Middle East

Chemical weapons program well advanced
By David Isenberg

In the aftermath of the successful United States invasion of Iraq there have been several warnings by the Bush administration to Syria regarding its weapons of mass destruction (WMD), with some apparent justification.

Syria, however, does not have a nuclear weapons program. Although the Israeli and US governments have expressed concerns about Syrian nuclear weapons aspirations, there is little convincing evidence in the public realm of such an objective.

Syria signed the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1968 and ratified the document one year later. Its 30-kilowatt nuclear research reactor in Dayr al-Jajar, provided by China, is under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. In 1998, the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission began discussions with Russia about expanding its nuclear infrastructure as prior negotiations with Argentina and China proved unsuccessful. In May 1999, Moscow and Damascus signed an agreement in which the former will provide at least one light water nuclear reactor, which will be subject to IAEA safeguards. At this time, Syria does not have the infrastructure nor the financial resources to pursue an indigenous nuclear weapons program.

Three years ago the US government started reporting in carefully caveated language that Syria wants to do something in the way of biological weapons (BW), ie, "It is highly probable that Syria also is developing an offensive BW capability" - but no evidence has been offered to suggest that it has produced such biological weapons.

It is important to bear in mind that there is a difference between developing and producing biological weapons. According to an October 2000 report, "Syria and Weapons of Mass Destruction" by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "Syria has developed biological weapons, although it is not clear that it has attempted to produce or stockpile them."

The only type of WMD that Syria definitely does have is chemical weapons. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and has an extensive and advanced chemical weapons program. However, it is hardly the only country in the region not to be a CWC signatory. Others include Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Libya. Israel has signed but not ratified it.

Syrian possession of chemical weapons is hardly new. The program goes back decades. For years, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been reporting in its in semi-annual declarations on WMD proliferation, mandated by Congress, about Syrian chemical weapons and biological weapons research. The latest declaration, released just last week and covering the first half of 2002, reported, "Syria sought chemical weapons-related precursors from various countries during the reporting period. Damascus already held a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin, but apparently is trying to develop more toxic and persistent nerve agents. Syria remained dependent on foreign sources for key elements of its CW program, including precursor chemicals and key production equipment. It is highly probable that Syria also is continuing to develop an offensive BW capability." According to US intelligence agencies, Syria is working to develop the more deadly VX nerve agent. Syria produces Scud ballistic missiles of various ranges capable of carrying chemical warheads as well as air-dropped bombs. According to the London Times, Syria tested a Scud B missile fitted with a warhead carrying VX in 1999. Other potential delivery vehicles include fighter aircraft; helicopters; artillery; short-range, anti-ship cruise missiles; short-range, air-launched tactical missiles; and rockets.

Syria's chemical weapons program dates back to the early 1970s when they first acquired materials and expertise from Egypt prior to the 1973 war against Israel. Since then, it is believed that Syria has received assistance with their chemical weapons program from Russia, India, China and various West European countries. Syria's current indigenous capabilities allow it to produce several hundred tons of chemical weapons agents per year. According to the Monterey Institute of International Studies, "Open sources assert that there are at least three Syrian facilities currently engaged in producing CW, located near Damascus, Hama and Safira village."

Curiously, there is little mention of how much chemical agent Syria actually has. There are scattered references to an ability of being able to produce hundreds of tons a year and an estimated CW stockpile of hundreds of tons. But compared to other nations, notably the United States and Russia, it is likely to be very small. Consider that in 1985, Congress mandated that the US destroy more than 98 percent of its chemical weapons stockpile. Yet of the original total of 31,496 tons there remains 24,144 tons to be destroyed.

As for biological weapons, Syria has signed but not ratified the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Despite being a signatory to the BWC, US intelligence reports assert that Syria continues to "develop an offensive biological weapons capability". Despite its advanced biotechnical infrastructure, it is believed that Syria would need significant foreign assistance to manufacture large amounts of biological weapons.

Interestingly, a 1996 report "Proliferation: Threat and Response" by the Office of the Secretary of Defense did not mention Syria at all, although it did mention Iran, Iraq and Libya. The 1997 edition of the same report did mention Syria, and provided more detail than the boilerplate rhetoric found in CIA reports. It noted that "Syria also has vigorously pursued the development of chemical weapons and ballistic missiles, and to a lesser extent, biological weapons as a means to counter what it perceives as Israel's superior conventional forces and presumed possession of nuclear weapons. Syria believes that its chemical and missile forces act as deterrents against Israeli attacks [then-president Hafez al] Assad apparently regards his ability to inflict unacceptable damage on Israel through the use of these weapons - and the Israeli awareness of his willingness to do so under extreme circumstances - as a safeguard of the utmost importance."

In terms of chemical warfare
Syria has a long-standing chemical warfare program, first developed in the 1970s. Unlike Iran, Iraq and Libya, Syria has never employed chemical agents in a conflict. Syria has a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin and may be trying to develop advanced nerve agents as well. In future years, Syria will likely try to improve the infrastructure for producing and storing chemical agents. At this point, it probably has weaponized sarin into aerial bombs and Scud missile warheads, which gives Syria the capability to employ chemical agents against targets in Israel.

Syria remains dependent on foreign sources for key elements of its chemical warfare program, including precursor chemicals and key production equipment. Acquisition of such materials has become more difficult in recent years as a result of stricter export controls in many countries, which is coordinated through the Australia Group.

Biological weapons
Syria is pursuing the development of biological weapons. Syria probably has an adequate biotechnical infrastructure to support a small biological warfare program, although the Syrians are not believed to have begun any major weaponization or testing related to biological warfare. Without significant foreign assistance, it is unlikely that Syria could advance to the manufacture of significant amounts of biological weapons for several years. Syria has signed the BWC.

The 2001 edition of the report by the Office of the Secretary of Defense noted "the Syrians are not believed to have begun any major effort to put biological agents into weapons".

Unlike Iraq, Syria has not used chemical weapons against its own people. In fact, unlike Libya, which is generally thought to have used chemical weapons in Chad, Syria has never used chemical weapons. According to Michael Moodie, former assistant director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, "Syria's primary security concern is its military balance with Israel, and its CW capabilities must be seen in that context. Their operational utility is likely to be considered most seriously in the context of a conflict that involves Syrian efforts to retake the Golan Heights. In this case, CW may be seen as a force-multiplier for Syrian forces on the offensive that would demoralize and disorganize Israeli forces defending the territory and disrupt Israeli plans to mobilize reserves and bring to bear the power of its air force."

The one common characteristic Syria shares with Iraq in regard to its chemical weapons program is the help it received from the West in establishing it. Former CIA director William Webster told a Congressional panel in 1989 that the CIA had determined foreign assistance was of "critical importance in allowing Syria to develop its chemical warfare capability. West European firms were instrumental in supplying the required precursor chemicals and equipment. Without the provision of these key elements, Damascus would not have been able to produce chemical weapons."

Syria's principle suppliers of chemical and biological weapons production technology were large chemical brokerage houses in Holland, Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany, including many of the same companies that were supplying Iraq.

At least one German company, Schott Glasswerke, has been subjected to an official inquiry for its delivery of glass-lined reactor vessels, sarin precursors and production equipment to a suspected Syrian poison gas plant.

(©2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Apr 19, 2003

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