The Fate of Syria’s Chemical and Biological Weapons

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 177

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Israel has good reason to fear that Syria’s chemical and biological weapons arsenal could fall into the wrong hands – to terrorist elements within Syria, to an even more hostile Syrian regime, or to Hizballah and Iran. Yet Israel and the West hold limited options. Bombarding these arms stockpiles could result in significant environmental pollution. The best scenario is an agreed regime transformation, with secured transposition of the arsenal to a stable, sane central authority.

Syria’s vast arsenal of operational-level chemical and biological weapons, based on lethal and incapacitating agents, is diverse by any standard. Syria also possesses many sophisticated launch platforms and dispersion equipment, including missiles, rockets, aircraft, artillery shells, cluster warheads, and unitary ammunition – most of which are of high quality. Syria has Scud missiles capable of carrying chemical warheads that can strike anywhere in Israel, even when launched from deep behind Syria’s front lines. As the regime of Bashar Assad comes to an end, the fate of its non-conventional arsenal is causing growing alarm.

The complexity of the issue has far-reaching ramifications. The transfer – even the possibility of the transfer – of chemical weapons to Hizballah or other terrorist organizations could force Israel to take military steps against Syria, even if this risks escalation to a wider conflict. Such a development is definitely worrisome, especially since it raises the likelihood of the Syrians actually employing chemical or biological weapons. This explains why warning lights recently flashed in American intelligence agencies when they discovered that the Syrian army had removed an unspecified number of chemical weapons from their storage sites. The U.S. is deeply concerned that the Assad regime might employ such weapons against its opponents if conventional weapons fail and Assad senses that the end is approaching; a last-ditch apocalyptic act of après moi le deluge. There is a precedent: Bashar Assad’s father, President Hafez Assad, ordered the massacre in 1982 of approximately 18,000 Sunnis in Hama with cyanide gas.

No less troubling are the alternatives: Part of the weapons already have been removed from storage sites as either a deterrent against military intervention or to be conveyed to non-Syrian parties, such as Hizballah or Iran. There is also the possibility that they are being hidden for use at a later date.

Syria’s chemical weapons are locally manufactured but contain the telltale prints of Iranian and possibly Russian assistance, a fact that heightens these countries’ interests to conceal or rescue the weapons. Another complication is that an appreciable quantity of Iraq’s chemical and biological arsenal was smuggled into Syria prior to and during the Second Gulf War and is now part of the Syrian stockpile.

What is known for certain is this: The Syrian chemical weapons arsenal is primarily based on the volatile – and hence large area-inflicting – nerve agent sarin. It is estimated that Syria possesses thousands of aerial bombs and more than one hundred Scud B, C and D missiles with warheads containing this lethal chemical warfare agent in operable state. A smaller inventory of aerial bombs and ballistic warheads contain the more advanced persistent nerve agent VX, mainly in the form of bomblet munitions. In addition, Syria possesses rockets filled with nerve gases, and mustard gas, the incapacitating blistering agent. Syria does not deny that is in possession of such weapons.

The biological warfare agents that are believed to have been developed by Syria include virulent pathogens, such as anthrax germs, and the lethal biological toxins botulinum and ricin. Western estimations suggest that Syria has significant quantities of these biological warfare agents, although the evidence for this is inconclusive. Syrian possession of the smallpox virus is likely.

The fact that Syria attempted to develop nuclear weapons is further evidence of its ambition to go beyond chemical weapons despite its enormous arsenal. It is therefore very likely that Syria is equipped with biological weapons too. Iran and North Korea have closely assisted Syria in the production and development of chemical and nuclear weapons, respectively. Thus again, it is plausible that Syria has received generous assistance in biological weapons development from these countries too. Both Iran and North Korea have known biological weapons stockpiles. It is also likely that biological weapons were smuggled into Syria from Iraq.

Ramifications and Western Options

The two main factors before us are a regime whose fate is sealed and whose huge stockpile of operational, non-conventional weapons is still under its control. The regime’s impending loss of control raises the risk of the weapons falling into the hands of terrorist organizations or other malevolent hands. Assad stands at the helm of a brutal and repressive regime that lacks a sense of international responsibility. The world is witnessing the savagery Damascus inflicts upon its citizens and, because Assad’s demise seems imminent, is doubtful whether Syria will listen even to its staunchest allies, Russia and China, or to the Arab states. Under these circumstances it could decide to unmask its ultimate weapons. While Iran has the greatest influence on Syria’s crisis management, it is far from a pillar of stability in the eyes of the international community.

The neutralization of Syria’s non-conventional weapons by an international force would be a blessing, but presently this seems a most unlikely scenario. However, the revelation of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons, and their methods of development, production, and storage (information that is known to foreign intelligence sources), would provide valuable findings about the parties supplying technological assistance to Syria. Most of these sources, whether commercial companies or countries, would prefer to remain incognito. Such findings would certainly expose Iranian and North Korean chemical and biological weapons capacities. This is significant since Iran (unlike Syria) is a signatory to international agreements that outlaw chemical and biological weapons. Such exposure could further devastate Iran’s credibility in the international community.

In this extremely volatile situation, the best-case scenario would be the transfer of Syria’s non-conventional weapons to designated UN agencies, but again, the chances of this happening are slim to none. The worst-case scenario is for the Syrians to employ the weapons or transfer them to terrorist organizations in the regime’s closing moments. The likelihood of the worst-case scenario is uncertain and may not be appreciable, but nevertheless it cannot be ruled out.

Between the two extremes – between the ideal and the worst-case scenarios – is a spectrum of possibilities. If Syria decides to smuggle its non-conventional arsenal out of the country it would probably prefer to send it to Iran (first) or Hizballah (second). While Syria can deliver weapons to Hizballah by land, it requires air or sea transportation in order to reach Iran. In another scenario, a disorderly transfer might be made to an alternative regime in Syria with a lower threshold for the use and transfer of chemical weapons.

The most plausible scenario is the continued control of the unconventional weapons arsenal by the present regime, followed by an attempt to transfer the arsenal to Iran towards the last days of the regime; or, in case of agreed regime transformation, a relatively secured transposition of the arsenal to the new regime.

The West (including Israel) does not have many good options. In May 2012, Jordan and the U.S. held a large-scale, nearly month-long, military exercise with over 12,000 special forces from the United States and other countries, including Arab states – focused on military preparedness for emergency situations involving chemical and biological weapons in Syria. A follow-up study found, however, that 75,000 troops (!) would be needed to secure Syria’s chemical arsenal. Outright bombarding of Syrian chemical or biological arms stockpiles could result in significant environmental pollution.

In sum, predicting events in a situation as complex as this is nearly impossible. Collecting maximum real-time information from senior Syrian officers and officials who have defected can facilitate the situation assessment, and this is undoubtedly being done. However, until a clearer picture is available, the ability of concerned nations to act is severely limited. At any rate, the fate of Syrian WMDs constitutes a prime challenge.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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(Photo Credit: IDF)

Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Dany Shoham
Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Dany Shoham

Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Dany Shoham, a microbiologist and senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is recognized as a top Israeli expert on chemical and biological warfare in the Middle East. He is a former senior intelligence analyst in the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli Ministry of Defense. Email: [email protected]