Berlin steadfastly refuses to reveal the names of German companies who helped Syria develop its chemical weapons program according to a new report published this week by Der Spiegel. The information was made available in documents that were declassified after a 30 year embargo.
The list of firms involved in the program was handed over to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government coalition 16 months ago by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The organization won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its “extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.” Last year the OPCW organized and helped destroy Syria’s chemical weapons – those that were uncovered, that is – together with experts from the United Nations.
But 16 months later, Merkel has done nothing with the list, saying that publicizing the names would “significantly impair foreign policy interests and thus the welfare of the Federal Republic of Germany.”
The Merkel government added that doing so would be similar to releasing “trade secrets” and therefore constitute a violation of Germany’s constitution.
According to a lengthy report in Der Spiegel, however, the government did not need the OPCW list to know that German firms were involved in the Syrian chemical weapons program.
Apparently the government-funded Institute for Contemporary History published an inventory dating back to 1984 including a government document with names of companies suspected of supplying the Syrian chemical weapons program.
The release may have been accidental; it was a memo regarding the Dec. 6, 1984 visit to a deupty section head in the German Foreign Ministry by then-Israeli Ambassador to Germany Yitzhak Ben-Ari.
The Israeli official brought with him “intelligence service findings” which showed that since the mid-1970s scientists had been working on producing chemical weapons for Syria, “disguised as agricultural and medical research.”
Included were the glass producer Schott, laboratory equipment producer Kolb, technology company Heraeus, the former Hoechst subsidiary Riedel-de-Haen, pharmaceutical company Merck and the company Gerrit van Delden.
The top secret program was being carried out in the chemistry department at the UNESCO-funded Centre d’Etudes et des Recherches Scientifiques in Damascus. A pilot facility was already built. Contracts were already signed for three production lines and Ben-Ari believed that within the year, Syria would have the capacity to produce 700 kilograms (1,543 pounds) of sarin – enough to kill several million people.
On December 12, 1984, a representative of the U.S. State Department told the German Embassy in Washington that Karl Kolb GmbH & Co. KG, from the town of Dreiech in Hesse, had delivered “chemical research and production equipment for the manufacture of large quantities of nerve gas” to Iraq.
At that time, Dictator Saddam Hussein was busy building “the most modern chemical weapons factory of its time,” disguised as a pesticide factory, according to international experts who testified in 2004, Der Spiegel reports. Though only Kolb is mentioned in the files, it turns out that a related firm, Pilot Plant GmbH, delivered four facilities at a total cost of 7.5 million Deutsche marks.
American officials were trying to pressure then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher to force Kolb to withdraw its technicians and “via pressure on the company prevent Iraq from producing C-weapons.”
Germany’s long-standing love affair with chemical weapons was notorious: the Nazis had used hydrocyanic acid, manufactured by German chemical companies, to murder inmates in the death camps during the Holocaust. Millions died, including six million Jews.
As it turns out, Kohl and Genscher did indeed promise to curb the companies and issued orders to that effect. Foreign Ministry internal memos clearly showed the “minister places high value on a complete investigation” and demanded “assurances that nothing more will be delivered” to Samarra.