On 29 Jan 14 James Clapper, Director National Intelligence, released a statement saying “We judge that some elements of Syria’s biological warfare program might have advanced beyond the research and development stage and might be capable of limited agent production, based on the duration of its longstanding program,”. This news appeared to have shocked a number of western agencies and shed new light on to, what was viewed as, a hitherto un-disclosed Syrian capability. However, this announcement should come as no surprise, after all biological weapons are the oldest form of WMD and often referred to as the “poor mans nuke”. More worryingly why was this such a revelation, the information has been in the public domain since at least 2007 and SecureBio have included it in our specialist chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear training and awareness package since 2012.
The UN agreement, drawn up in October, to remove Assad’s weapons of mass destruction and the subsequent Syrian declaration was notably light on any mention of biological weapons, despite a report in 2007 indicating that Syria possessed a number of Category A pathogens, including Anthrax, Plague, Tularemia, Botulinium, Smallpox, Aflotoxin, Cholera, Ricin and Camelpox. Category A pathogens are considered the most toxic biological compounds, as an example 1 gram of crystalline Botulinium is assessed to be sufficient to kill about a million people, if dispersed under optimal conditions.
Syria’s Biological Weapons (BW) programme, centered at the technically advanced Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) near Damascus, like many other nations, has its origins in the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors, of which (pre-war) Syria provided 90% of the pharmaceuticals in the region. In order to effectively inoculate and protect individuals and livestock from the various endemic diseases, such as Anthrax (which is rife in the region), live pathogens are cultured and grown within a controlled laboratory.
These laboratories vary significantly in technology, with the SSRC being considered relatively modern, through to improvised laboratories in tin shacks on the outskirts of Kabul, which were used to produce veterinary strain vaccines in 2001. The growing of biological cultures enables scientists to produce effective vaccines, which can be used to provide inoculation from disease and deliver defensive medical counter measures to first responders, at risk individuals and of course the military.
Despite good intentions, the more advanced scientific research and development facilities (such as SSRC) are easily and readily adapted to deliver a dual-use, defensive medical and offensive military capability, whilst remaining hidden from foreign intelligence assets. Dual-use facilities have the ability to grow live pathogens and then at a very late stage, separate them into vaccine strains and the more potent strains suitable for BW agents.
Consequently, it is entirely probable that the Syrian facilities will have acquired and developed their pharmaceutical industry quite legitimately however, at a later stage blurred the lines and opted to develop dual-use technologies; obtaining proof of this illegal development requires physical inspections by technically competent bodies and regime cooperation, something which has been absent from Syria for many years.
Based on Syria’s previous (and current) alliances and the assessed list of biological agents, it is likely that in addition to obtaining samples and cultures from endemic bacteria and viruses, much of the dual-use biological pathogens and technology will have originated in Russia, Iran and the DPRK. Despite the sharing of bio-scientific information, the development of dual-use facilities and the growing of category A pathogens, it is should be noted that this is still only half the battle.
Once biological agents have been cultivated and grown, at dual-use sites, there is a significant step up in technology and scientific know-how required to transform the pathogens into a credible biological agent and then deliver them as a weapon. The programmes, to weaponise chemical, biological or radiological agents, are usually at the heart of a nation state’s most sensitive (or special) weapons sections, making it very difficult but not impossible to estimate how advanced they are.
The process of weaponising a biological agent is complex and multi-staged, involving enrichment, refining, toughening, milling and preparation of the pathogen. These processes are designed to ensure that the biological agent survives the relatively traumatic experience of being fired from a rocket, dropped from an aircraft or post delivery exposed to harsh climatic conditions eg. extremes of temperature, UV, wind, rain etc. From James Clapper’s statement, it would appear that the US view the Syrian Biological Weapons programme as having successfully achieved this process and developed a viable delivery means, most probably as an aerosol, for its biological agents. However, development of a biological weapons programme is one element, the development and refinement of biological agents is only of strategic value if the programme has the ability to scale up, ensuring sufficient stockpiles are maintained and that the agents can survive in long-term storage, through the use of climate controlled storage conditions, otherwise one rocket does represent a significant threat.
It would appear that there is little doubt about the accuracy of the US report or the inferred capabilities of the SSRC facility however, is the BW programme scalable and more importantly was it hardened against attack? Let us not forget that last year the Israeli’s launched an air strike against the SSRC, which may have destroyed or at least reduced the capability of the Syrian BW programme.
Therefore, the question whether Syria possesses a legitimate BW programme is almost certainly yes, but the real question should be what capability remains after airstrikes and two years of civil war?
The final piece to the puzzle is how secure have these sites been over the past two years? Biological agents are relatively easily identified, once deployed and symptoms begin to develop however, when in transit they are much more difficult to detect than chemical or radiological material. This difficulty in detection, coupled with the lack of internal security in Syria, presents a credible risk of biological proliferation from extremist groups. These groups, through existing networks and knowledge, are more than capable of collecting and moving biological agents across international borders and delivering them, through improvised means, as a terror weapon; this a long aspired goal of Al Qaeda.