UK firms 'sold chemical weapons ingredients to Syria'

Foreign Office document shows British companies sold Syria ingredients for sarin in 1980s

An Albania wearing a gas mask in protest of a plan to dispose of Syria's chemical weapons in Albania
(Image credit: ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

British companies supplied ingredients for the production of the deadly nerve agent sarin to Syria in the 1980s, a secret Foreign Office document obtained by Newsnight has revealed.

Sarin has been linked to several attacks during Syria's three-year civil war, including last year's deadliest, in which almost 1,500 people were killed, including 426 children.

The report names the UK as the sole supplier of the three key ingredients used to produce sarin; dimethyl phosphate (DMP), trimethyl phosphate (TMP) and hexamine. These three chemicals are regarded as the "building block" of sarin.

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Sarin is described by chemical weapons experts as one of the "deadliest agents known to man". It is classified as a weapon of mass destruction as a small amount is capable of killing thousands of people, as was evident in Syria.

The report states that hundreds of tonnes of the ingredients were sold to Damascus.

Newsnight alleges that the UK government "must have been aware that something was amiss" as new legislation was "rushed" through in 1985 and 1986 in order to end the trade of such ingredients with Syria as it feared they were being weaponised.

The document reveals that the UK was not the only country to provide ingredients and equipment. "Sixteen countries have been listed as suppliers to the Syrian programme," the report reads. "Of these seven, including the UK, provided both chemicals and equipment parts."

However, Newsnight claims that this is "not just an embarrassment from the distant past". The UK also supplied electrical fans to Syria in 2003, it says, components of which were used in Assad's chemical weapon programme. The programme points out that at the same time the UK invaded Iraq, which it accused of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.

"Someone in government should have asked 'why are we supplying these ingredients to a region where we know there is an interest in chemical weapons?'," chemical weapons expert Professor Alastair Hay told Newsnight.

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