By Bob Duncan
The UK government had issued licences for the export to Syria of the chemicals required to produce sarin nerve gas, almost a year after the outbreak of the civil war, reports the Daily Record.
Export licences were granted last January by the government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride. Both compounds are components of sarin gas, the nerve agent thought to have been responsible for the deaths of 1500 civilians in a Damascus suburb last week.
The alleged use of such weapons by the Assad regime was the justification for Prime Minister David Cameron’s failed attempt on Thursday to persuade Westminster parliamentarians to sanction UK military intervention in Syria.
While no evidence has yet come to light that the exported chemicals were actually used to produce chemical weapons, there have been complaints that the UK government was negligent in issuing such licenses for a region undergoing such internal difficulties.
Among those voices is Dunfermline and West Fife MP Thomas Docherty, a member of the House of Commons committee on Arms Export Controls. He told the Record, “At best it has been negligent and at worst reckless to export material that could have been used to create chemical weapons.
“MPs will be horrified and furious that the UK Government has been allowing the sale of these ingredients to Syria. What the hell were they doing granting a licence in the first place?
“I would like to know what investigations have been carried out to establish if any of this material exported to Syria was subsequently used in the attacks on its own people.”
Mark Bitel, Scottish representative of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), added: “The UK Government claims to have an ethical policy on arms exports, but when it comes down to practice the reality is very different. The Government is hypocritical to talk about chemical weapons if it’s been granting licences to companies to export to regimes such as Syria,”.
CAAT had earlier criticised David Cameron for his recent arms sales tour of the Middle East, claiming he was commercially courting dictators whom he also denounces.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills defended the decision to grant the export licenses, saying: “The UK Government operates one of the most rigorous arms export control regimes in the world.
“An export licence would not be granted where we assess there is a clear risk the goods might be used for internal repression, provoke or prolong conflict within a country, be used aggressively against another country or risk our national security.
“When circumstances change or new information comes to light, we can – and do – revoke licences where the proposed export is no longer consistent with the criteria.”
The export licences were indeed revoked some six months after they were issued. However, this was as a result of an overriding EU sanction being imposed on the Assad regime, rather than as a result of review by the UK government.
The SNP’s Westminster leader and defence spokesman, Angus Robertson MP, said: “I will be raising this in Parliament as soon as possible to find out what examination the UK Government made of where these chemicals were going and what they were to be used for.
“Approving the sale of chemicals which can be converted into lethal weapons during a civil war is a very serious issue.
“We need to know who these chemicals were sold to, why they were sold, and whether the UK Government were aware that the chemicals could potentially be used for chemical weapons.
“The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria makes a full explanation around these shady deals even more important.”
Westminster has so far refused to confirm the dates of the exports, identify the licence holders or say whether the licences were issued to one or two companies.