April 6, 2011 : Syria CS gas may have been made in the UK

admin's picture

The CS gas used by Syrian security forces against civilian protesters may have been made in the UK. Video footage from a protest in the southern city of Daraa shows a CS gas canister bearing the distinctive red stripe that appears on some UK-made CS gas canisters. At least one person has died as a result of inhaling the supposedly 'non-lethal' gas, while many others have been killed by bullets and guns made in other western 'democracies'.

The video footage, obtained by an independent Syrian news site, shows a man in Daraa, where some of the most violent protests have taken place, holding one of the CS gas canisters fired by security forces to disperse the angry crowd on 25th March. The canister does not appear to carry details of the manufacturer but looks very similar to those used by some UK police forces (see here, for example).

On 21st March, an 11-year-old boy died in Daraa from tear gas inhalation. Munzer Mu’men al-Masalmeh had been caught up in an anti-regime protest the previous day, where security forces used tear gas and live ammunition to break up the crowd (see this video). Tear gas, sometimes referred to as CS gas, is also known to have been used to disperse protests in other cities throughout Syria, including Homs and Latakia. A video from Homs shows a number of people passing out from inhaling the toxic substance. The videos suggest that the CS gas used is stronger, or has a higher propensity to incapacitate, than that normally used by police forces.

Dodgy deals?

Different Syrian sources have separately told Corporate Watch that crowd-control weapons may have been obtained by the Syrian authorities from the UK outside the official arms licensing process. According to one source, who preferred to stay anonymous to protect themselves, the “secret deal” may have been brokered by the Syrian president's father-in-law, Fawaz al-Akhras, who is alleged to have received hundreds of thousands of pounds in commission. The deal, which apparently also includes anti-terrorism and riot-control training, is said to be worth up to £10 million and the last shipment was supposedly made as late as January 2011.

Dr Al-Akhras is a consultant cardiologist at the Cromwell Hospital in London and has a private practice in Harley Street. He is the founding chairman of the British Syrian Society, which was established in 2003 with the aim of “strengthening relations at all levels between Britain and Syria.”

The sources also hinted that CS gas, and possibly other illegal chemical weapons, may have been exported from the UK to Syria “disguised as medical and pharmaceutical products” through NAA Healthcare Group. Owned by Al-Akhras and his wife, NAA is a Damascus-based company that describes itself as “a group of Syrian and international investors seeking to promote and develop the Syrian health sector.” Dr Al-Akhras was “not available” to comment on the allegations.

Strategic export licenses to Syria approved by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), known as Single Individual Export Licences (SIELs), show that only one license for small arms ammunition, worth £30,000, was approved in the first three quarters of 2010 (see here). Six other, 'dual-use' licences, worth almost £230,000, were also approved, while another nine were refused under the EU and national arms export licensing criteria. The latter mostly included chemicals, surveillance and laboratory equipment that could potentially be used in manufacturing 'weapons of mass destruction'.

One of the dual-use licences approved in the second quarter of 2010 was for “chemicals used for pharmaceutical/healthcare production.” In 2009, seven such licenses, worth almost £5m, were also approved. At least one of these licenses was for “chemicals used for cosmetics production.” It is possible that these chemicals could have been used to manufacture CS gas and/or other anti-riot weapons rather than cosmetics. The direct export of CS gas is apparently “difficult” due to strict licensing controls.

Commenting on the allegations, Syrian dissent journalist Nizar Nayouf said he was not aware of any deals between Britain and Syria regarding CS gas but did not rule out the possibility that it may have occurred. “Syria has been testing and developing chemical and biological weapons for years,” he said, “and Britain is known for its support for the Ba’th regime ever since Hafez Al-Assad [the father of the current president] led a coup [in 1970] against the then French-supported ‘left-wing’ leadership of the Ba’th party.”

Mr Nayouf has, for many years, been investigating allegations that chemical and biological weapons are tested on political prisoners in Syria. Evidence he obtained regarding the involvement of at least three European countries in such practices has caused him much trouble with those countries' authorities, particularly France, where he lived as a refugee until recently.

Un-lethal weapon?

CS, or 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile, is the defining component of a type of anti-riot tear gas commonly referred to as CS gas. The name of the substance derives from the names of the two American scientists, Ben Corson and Roger Stoughton, who first discovered it at Middlebury College in 1928. It was not until the 1950s, however, that CS was developed in the UK for riot-control purposes.

Although described by manufacturers and police as 'non-lethal' or 'less lethal', many scientific studies have raised doubts about this classification, and there are multiple incidents where people have died from inhaling the gas during protests. Its effects on humans range from mild tearing and burning of the eyes, dizziness, vomiting and prostration, to severe damage to the lungs, heart and liver. A famous study from 2000 on the use of CS gas by the FBI concluded that, if no gas masks were used and people exposed to the gas were trapped in a closed space, “there is a distinct possibility that this kind of CS exposure can significantly contribute to or even cause lethal effects.”

Apart from Western police forces, which nowadays often use it in spray form but sometimes also as long-range canisters, CS gas is known to have been used by many repressive regimes around the world against popular protests. Israel is particularly famous for its heavy use of CS and other toxic tear gases against Palestinians, who have become a 'testing ground' for the Israeli and Western security industry.

Evidence suggests that the strength of gas used by the Israeli army at Palestinian demonstrations varies and that gas with a higher propensity to incapacitate has been used, particularly at protests during 2010. On 31st December 2010, Jawaher Abu Rahmah died from inhaling CS gas at a weekly demonstration in the Palestinian village of Bil'in (see this Corporate Watch article for more details). US- and UK-made CS gas is also known to have been used during recent mass protests in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen (see this parliamentary report).

Although permitted for use against civilians, the use of CS gas in war is prohibited under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, the reasoning behind the prohibition being that it may trigger retaliation by the opponent with more toxic chemical weapons. Only five countries in the world have not signed the Convention and can, therefore, use CS gas without restriction. These include Angola, Egypt, North Korea, Somalia and Syria. Under the UK Firearm Law, CS and other incapacitant sprays are classed as 'prohibited weapons', making it unlawful for a member of the public to possess them.

Arms manufacturers that are known to make CS gas include Combined Tactical Systems Inc. (CSI), ALS Technologies, and Defense Technologies (owned by BAE Systems). UK companies known to manufacture CS gas-related equipment, such as shotgun cartridges and stun grenades, include Hampshire-based Chemring and Lincolnshire-based Primetake. Many of these companies, backed by their 'democracy-loving' governments, were exhibiting at the International Defence Exhibition & Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in February, whilst popular uprisings against repressive regimes throughout the Arab world were being violently suppressed (see here and here). UK 'defence' exports are estimated to be worth £7.2bn a year, half of which are sold to the Middle East.

DSTL: a leader in repression technology

CS was developed and tested secretly in the 1950s and 1960s at the Porton Down military research base in Wiltshire, England. By the authorities own admission, Porton Down conducted “much research” on irritants, such as CS, “because they were already available to British police and the army.” (see here). In 2001, the 'experimental ground', established in 1916, became the main site of the newly formed Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), after the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) split into two organisations, the other being QinetiQ, a private company based in Farnborough, Hampshire (for the site's official history, see here; for a more secretive history, see here and here).

DSTL describes itself as a leader in 'defence' science and technology, providing research and developing new, unconventional weapons for the UK Ministry of Defence as well as other government agencies, private arms companies and foreign governments (see here). The agency and its predecessors are said to be involved in the secret testing and development of many chemical and biological weapons, including CS and CR anti-riot gases, and nerve gases such as sarin.

CS was first tested in the field by the British army in Cyprus in 1958, but its first extensive use was by the British forces in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first use of CS gas for riot control in mainland Britain was in Liverpool in 1981, though it had been used before that in house raids. CS gas incapacitant sprays were first introduced to the British police in 1995, in the form of hand-held aerosol canisters that contain a solution with 5% CS. The CS spray used by UK police is said to be five times more concentrated than that used by American police (see here). CS was used by the Metropolitan Police against anti-cuts protesters in London in January and March this year (see here).