On Not Falling Prey to Biological Weapons Alarmism in Syria

by Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley

A September 5 Washington Post article raises concern that Syria might resort to biological weapons in retaliation for a Western military strike. The article states that intelligence reports indicate that Syria engaged in bioweapons development in the 1970s and 80s and since then has maintained a “dormant capability,” which some experts interviewed by the Post believe can easily be reactivated to produce biological weapons. it is important to inject a little bit of reality in regard to the question of whether or not  Syria might be able to successfully reactivate a “dormant program” and effectively develop and use biological weapons.

First, we need to define more clearly what capabilities are actually available to Syria. If a “dormant capability” means that Syria has maintained from its 1980s program only a handful of research activities, the country will face tremendous difficulties in launching a crash program capable of producing the quantities of agent required for use as a weapon. If we assume — and this is entirely speculation — that Syria already has stocks of pathogens, its first task will be to produce a sufficient amount of liquid agent for weaponization. Scaling-up, however, has been a stiff challenge for both past terrorist and state bioweapons programs. The passage from a laboratory sample to larger quantities of bioagent is not a straightforward linear process. Because microorganisms are sensitive to their environmental and processing conditions, scaling-up has to be incremental, and each stage requires a revision of the production parameters. For example, when the Soviets launched the large-scale production of their anthrax weapon at the Stepnogorsk production plant in Kazakhstan, their scientists could not maintain the lethal qualities of the agent throughout the production process. They were therefore compelled to review and test each parameter of the production protocol at each stage of the scale-up, a process that lasted about two years. Scale-up also exposes the agent to contamination, which further delays production, as was the case in both the U.S and Soviet programs.  Current biodefense and pharmaceutical companies also routinely face such contamination and scale-up challenges.

Second, it is important to determine what type of expertise is currently available to Syria. If Syria maintained minimal research activities over the past 20 years, it is likely that they will face a shortage of expertise at key points of a weapons development. This includes process development, pilot-scale production, large-scale production, testing, dissemination, and weaponization. For example, the Iraqi program had very few experts with knowledge directly applicable to the agents they selected for use as a weapon. They also had only one fermentation expert, and before his involvement in the program, the fermenters purchased for the program remained in their crates for lack of personnel with knowledge on how to use them. The Iraqis also did not have weaponization experts within the bioweapons program. Weaponization work was conducted by individuals involved in the chemical weapons program, and consisted of adapting existing chemical bombs and warheads for bioweapon use. This resulted in very inefficient weapons, designed to disseminate the agent upon impact, which would have destroyed most of the bioagent. It is worth reiterating also that the Iraqis were only able to produce liquid agents, even though they had access to drying equipment. If active bioweapons programs faced such challenges, one can only imagine what problems a “dormant program” might face.

Were the Syrians able to shepherd enough expertise from the civilian sector, it is not clear whether their skills could be directly relevant to support bioweapons work.  The Japanese terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo had among its members individuals with scientific education, but their lack of practical experience in bioweapons development imposed a steep learning curve, which after six years of effort and about $10 million dollars of investment, resulted in failures at every step of a bioweapon’s development.  The Iraqi program faced similar issues: most of its scientists had no prior bioweapons expertise and required several years of learning and exploratory work before they could start making some headway.

Access to expertise is not the only challenge facing Syria. Making sure that the teams of scientists, technicians, and engineers work together, coordinate their efforts, and work towards the same goal is as, if not more, important. The lack of coordination and cooperation was a major source of delay and failure in the Soviet program, which was arguably the most successful of all state programs. Yet, if creating the conditions required for such cooperation is difficult under normal conditions, it is even more complicated under the stress of maintaining covertness in times of war, particularly under an authoritarian regime.

In sum, it is important to avoid falling prey to alarmist claims similar to those that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The threat of Syrian bioweapons use merits a careful and systematic analysis of the capabilities currently available to Syria and a more nuanced and holistic  appreciation of the challenges they might face.

Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University and is primarily affiliated the GMU Biodefense graduate program. Professor Ben Ouagrham-Gormley has conducted research and written on such topics as biological weapons proliferation, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) trafficking in states of the former Soviet Union, biosecurity and bioterrorism, export controls, transfer mechanisms of WMD expertise, defense industry conversion, and redirection of WMD experts. She has received several grants from the Departments of Defense, State, and Energy, as well as from the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Carnegie Corporation of New York to conduct research on WMD proliferation and contribute to remediation programs such as the DOD-funded Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.

(image: CIAT International/Flickr)

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