The Syrian regime has a horrific record of using chemical weapons on its population. According to Tobias Schneider and Theresa Lütkefend of the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government perpetrated 98 percent of the more than 300 chemical attacks over the course of the civil war. The other two percent were attributed to the Islamic State.
And yet, when the Germany company Brenntag, the world’s largest distributor of chemicals, was found to have sold potential dual-use products that could help Damascus develop chemical weapons to a Syrian company with links to Assad’s regime, German authorities found no grounds to further investigate the sale.
In June, Brenntag disclosed that a Swiss subsidiary sold diethylamine and isopropanol to Syrian pharmaceutical company Mediterranean Pharmaceutical Industries (MPI) in 2014, just a year after the United Nations launched its April 2013 investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Brenntag claims the substances it sold were for the production of painkillers. However, isopropanol and diethylamine can also be used in the production of sarin and VX, respectively. According to a report by the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Syrian government has used the deadly chemical sarin in attacks against civilians. The extremely toxic nerve agent VX has also been found in Syria’s chemical weapons supply.
In April 2017, a chemical attack using sarin produced with isopropanol killed almost 100 people and injured more than 200 in Khan Shaykhun, a town in southern Idlib Province.
European Union sanctions laws from 2012 require companies located in EU member states to procure permission from national export control authorities before “selling, supplying, transferring, or exporting these chemicals directly or indirectly to Syria.” The Open Society Justice Initiative, along with two other non-governmental organizations, asked Germany’s export control agency, known by its German acronym BAFA, if it granted an authorization for exports of isopropanol to Syria. The agency claimed it did not.
Earlier this year, Brenntag released a statement maintaining that it “did not circumvent EU export restrictions,” as the substances were intended for analgesic production. The NGOs conducted an investigation into MPI and discovered that in 2014 it was “headed by Abdul Rahman Attar, now deceased, who was a prominent Syrian businessman with close ties to senior figures in the Syrian government. At the time of the export, it was known that Mr. Attar was suspected of attempting to facilitate evasion of US sanctions.”
The report also quoted Hadi al Khatib, the director of Syrian Archive, which documents Syria’s human rights abuses. “Attar had close business relationships with Cham Holdings,” he said, referring to a company that was sanctioned by the EU in 2012 and by the United States and Canada in 2011.
This is not the first time German authorities have declined to take action against companies selling dual-use substances that have the potential to fall into the hands of ruthless regimes in the Middle East.
In 2016, Krempel sold an insulating material called “Pressspan PSP-3040” to two businesses in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar. Two years later, on January 22 and February 1, 2018, Krempel’s material was discovered in the remains of two chemical weapons attacks in suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus. The January strike poisoned dozens of civilians and resulted in more than 20 injured victims, including many children.
A resident of the region, Nu’man Slick, recalls the January attack: “I smelled a strange smell that seemed like chlorine that we use in houses, and instantly I rushed to awaken my children and I took them to a double-locked room. After that I began to scream in order to awaken the people, and only minutes later people started to run in every direction. There had been children who fell unconscious and were unable to breathe well. I tried to help them along with some people nearby as we put wet fabrics on their faces.”
A Krempel spokesperson said the company was “shocked” that its Pressspan PSP-3040, traditionally used for insulating electric motors, was used in Syria’s weapons of war. Krempel’s Iranian business partners, Reza Moghaddam Panah and Mahmood Hasan Darvish Commerce, reportedly transferred the material to the Assad regime via the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp, the Iranian supreme leader’s personal terrorist force and militia.
German prosecutors wrote off the case as a non-dual-use matter. BAFA issued a statement that claimed it did not view Presspan PSP-3040 as a dual-use technology, and the goods were “standard material that can be inserted, among other things, in electric machines.”
“Instead of acknowledging that the German-built parts were used in Iranian rockets to gas children in Syria,” said Julian Röpcke, political editor of the German newspaper Bild, “BAFA stuck to its standard manual, alleging that the exported product was ‘neither in military good nor a dual-use good’ – just as if there were no new developments which entirely contradict that claim.”
Germany must evaluate its definitions and tighten its regulations of the export of dual-use materials used in chemical weapons.
It also needs to institute better end-use checks on exports of dual-use goods applicable to chemical weapons. The exporting companies are clearly failing to self-regulate, even when dealing with known sensitive countries like Iran and Syria.
When Krempel and Brenntag sold potential dual-use materials, Germany and the world were well aware that the Assad regime was attacking its citizens with chemical weapons. These attacks have killed thousands of people. Germany must ensure its materials have no role in this violence. As a result, Germany’s reputation is again being stained by the whiff of poison gas.
Toby Dershowitz is senior vice president for government relations and strategy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Serena Frechter is a government relations analyst. Follow Toby and Serena on Twitter @tobydersh and @serenafrechter. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP.