Bioweapons Alarmism in Syria

by Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, originally published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

As Secretary of State John Kerry challenged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons in early September, articles published in the Washington Post and National Interest argued that the current focus on Syria’s chemical weapons is distracting the international community from a much deadlier threat: Syria’s biological weapons. The sources for the Washington Post article (one of whom also happens to be a co-author of the National Interest piece) warn that Assad’s regime could use its biological weapons in retaliation against Western forces or its own population. Both articles assert that Syria has maintained a dormant program since the country last engaged in biological weapons developments in the 1970s and 1980s and could easily reactivate its program to produce, on short notice, the stockpile of agents required to retaliate against its enemies. This threat is real, the argument goes, because Syria could tap into its pharmaceutical and agricultural industries to support the effort. Finally, the articles warn that Syria might have retained a strain of smallpox from a 1972 outbreak, which could be used to develop a devastating biological weapon.

These two articles provide no tangible evidence to support their claims. More important, their speculations contradict extant empirical evidence on the difficulty of achieving the level of biological weapons capability that the articles claim Syria maintains or could reestablish. To avoid falling prey to the same biological weapons hysteria that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is important to look carefully at such claims. Close examination shows them to be exaggerated, at best.

To evaluate Syria’s ability to revive a dormant program, one would need to know what kind of research and production infrastructure the Syrian government currently possesses. There is, however, very little publicly available information on the scope of Syria’s bioweapons program, if any.

If Syria retains only a small research capability developed in its bioweapons program of the 1970s and ‘80s, the likelihood that it would be able to quickly produce sufficient amounts of bioweapons for retaliation is very slim. The country would first need to create the research, development, production, and weaponization infrastructure needed for a crash program, a process that may take several months to even years, particularly in a war zone. Assuming that the Syrians already have stocks of agents—and it is pure speculation to say they do— they will need to conduct exploratory research to determine which agent is the most promising as a bioweapon and develop a production process that will maintain the agent’s lethal characteristics during scale-up and storage. Creating this production capability is also neither easily or quickly achieved.

In the early 1980s, Iraq attempted to reactivate a biological weapons program that had been largely abandoned in the preceding decade; it took the Saddam Hussein regime three years—from 1983 to 1986—to conduct the needed exploratory research and identify the agents most desirable for bioweapons work. Even then, the Iraqis were able to develop only crude liquid agents that lost toxicity within six to eight months. They were also unable to develop a bioweapons-specific dissemination capability, relying instead on personnel from their chemical weapons program to adapt chemical bomb casings and warheads for bioweapons use. This strategy resulted in ineffective weapons that would have released agents upon impact, destroying most of the bio-agent in the process.

Even if Syria already has significant bioweapons infrastructure in place, reactivating it would not necessarily be a quick or simple process. When in the early 1980s Soviet-era authorities decided to activate the mobilization facility in Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan in order to produce anthrax, it took about two years to launch production, even though the facility had been established for several years and had the equipment and minimum staff needed for its operation. The suggestion that Syria could swiftly launch a crash program from a long-dormant infrastructure and produce effectively weaponized agents in amounts sufficient for a retaliatory military attack seems a considerable stretch from likely reality.

Read the rest of the piece here.

(Image credit: Scott Montreal/Flickr)

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