Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Syria's Silent Weapons

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Syria's Silent Weapons

Article excerpt


As of June 2014, twelve Syrian chemical weapon production facilities remain structurally intact, even as United Nations weapon inspectors, under the auspices of the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) struggle to negotiate with Bashar al Asad over an estimated 100 tons of Priority 1 and Priority 2 chemicals still remaining in Syria, representing approximately eight percent of the total declared material.1 While Syria was identified decades ago as possessing the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the Middle East, its government has largely denied the existence of its biological weapons programs, dismissing any reference to them as "purely speculative."

In July of 2012, when Jihad Makdissi of Syria's Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledged Syria's chemical and biological weapons programs on state television, international focus was squarely set on Syria's chemical weapons stockpile.2 Makdissi abruptly admitted what segments of the U.S. intelligence community had known for years: Syria possessed biological weapons capability. Makdissi stated that Syria would never use "any chemical and biological weapons...inside Syria," and that the Syrian army was storing "all stocks of these weapons" securely, and that such weapons would only be used in the event of "external aggression."3

The United Nations report on the use of chemical weapons inside Syria4 and statements by Jihad Makdissi has sparked numerous concerns. Syria is party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which bans the use of biological weapons. 5 Syria signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in April 1972, but has not ratified the treaty.

Most highly pathogenic agents suitable for weaponization are zoonotic, meaning they are transmissible from animal to human. From a bio-defence perspective, veterinary vaccine facilities have typically comprised a significant part of a state's biological weapons/warfare complex. For instance, the Soviet Biopreparat program (multiple institutes and facilities), Iraq's biological weapons program, which comprised Salman Pak, Al Hakum, and Al Manal (the Foot and Mouth Disease Center), South Africa's Project Coast (Roodeplaat, Research Laboratories, Roodeplaat Breeding Enterprises, Compression Laboratory)6 , have all conducted much of their clandestine work via veterinary facilities.


While it is relatively easy to identify chemical weapon manufacturing plants and suspected nuclear facilities, the same does not hold true for biological weapon infrastructures. Generally, clandestine biological weapons programs operate beneath a legitimate research cover and in parallel to an illicit offensive research and development infrastructure. Aside from affording complementary investigational research on zoonotic diseases, veterinary vaccine manufacturing processes are difficult, until the very end of the process, to identify as having an offensive use (essentially, a weaponized capability). Both the Soviet Union and Iraq ran robust biological warfare programs beneath the radar for decades. Syria's biological weapons research and development programs reflect a similar structure. "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 estimates 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."7

As occurred with other state programs, such as the Soviet Biopreparat program, a massive biological warfare program which was denied at the time by Western intelligence sections, even after a number of high level defections from Biopreparat military scientific staff8; Syria's pharmaceutical industry has played a key role in supporting Asad's offensive biological weapon programs. …

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