In September 2002, a western intelligence source expressed great concern over a development which he warned could ultimately change the balance of terror in the Middle East.
This was when Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper first exposed the chemical missile facility in al-Safir, Syria,
and reported that Iran
is assisting Damascus in significantly upgrading its ground-to-ground missiles.
Under Bashar Assad's regime, Syria's non-conventional armament effort was significantly boosted. Satellite images produced especially for Yedioth Ahronoth via the world's best commercial surveillance satellite company, Digital Globe, revealed the large-scale complex the Syrians have built for manufacturing chemical weapons: Sarin and VX nerve gases. The site also houses innovative Scud missiles types C and D that can reach any spot in Israel.
Compared to former satellite images, vast changes are evident at the site as well as a massive construction effort – particularly in areas related to the new Scud missile type D. The missile is manufactured elsewhere but is stored in underground tunnels in al-Safir. The giant site spans dozens of kilometers and comprises several sites surrounded by high fences and patrol roads.
The images reveal the vast chemical weapon manufacturing area, its storage area in reinforced concrete bunkers, the area where the missiles are stored, and ground-to-air missile batteries defending the site.
The satellite images detected four chemical weapon production sites: The first is located north of Damascus; the second is adjacent to the city of Humas, the third in Hama – and apparently manufactures VX, Sarin and Tabun gas, and the fourth in al-Safir. The images clearly identify the cooling towers typical of chemical weapons manufacturing facilities.
During the complex manufacturing process, highly toxic agents must be removed and the system cooled. The images reveal a powerful power plant that attests to massive industrial activity.
Syria is using its growing pharmaceutical industry in order to purchase materials related to its chemical warfare development, as this is a field where distinctions cannot be made between civilian and military projects.
The accident in al-Safir - as reported by Jane's Magazine – is the latest in a series of accidents: In 1991 the Syrian Health Ministry was forced to close down five pharmaceutical plants due to "complaints by civilians and doctors" that the products "did not meet the required regulations."
Nonetheless, the proximity of the explosion in al-Safir and the reports in the foreign media in recent weeks about an "Israeli strike" in a nearby arae is nothing short of amazing.
Western intelligence is not entirely clear about how the line of command and control over the missile system works. It is known that there is a missile administration in Syria which is an autonomic, prestigious and independent body. An officer with the rank of general, subordinated to the chief of staff, heads the administration, but in fact will only launch missiles at the president's order.
The scientific arm responsible for Syria's knowledge and missile production is the Scientific Study Research Center (SSRC). They can be contacted at POB 4470, Damascus. They can also be reached by phone at: 963-11-772-603, or faxed at 963-11-2223771. Yet behind this seemingly innocent name hides the agency in charge of the manufacture of ballistic missiles. The center also handles a great part of the knowledge and acquisition of equipment worldwide.