggle to get rid of chemical weapons in the hands of dictators, according to Juan Zarate, a deputy national-security advisor in the Bush Administration and author of a "Treasury's War,"a just-published book on the use of U.S. financial sanctions to battle terrorism, rogue regimes and weapons of mass destruction.
It is also a challenge to the notion that the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons stocks will end the issue.
“It's one thing to gather up chemical warheads, and other to dismantle programs,” Zarate says. “A multitude of Syrian executive orders indicate that the whole chemical weapons program has multiple institutions and entities. You can have entire industries that can be re-engineered very quickly to produce more.”
The challenge is even more sensitive for the United Nations, which has been on virtually every side of the Syrian crisis since its inception—as a partner and booster of the Assad regime after it took power; as a failed mediator of the ensuing violence; as an investigator of the horrific chemical weapon attack that left more than 1,400 people dead in Damascus in August; and now, as a sponsor of the inspection that will examine the regime's disclosed chemical weapons stocks and the methods of their destruction.
The alleged role of the General Fertilizer Company in Assad's chemical weapons arsenal—apparently unexamined by the CDM except in terms of its greenhouse gas output—exposes yet another pitfall for a world body that not only operates as a talking shop for all the nations of the world, including its most murderous dictators, but also has become a global service organization sponsoring all manner of other activities for the same clientele.
“This appears to be another example of the U.N. System's obliviousness to how its aid programs are exploited,” observes John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and a Fox News contributor. “Dual-use applications should receive the highest scrutiny.”
There are no signs in the Clean Development Mechanism paperwork, however, that the project involving GFC was ever considered on any other basis than its ability to help cut greenhouses gases in Syria, a country that is a signatory to the now-expired Kyoto Protocol on combating such emissions to fight “climate change.”
The CDM officially considers projects sponsored by participating governments—in this case Syria and Japan—solely on the basis of technical issues.
In the case of the GFC project, the official sponsors were the Assad government's environmental ministry and Japan's environmental and infrastructure ministries. (Ironically, Syria's current environment minister, as well as the rest of the Assad government, is under U.S. Treasury sanctions.)
According to an official of the Shimizu Corporation, the Japanese firm that initially hoped to carry out the project, the greenhouse gas abatement scheme was first brought to the company's attention by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the country's equivalent of USAID.
Questions sent by Fox News to JICA regarding the General Fertilizer Company deal, and the company's dual-use reputation, had not been answered by the time this story was published.
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell