Friday, February 7, 2014

Syria’s Biological and Chemical Weapon Programs: The Sudanese connection

Syrian BIOCHEM HijackAs international attention focuses on the destruction of Syria’s long denied chemical weapons program, its biological weapons program, although acknowledged in 2012 by then-Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi, remains in the shadows. For decades as Assad quietly built his chemical arsenal from trading with partners such as Germany and the Netherlands[1], these activities and the sale in chemical pre-cursors, which are illegal under the United Nations Chemical Weapon Convention (CWC), slid under the radar and caused no real concern. For the most part the sale of chemical precursors to States like Iraq, Iran and Syria were largely ignored or in some instances, denied by non-proliferation parties who were more inclined to criticize the United States for their engagement in Iraq and failing to support the Biological and Toxin Weapon Convention, Verification Protocol. The latter of which would have allowed inspectors drawn from countries like Iran to enter our most classified defence laboratories. As Syria quietly amassed a huge chemical weapon arsenal non-proliferation and arms control NGO’s and even several State signatories to the Chemical Weapon Convention, looked the other way. 

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Klein online: Israeli Special Operations inside Syria

Today, as Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles are destroyed at sea, their biological weapon program, just as their chemical program was for decades, is willfully being ignored. The focus on Syria's chemical weapon destruction, is a highlight for 'non-proliferation' experts who will likely try to claim victory for something they denied was happening for two decades. Syria has developed biological weapon programs which continues to be treated by these same non-proliferation advocates with high skepticism, denial, ignorance, in much the same way its chemical weapon programs were until chemical weapons were deployed on the streets of Damascus. Leaving little room for the disbelievers to pretend Assad had no chemical weapon repositories and or more concerning no intent to use this. Even after chemical compounds (sarin) were deployed in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, while United Nation inspectors were less than ten kilometers away, there has been on major outcry for Assad to hand over his biological weapon programs, just as there was no outcry, particularly from nations who collected extensive intelligence on this, over his chemical weapon stockpile. Until the use of Sarin in Jobar and after thirteen or more previous CW deployments (strikes), were efforts taken so the non-proliferation community could appear to be at the helm. While weapon experts and inspectors for the most part would acknowledge Assad's CW and BW programs have existed for decades, the non-proliferation community remained largely unwilling to do so and mainly denied the existence of Assad's BW programs run out of the SSRC in Damascus. 

Ake Sellstrom, who headed up the UN inspection team issued a report on the sixteenth of September,2013 " which concluded that evidence collected in the Ghouta area of Damascus following an attack on 21 August provided 'clear and convincing evidence that surface to surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used." Thursday's report said evidence indicated chemical weapons were probably used in Khan al Assal outside Aleppo, Jobar in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, Saraqueb near Idlib in the north-west, and Ashrafiah Sahnaya in the countryside outside Damascus." Syria: Chemical Weapons probably used in four more places, UN inspectors find, The Guardian, 13, December, 2013. URL: http://www. theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/13/syria-chemical-weapons-four-locations-un.

While the CWC inspection regime, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, announced it will run out of funding to destroy current stockpiles, of additional concern is the transfer of chemical and biological weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The idea that CW and possibly BW were transferred to Lebanon over a year ago, is met with general denial by arms-control NGO's and non-proliferation advocate alike. Just as Syria's chemical weapon programs were denied for over two decades allowing them to quietly amass tons of CW. The concept that Syria posses a BW capability and may have transferred sections of Hezbollah, tends to be acknowledged by Western Intelligence agency however. Khaled Daher, a Lebanese Member of Parliament, stated "Iran's Revolutionary Guards constructed underground bunkers and store rooms in Lebanon to house long-range missiles capable of carrying chemical warheads that Hezbollah received from Syria." see: Report: Iran trained more than 30,000 Hezbollah fighters, UPI, 19 October, 2013. URL: http://www.upi.com/Top News/World News/2013/10/09/Report-Iran-trained-more-than-30,000-Hezbollah-fighters/UPI-96051381315851

When Israel dares to raise the subject of biological or other unconventional weapons, or provide its ‘allies’ with evidence of almost any class of weapon acquired by Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, Sudan or any other terrorist organization, it is usually swiftly rebuked and generally treated with skepticism, marginalized and in some circles, treated with hostility just for providing such intelligence. If we consider the case of the use of chemical weapons on civilians in Syria, until their use, Israeli intelligence was dismissed. When it is accepted that a state has WMD programs, the next argument intended to oppose actually dealing with the reality of it, is to formulate discussion on ‘intent.’ Up until Sarin was deployed in Damascus and other sites, most WMD experts would caution that he did not have the ‘intent’ even if he had the capability and that Syria’s programs were for deterrence. It is time to take a sober look at Assad’s BW programs and ‘intent,’ which apparently was not accurately assessed per his use of CW.

In an article which appeared recently in the Times of Israel, the staff writer notes:

“In an unclassified report in April, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper assessed that Syria could be capable of producing limited biological weapons.“Based on the duration of Syria’s longstanding biological warfare (BW) program, we judge that some elements of the program may have advanced beyond the research and development stage and may be capable of limited agent production,” Clapper wrote. “Syria is not known to have successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system, but it possesses conventional and chemical weapon systems that could be modified for biological agent delivery.”

The Times article continued with a statement by Anthony Cordesman from A 2008 report on Syrian WMDs, who went further, citing Israeli sources. According to Israel, Cordesman wrote, “Syria weaponized botulinum and ricin toxins in the early 1990s, and probably anthrax.” He noted “reports of one underground facility and one near the coast,” cited a “possible production capability for anthrax and botulism, and possibly other agents,” and mentioned “limited indications [Syria] may be developing or testing biological variations on ZAB-incendiary bombs and PTAB-500 cluster bombs and Scud warheads.” The Cordesman report noted that “using advanced agents – such as the most lethal forms of anthrax – can have the effectiveness of small theater nuclear weapons. It is difficult to design adequate missile warheads to disseminate such agents, but this is not beyond Syrian capabilities – particularly since much of the technology needed to make effective cluster munitions and bomblets for VX gas can be adapted to the delivery of biological weapons.” See: Assad's biological weapons absent from US-Russia deal, The Times of Israel. URL: http://www.timesofisrael.com/assads-biological-weapons-absent-from-us-russia-deal/#ixzz2qqi2gVbk 

Today in Damascus, Al Assad retains a significant biological weapon program although some may argue that nearly 70% has now been looted (see follow-up post), That program poses a direct threat to international health security which his CW arsenal simply did not. Syria's BW programs post an existential threat to Israel if not the entire international community. Concerning is the pattern of denial which emerged as a hallmark of non-proliferation advocated over Assad's CW stockpiles. An expert source commented, 'In Geneva when discussions of Syria's BW programs arise it is treated as a non-issue, almost a myth, so abstract that it didn't bear discussing in any depth or detail. When it did come up it was quickly dismissed as posing no more of a danger than a natural outbreak any disease may present. Generally Syria's BW programs were dismissed and denied by non-proliferation advocates and any expert who brought up the matter was dismissed or rumored to be working for the US State Department, with the intent to marginalized biological defence specialists by an over riding non-proliferation advocacy.' While natural outbreaks of pandemic disease, even avian flu and genetically modified versions of this or other highly pathogenic agents could potentially pose catastrophic mortality rates, nothing compares to a well orchestrated, multi-state release of BW, most probable genetically modifed pathogens, created in a military weapon laboratory and deployed by trained military/terrorist personnel, such as the Quds forces or Hezbollah would pose a significant weapons of mass destruction threat. Natural outbreaks of disease do not compare to an offensive biological weapon deployment by a State. If this isn't concerning enough, part of the training on deployment for this weapon class has apparently been conducted with the consent of the Khartoum government in Sudan. While South Sudan spirals into tribal war, it is not unimaginable that Iran's IRCG may well have provided not only training in conventional weapons, but biological and chemical weapon deployment as well. It is probable training was conducted by the Al Quds Force, responsible for extraterritorial operations, a primary component of which is training up Islamic fundamentalist terrorist  organizations. Currently the Quds Force conducts training activities in Iran and Sudan. See URL: http//terrorism.about.com/od/iran/a/IRGC.htm  

As noted by Katherine Zimmerman in an American Enterprise Institute Report: "The United States sanctioned Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 for harbouring international terrorist groups, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Lebanese Hezbollah, and Egypt's al Gama'a al Islamiyaa.(17). At least 10 paramilitary training camps in Sudan provided training to Hamas and other terrorist groups at the time.(18).  

“The United States sanctioned Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 for harboring international terrorist groups, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Lebanese Hezbollah, and Egypt’s al Gama’a al Islamiyya.[17] At least 10 paramilitary training camps in Sudan provided training to Hamas and other terrorist groups at the time. Over the years, both the US and Israel have periodically hit targets in Sudan for facilitating terrorism and weapon trans-shipments. American cruise missiles hit a pharmaceutical company in Khartoum in 1998 that had alleged links to Osama bin Laden, and Israeli planes hit an arms convoy in January, 2009(27) The Yarmouk Military Industrial Complex in Khartoum, struck in 2012, was allegedly linked to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), exploded in October 2012. (18) See: Zimmerman, Katherine, Strike on Khartoum: October 23, 2012, American Enterprise Institute: http://www.criticalthreats.org/iran/zimmerman-strike-khartoum-october-26-2012.

Sadly, unlike chemical weapons, it doesn’t matter where biological warfare agents would be released or which lab it comes from. As biological weapons are living organisms, it’s the pace not the space that is uniquely characteristic. As we have witnessed with the outbreak of WPV1 in Syria which the WHO has typed back to Pakistan and which was likely introduced into Syria by foreign fighters, namely AQ, when bio is released either in Syria or Sudan where fighters have been trained up on it for the last several years, the global community is at immediately risk. This is not like a chemical munition that detonate and is contained and dissipates. Biological weapons in Sudan and the training of Hezbollah’s forces at camps in the North are a serious and real time danger to international health security. War torn countries like Syria and Sudan pose significant risks in terms of command and control over WMD arsenals. While we might applaud the efforts of the non-proliferation groups for finally acknowledging Syria has a chemical weapon program, although begrudgingly and their rather forced position to now dispose of it, Assad keeps his far more valuable biological weapon complex intact.

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