Arms Control Report Sees Little Change

By Horner, Daniel; Collina, Tom Z. | Arms Control Today, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Arms Control Report Sees Little Change


Horner, Daniel, Collina, Tom Z., Arms Control Today


A recent State Department report expressed concerns about suspected unconventional weapons programs in the Middle East and elsewhere but with language that showed slight or no differences from last year's assessment for the countries and programs it covers.

For example, the report, which was released Aug. 31, said the United States "is concerned" that Syria "may be engaged in activities that would violate its obligations" under the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) if it were a party to the treaty. As the report noted, Syria has signed but not ratified the BWC.

Last year's version of the report said that "[i]t remained unclear" whether Syria "is engaged in activities prohibited by the BWC and whether it would consider the use of biological weapons as a military option."

Asked about the differences between the two versions of the report in its language on Syria and other issues, a State Department official said in a Sept. 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today that "[a]s a matter of policy, we do not comment on intelligence but suffice to say we have concerns as highlighted in this report." Independent experts said in e-mail comments that the change in language did not necessarily suggest new intelligence.

A report sent to Congress earlier this year by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that "Syria's biotechnical infrastructure is capable of supporting [biological weapons] agent development," without elaborating.

The U.S. government, other governments, and independent experts express much greater confidence about the existence of a chemical weapons program in Syria. The intelligence report to Congress said Syria has had a chemical weapons program "for many years" and possesses a stockpile of agents that "can be delivered by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets." The State Department report did not assess Syria's chemical weapons program because the report assesses compliance with arms control treaties and Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

Concerns about Syria's possession and potential use of chemical weapons have increased as an uprising that started in early 2011 appears to making headway in weakening Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's hold on power.

In July a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman made comments that were widely interpreted as confirming that Syria possesses unconventional weapons. (See ACT, September 2012.) Der Spiegel last month cited witness accounts as indicating that the Syrian army tested firing systems for chemical weapons systems at the end of August. According to the report, Iranian officers were present at the tests.

The State Department referred to another case of alleged chemical weapons assistance by Iran, noting "reports that Iran transferred [chemical weapons] munitions to Libya in the late 1980s." The document did not elaborate on the reports.

An article in The Washington Post last November said U.S. officials suspect that, during the rule of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, Iran provided Libya with artillery shells used for chemical weapons. Libya joined the CWC in 2004 and began destroying its declared chemical stockpile. After the fall of the Gaddafigovernment last year, additional, undeclared chemical stocks were discovered.

The main State Department compliance report covers compliance by the United States and other countries with the BWC, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and most other major arms control treaties. Separate documents address the CWC and the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty. …

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