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Politicians enraged that Britain gave export licenses to sell Syria 'nerve gas chemicals'

Published time: September 02, 2013 19:41
Edited time: September 04, 2013 09:05

U.N. chemical weapons experts, wearing gas masks, inspect one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Damascus' suburb of Zamalka suburbs (Reuters / Mohammad Abdullah)

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MPs demanded an explanation from government ministers Monday after finding out that the UK granted licenses to export chemicals to Syria that could have been used to produce nerve gas. The licenses were granted on the eve of the Syrian civil war.

Export licenses for sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride were granted in January 2012, in the full knowledge that both substances “could also be used as precursor chemicals in the manufacture of chemical weapons,” according to a report published by the House of Commons Committee on Arms Export Controls in July. 

Angus Robertson, a Scottish National Party MP, told RT that the issue was raised in the House of Commons during defense questions on Monday after unrest surrounding the issue bubbled over the weekend.

“Defense ministers had to explain why it was that the UK would even consider granting an export license,” he said, adding that it was "impossible to tell" whether rebels could have got hold of the chemicals should they have made it into the country.

Both sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride are capable of being used in the production of sarin, a neurotoxic gas. Large doses of sarin can lead to paralysis, loss of consciousness, convulsions and respiratory failure, eventually resulting in death.

“This is why they are included on the Australia Group chemical weapons precursors list and are listed in Annex I of Council Regulation 428/2009, meaning a licence is required for their export from the EU,” the report said. 

In the 1950s, the US and the USSR produced sarin gas for military purposes, and Syria has fallen under suspicion of owning Soviet-made supplies. US Secretary of State John Kerry alleged on Sunday that it was used in the attack in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21 in which several hundred people were thought to have died. The accusation came as the UN is still far from finishing testing the samples they collected at the site of the alleged attack.

On Monday, the British government gave an explanation as to why an export license was granted for the passage of chemicals that were supposedly bound for a company based in Syria. 

“We issued licenses for sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride. The exporter and recipient company demonstrated that the chemicals were for a legitimate civilian end-use, which was for metal finishing of aluminum profiles used in making aluminum showers and aluminum window frames,” Oliver Fry, a spokesperson from the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, told RT via e-mail.

It remains unclear exactly who was to receive the shipments as the company they were being supplied to has stayed anonymous.

“I’m still concerned, however, as the chemical licenses were issued at a time when the situation in Syria had already deteriorated,” said Robertson. 

Members of Parliament are seen attending a session of Parliament in the House of Commons in London (Reuters / UK Parliament via Reuters TV)

However the shipment never reached the Arab country.

“The export itself did not take place, so the chemicals did not make their way to Syria,” Robertson said. “The UK rescinded the export licenses when the EU told the UK to do it... Frankly the problem is that the UK was prepared to grant to an export license in the first place.”

The EU later imposed new sanctions, with licenses being revoked in July 2012.

“The sanctions included prohibitions on the sale, supply, transfer or export of certain dual-use items and chemicals (including sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride) which might be used for internal repression or in the manufacture of items which might be used for internal repression,” the House of Commons Committee on Arms Export Controls report stated. 

Free Syrian Army fighters clean and inspect their weapon in Raqqa province, eastern Syria September 1, 2013 (Reuters / Nour Fourat)

The potential of the chemicals is undisputed.

Fluoride is key to making these munitions,” Professor Alastair Hay, an expert in environmental toxicology at Leeds University, told the Daily Record on Sunday. However, it is unknown whether they were a contributing factor.

Whether these elements were used by Syria to make nerve agents is something only subsequent investigation will reveal,” Hay said.

UK government 'hypocritical' on Syria

The dichotomy between UK claims and actual practice were highlighted by Mark Bitel of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (Scotland). “The Government is hypocritical to talk about chemical weapons if it’s granting licences to companies to export to regimes such as Syria,” he said. 

“We saw David Cameron, in the wake of the Arab Spring, rushing off to the Middle East with arms companies to promote business.” 

MP Angus Robertson echoed the sentiment on Monday.

“There’s also a parallel development, he told RT. “Ministers are having to acknowledge that the UK trained senior Assad military officers in the UK over a number of years. Now, both of these cases show to me an utter inconsistency on the basis of decisions that have been taken here in London.

He added that the UK had a dubious track record in providing potentially lethal equipment overseas.

“The UK has form in this sort of thing – being prepared to sell military hardware and other things that can be used for the production of weapons, and in this case chemicals which could – in circumstances be used to produce chemical weapons. And we do have to ask ourselves why with the situation already having deteriorated so badly that the UK was even prepared to grant an export license where these chemicals do have a potential dual use. Yes, for manufacturing purposes, but also for the production of chemical weapons,” said Roberstson. 

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