The Syrian Overseeing WMDs

Ronen Solomon on Amr Najib Armanazi, head of the Syrian Agency for Scientific Research responsible for developing and manufacturing Syria's chemical weapons, who enjoys regular vacations in the west and is responsible for the deaths of thousands of people

The Syrian Overseeing WMDs

Armanazi (left) in the company of friends from the agency, at the house of the Syrian Ambassador in

He is 69 years old and in the past few years, he has held a routine family life alongside his work which includes periodical visits to the UK with the wife Houda, to visit the children who studied in London. Their travels included a visit the US capital where the close friends of the family, Imad Mustafa and his wife Manira, reside due to Imad's role as an ambassador.

The fatherly appearance, with white hair and a pleasant smile, would not give away the fact that this person is in charge of his country's production of weapons of mass destruction.

This is Dr. Amr Najib Armanazi, originally a computer engineer, who manages the office of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) in the Damascus neighborhood of Barza. Armanazi resides in a private house in one of neighborhoods in Damascus near his work place. He has two sons, Zayd and Bishar and two daughters, Suzanna and Zeina.

Armanazi's last name unveils a history of senior regime officials close to the Assad presidential family for decades. In the 1950s, his father, Najib, served as Syria's ambassador to countries such as India and Egypt, occasionally bringing along both of his sons, Amr and Hayat Armanazi - who would eventually also hold roles within the Syrian state mechanism.

Armanazi's association with Bashar Al-Assad began in the 1990s when Assad managed the Syrian Computer Society (SCS), where Armanazi served as a director on account of being the manager of Syria's top institute for training scientific professions. The institute, which trains Syrian agency engineers for scientific studies, operates with the Syrian Computer Society (SCS) for developing and assimilating computer applications and communication systems for military installations.

Armanazi later became responsible for managing the Syrian Agency for Scientific Research, which is in charge of developing unconventional weapons, including the chemical warheads and those that were intended to be nuclear.

The Syrian Agency for Scientific Research is a vast organization that employs thousands of people working in many departments, and deals in all fields of technology and scientific development that have potential military applications. The departments pertaining to the development of Syria's chemical weapons are concealed under innocent-sounding covers such as the "immunology laboratories" and the laboratories for "environmental research." The special cooling towers, which are typical of facilities for producing chemical weapons, which are found at the agency's facilities, are tied to the complex production process and are involved in the disposal of toxic substances emitted during the production. The main production facility is the Al Safir site in northern Syria. It is at this site that Syria produces Sarin gas and nerve agents such as VX.

Armanazi's standing at this time is equal to that of a senior minister in the Syrian government, due to the scope of the organizations he is responsible for and their national importance. The head of the Syrian Agency for Scientific Research also serves as one of the directors in the steering committee of the senior council for scientific research, alongside the head of the Atomic Energy Commission of Syria.

As of 2001, Amr Armanazi was put in charge as the head of the Technological Branch for Military Targets, as well as the professional contacts with North Korean colleagues in the North Korean national academy for sciences. Amr worked to acquire knowledge and technologies for the Syrian nuclear project being built in the area of Al Kibar, north of Dayr Al-Zawr, and worked towards advancing the cooperation on the topic of missile development. For this purpose, he visited Pyongyang on several occasions, and was even present during the signing of mutual agreements between the countries. He later worked to establish a straw company named "Namchongang Engineering Services" in Damascus, which served as a cover for the activities of North Korea's Scientific Technology Services Center (STSC) in Damascus, for the purpose of support and trade in advanced technological products. These were intended for the shared projects with the Syrian Agency for Scientific Research and Syria's Atomic Energy Commission.

Armanazi participates in many technological conventions, including expert conventions for science and technology, such as those by the UN's Social and Economic Council in Amman and those held in the framework of the Arab Technological School - a Syrian institution that cooperates with academic organizations across the Arab world. During the glory days with Turkey, he even accommodated a Turkish scientific delegation in Aleppo.

His brother, Ghayth, served for several years as the ambassador to the Arab League and head of the Syrian lobby in the UK. Since then, the Armanazi family tends to visit the UK and it included a visit of the daughter, Zeina who studied an MBA degree at the Royal Holloway Institute at the University of London. Since then, she has become a senior manager of Nissan in Syria. Another son, Bishar, studied towards a Bachelors degree in economy and currently works in London as a risk manager at a bank.

His wife, Houda, manages a Facebook page from which it is possible to learn about their circle of friends and her political and security opinions, which are apparently influenced by her husband's mood. In recent statuses, Houda (whose friends claim to be a Facebook addict) commented on the situation in Syria and voted in a survey against international involvement in Syrian and in favor of death penalties for relatives of those fighting the Assad regime. She also expressed her opinion in a survey that the reason for the recent attack against Hezbollah's stronghold in Beirut was caused by an absence of measures for detecting bombs.

Most of Armanazi's circle of friends served alongside him in the framework of the institutions of the Agency for Scientific Research where he has been a member for two decades. His close friends include Imad Mustafa, Syria's ambassador to the US who was his deputy in the 1990s and dealt with training employees, and Khaled Al Azam, who was tied to fields linked to the development of chemical weapons.

From the side, the families appear very cultural in the spare time, loving art and refined European tastes, surrounded by a familial atmosphere that contrasts the role that preoccupies them once returning to the agency's offices. Their products are the ones that recently killed hundreds of their own people, including little children. It is difficult to guess how they feel today. However, in the profiles of Armanazi's children, it is difficult to find any traces of photo with the father, except for an edited photo of the daughter Zeina with a comment that "It is not recommended that the hugging man (apparently the father) will show up in my profile picture."

In 2005, the Syrian Agency for Scientific Studies and its branches in Syria (where the chemical warheads are developed and stored) were introduced to the list of organizations dealing with weapons of mass destruction, and in May 2011, international sanctions were imposed on it.

In July 2012, WikiLeaks published its "Syrian files", which included correspondences from Armanazi's email linked to debates and technological cooperation with Dr. Ghassan Assi, Head of the Higher Commission for Scientific Research in Syria, which is responsible for science and technology in the government.

Amr Armanazi's name was introduced to the listing of the people sanctioned for dealing with the development of WMDs only in September 2012, apparently due to the initial reports on the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. As Director of the Syrian Agency for Scientific Research, Armanazi, it was stated, was responsible for the facility for developing and manufacturing Sarin gas. The same gas was loaded last week onto rockets that were dropped on a rebel-controlled suburb of Damascus, and contained "a cocktail of Sarin gas and several other components", causing the death of approximately 1,500 residents, among them entire families.

In February 27, the US State Department Secretary for Review of Weapons and International Security issued an executive order instructing that Amr Armanazi's assets be foreclosed. According to the order, the State Department, upon consulting with the Secretary of the Treasury and the Attorney General, determined that Armanazi engaged, or attempted to engage in activities or transactions that materially contributed to, or posed a risk of materially contributing to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or their means of delivery (including missiles capable of delivering such weapons).

At a press conference on Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry clarified that the evidence from Damascus presents a clear and shocking picture of the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Kerry said that "This is unforgivable", and that "those who were behind this must bear the responsibility."

Armanazi's office is located in the central complex of the Agency, in the Barza neighborhood north of Damascus near Mount Qasioun. The complex includes warehouses for storing chemical weapons, a technological institute for training the agency's engineering and the agency's HQ. The secure complex is considered by every Syrian as one of the regime's unmistakable symbols in developing chemical weapons, and as such, is listed as a target (among many) which may be attacked as soon as this Thursday.

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