Tuesday, April 15, 2014

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

Author's Note:  This is a paper I published a couple months ago in Israel Hayom, See: http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_opinion.php?id=7121 Its difficult to believe that while there is growing evidence that Syria may have transferred sections of their Chemical Weapon (CW) arsenal to Hezbollah, they would have some moral or ethical barrier to transferring Biological Weapons (BW) to Hezbollah. Iran has provided Hezbollah with nearly every class of weapon they have thus far developed.


Photo: imgarcade.com Hezbollah Rockets

As international attention focuses on the destruction of Syria’s long denied chemical weapon program, it’s biological weapon program, although acknowledged in 2012 on state television by Jihad Makdissi, Spokesman for the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 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.

Today, as Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles are destroyed at sea, their biological weapon program, just as their chemical weapon program was for decades, is willfully being ignored. The focus on its chemical weapon destruction, is a highlight for ‘non-proliferation’ experts who will likely try to claim victory over something they denied was happening for two decades. Syria has a developed biological weapon program which currently in the same circles, continues to be treated 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 no-intent to use this as a strategic weapon. 

Photo: www.yourmiddleeast.com

Even with the use of chemical weapons in Damascus, there has been no major outcry for Assad to hand over his biological weapon program just as there was no outcry, particularly from nations who collected extensive intelligence on this, over his chemical weapon stockpile. It was only until the use of sarin and only after approximately ten other chemical deployments (of between 14 and 16 in total), efforts had to be taken in order for the non-proliferation community to 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 remain largely willing to look the other way or deny biological weapon programs exist at the SSRC in Damascus.

Ake Sellstrom, who headed up the UN inspection team issued a report on the sixteenth of September, “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.”[2]

While the CWC inspection regime, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has already 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 chemical weapons and possibly biological, were already transferred to Lebanon over a year ago, is met with general denial by arms control and non-proliferation advocates alike. Just as Syria’s chemical weapon programs were denied for over two decades allowing them to quietly amass tons of CW. Khaled Daher, a Lebanese Member of Parliament, stated “Iran's Revolutionary Guards constructed underground bunkers and storerooms in Lebanon to house long-range missiles capable of carrying chemical warheads that Hezbollah received from Syria.”[3] 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 on this topic was largely dismissed in Washington circles. 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 Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, and other sites, most non-proliferation experts would caution that the Assad regime did not have the ‘intent’ even if it possessed the capability. Some in the non-proliferation communities both in the U.S. as well as Europe went so far as to suggest that Syria’s programs were for deterrence against Israel as if this were a valid argument. 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.”[4]

Today in Damascus, Al-Assad runs a significant biological weapon program. That program poses more of a direct threat to international health security than his CW arsenal ever posed. Syria’s BW programs run mainly out of the SSRC, pose an existential threat to Israel if not the international community as a whole.  Concerning is the pattern of denial which emerged over two decades, as a hallmark of non-proliferation advocates, over Assad’s CW stockpiles. An expert source commented, “In Geneve when discussions on Syria’s BW programs arise it is treated as a non-issue, almost a myth, so abstract that it didn’t bear discussing in too much depth. 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 work for the US State Department, with the intent to marginalize biological defence specialists by an overriding non-proliferation advocacy.’

While natural outbreaks of pandemic disease, even avian flu and genetically modified versions of this or other pathogenic agents could potentially pose catastrophic  mortality rates, nothing compares to a well-orchestrated, multi state release of highly pathogenic agents, most probably genetically modified, created in a military weapon laboratory and deployed by trained military/terrorist personnel such as Hezbollah.  Natural outbreaks of disease do not compare to 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 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) may well have provide 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 in Sudan.[5] 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 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.[18] “[6]Over the years, both the U.S. and Israel have periodically hit targets in Sudan for facilitating terrorism and weapons transshipment. 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 on October 23.”[7]

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.

Jill Bellamy is an internationally recognized expert on biological warfare and defence. She has formerly advised NATO and for the past seventeen years has represented a number of bio-pharmaceutical and government clients working on procurement strategy between NATO MS and Washington DC. Her articles have appeared in the National Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Sunday Times of London, Le Temps, Le Monde and the Jerusalem Post among other publications. She is a CBRN SME with the U.S. Department of Defence, Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defence Information Analysis Center and CEO of Warfare Technology Analytics, a private consultancy based in the Netherlands. She is an Associate Fellow with the Henry Jackson Society, UK.






[1] Most precursors for chemical weapons production, which Saddam Hussein used against the Kurds, during the Halabja chemical attack, a genocide attack, came from the Netherlands (4,261 tons). See: “What Iraq Admitted About its Chemical Weapon Program”. http://www.iraqwatch.org/suppliers/nyt-041303.gif 

[2]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

[3] 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-30000-Hezbollah-fighters/UPI-96051381315851/
[5] http://terrorism.about.com/od/iran/a/IRGC.htm

[6] Zimmerman, Katherine, Strike on Khartoum: October 23, 2012, American Enterprise Insitute, : http://www.criticalthreats.org/iran/zimmerman-strike-khartoum-october-26-2012

[7] Ibid. URL: http://www.criticalthreats.org/iran/zimmerman-strike-khartoum-october-26-2012

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