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Overview Last updated: April, 2014

Constrained by limited resources, Syria has nonetheless shown interest in and taken steps to acquire unconventional weapons, and particularly chemical weapons and associated ballistic missile delivery systems.

Syria is a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and has a Comprehensive Nuclear Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, Damascus faces unresolved allegations that it illicitly tried to build a plutonium production reactor at Al-Kibar (aka Dair Alzour) – a site destroyed by Israel in 2007.

Syria has allegedly received direct assistance from Russia (and formerly the Soviet Union), China, Iran, and North Korea in developing its WMD and ballistic missile programs. The country's primary motivation for pursuing unconventional weapons and ballistic missiles appears to be the perceived Israeli threat, as Israel has superior conventional military capabilities and is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons. [1] Other regional rivalries and concerns emanating from the U.S./NATO presence in the region have also been contributing factors to Syria's security calculus.

The outbreak of civil unrest in March 2011, directed against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, has since resulted in increasing levels of violence, which the International Committee of the Red Cross designated a "non-international armed conflict," or civil war, in July 2012. [2] As of April 2014, the civil war remains ongoing. The large-scale use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime precipitated threats of U.S. military action, which were set aside in favor of a U.S.-Russia brokered diplomatic agreement with Syria. Under the terms of the agreement, OPCW teams are working in Syria to destroy all chemical weapons production and mixing facilities and all chemcial weapons. [3]

Nuclear

Syria signed the NPT in 1968 and ratified it in 1969. Seeking to expand its nuclear capabilities, Syria has vigorously pursued external assistance since the 1980s, including reactor and technology transfers from states such as Argentina, China, and Russia. [4] These efforts, however, produced few tangible results. It was not until 1991 that the Chinese began to construct Syria's first research reactor at Dayr Al Hajar (or Der Al-Hadjar). The SRR-1 30KW miniature neutron source reactor went critical in 1996, and although it is not large enough to be of proliferation concern, IAEA inspectors discovered the presence of undeclared anthropogenic uranium particles in 2008 and 2009. [5]

In September 2007, the Israeli Air Force bombed and destroyed a building in northwestern Syria that U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials claim was a plutonium production reactor (the Al-Kibar or Dair Alzour site). The Syrian government has denied these allegations. However, in May 2011 following a more than three-year investigation, during which Syria did not sufficiently cooperate with the IAEA, the Agency concluded "that it is very likely that the building destroyed at the Dair Alzour site was a nuclear reactor which should have been declared to the Agency." [6] On 9 June 2011, the IAEA Board of Governors passed a resolution that found Syria in noncompliance with its obligations under its Safeguards Agreement, and reported the case to the UN Security Council. [7]

Biological

There is very limited open source information regarding Syria's biological warfare (BW) capabilities. German and Israeli sources have asserted that Syria possesses Bacillus anthracis (which causes anthrax), botulinum toxin, and ricin. American sources have characterized Syria's anthrax and botulism production capability as "probable." [8] However, a Swedish Defense Agency report found no evidence of an offensive, or even defensive, biological weapons program. [9] Ultimately, there is no reliable evidence to the effect that Syria has the capability to weaponize biological agents.

Syria has a pharmaceutical infrastructure that could support a limited BW program, and engages in the trade of dual-use equipment and goods with companies in Western Europe, Russia, and North Korea. Damascus ratified the Geneva Protocol in 1968, and has signed but not ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC).

Chemical

Syria has one of the most advanced chemical warfare (CW) capabilities in the Middle East. The country's initial CW capability was provided by Egypt prior to the October 1973 war against Israel. Since then, Syria appears to have acquired an indigenous capability to develop and produce chemical weapons agents, including mustard gas and sarin, and possibly also VX nerve agent. [10] Chemical weapons agents have allegedly been produced since the 1980s at facilities located near the Hama, Homs, and Al-Safira villages in the Aleppo region. However, Syria remains dependent on foreign sources for some dual-use equipment, and for the precursor chemicals critical to CW agent production. In recent years, Iran has been identified as a supplier of technical assistance and facilities for developing and producing CW-related precursors. [11] Syria possesses Scud-B and Scud-C ballistic missiles, artillery shells, and rockets that are believed to be capable of delivering chemical warheads. [12] Until recently, Syria had refused to become a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) [13]

The outbreak of civil unrest in late 2011, and steadily escalating violence, raised questions about both the security of Syria's chemical weapon sites and the potential use or transfer of chemical weapons. In March 2013 reports arose that a chemical weapons attack had occurred in the Aleppo province. Both the Assad regime and Syrian rebels denied responsibility. During the UN inspection team's visit in August 2013, a large-scale chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus occurred, shifting the inspection team's focus. U.S., UK, French, and German intelligence services concluded that the Assad regime was responsible for the attacks, accusations which were supported by the UN inspection team's report [14]. Subsequent diplomatic pressure by the U.S. and Russia resulted in Syria joining the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and agreeing to disarmament of its chemical weapons stockpiles. [15] OPCW teams are currently in Syria working to destroy chemical weapons and related production equipment.

The United States has offered the use of the MV Cape Ray, a cargo ship outfitted with a Field Deployable Hydrolysis System for destroying chemical weapons agents. [16] Two companies have been awarded contracts by the OPCW for the disposal of several precursor chemicals. [17] Unfortunately, Syria has already missed two deadlines for surrendering its chemical weapons and may miss the final June 30th deadline for the complete destruction of its capabilities. [18] Nonetheless, all of Syria's chemical weapons production facilities and 54% of the chemical weapons have reportedly been removed from the country. [19] As of 10 April 2014, the OPCW believes that it may still be possible to meet the June 2014 deadline of removing all chemical weapons from Syria. [20]

Missile

Syria possesses one of the largest arsenals of ballistic missiles in the region, and is actively engaged in missile proliferation. The country's missile program began in the early 1970s, and progressed with significant assistance from the Soviet Union/Russia and North Korea. Syria's arsenal is limited to short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), with three variants of the Scud missile – the Scud-B, Scud-C, and Scud-D– at its foundation. The Scud-D, with a range of 700 km and an advanced guidance system, is Syria's most advanced confirmed missile. Syria has established its own production lines, and now assembles each Scud domestically. [21] However, Damascus remains dependent upon foreign assistance for advanced missile components and technologies. Syria produces a domestic version of the Iranian Fateh-110A SRBM, the M-600. [22] While the M-600 has a limited range of 250km, the ability to domestically produce the solid-propelled missile marks a significant step in developing indigenous capabilities. In addition to its ballistic missile arsenal, Syria maintains a limited arsenal of anti-ship cruise missiles. [23] Syria's warm relationship with non-state actors such as Hezbollah and Hamas, both on the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations, is cause for significant proliferation concern. Damascus has supplied each group with artillery rockets, and according to Israeli and U.S. officials, Scuds and the M-600 as well. [24]

Sources:
[1] Anthony H. Cordesman, "Syrian Weapons of Mass Destruction: An Overview," Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2 June 2008, www.csis.org; Kurt M. Campbell, Robert J. Einhorn, and Mitchell B. Reiss, The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices (Washington, DC: 2004), pp. 83-110.
[2] "Syria in Civil War, Red Cross Says," BBC News, 15 July 2012, www.bbc.co.uk.
[3] Executive Council, "Decision: Destruction of Syrian Chemical Weapons," Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, 27 September 2013, www.opcw.org.
[4] Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East (London, UK: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), pp. 73-82.
[5] "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, (GOV/2010/47), 6 September 2010; "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, (GOV/2010/29), 31 May 2010.
[6] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Report by the Director General: Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," 24 May 2011, www.isis-online.org; Anthony H. Cordesman, "The Israeli Nuclear Reactor Strike and Syrian Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Background Analysis," Center for Strategic and International Studies, 24 October 2007, www.csis.org.
[7] "Syrian Nuclear Dispute Sent to United States," Global Security Newswire, 9 June 2011.
[8] Magnus Normark, Anders Lindblad, Anders Norqvist, Björn Sandström, and Louise Waldenström, "Syria and WMD: Incentives and Capabilities," (Umeå: FOI - Swedish Defence Research Agency, 2004) p. 32.
[9] Magnus Normark, Anders Lindblad, Anders Norqvist, Björn Sandström, and Louise Waldenström, "Syria and WMD: Incentives and Capabilities," (Umeå: FOI - Swedish Defence Research Agency, 2004) p. 41.
[10] Magnus Normark, Anders Lindblad, Anders Norqvist, Björn Sandström, and Louise Waldenström, "Syria and WMD: Incentives and Capabilities," (Umeå: FOI - Swedish Defence Research Agency, 2004) p. 35.
[11] Robin Hughes, "Iran Aids Syria's CW Program," Jane's Defence Weekly, 26 October 2005, www.lexisnexis.com.
[12] "R-17 (Scud B/C/D variants)," Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems, 30 April 2012, www.janes.com; Dinshaw Mistry, Containing Missile Proliferation: Strategic Technology, Security Regimes, and International Cooperation in Arms Control (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003); Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, Covering 1 January to 31 December 2008 (Washington, DC: Office of the Director of Central Intelligence, 2008), www.cia.gov, pp. 6-7.
[13] Daniel Feakes, "Getting Down to the Hard Cases: Prospects for CWC Universality," Arms Control Today, March 2008, www.armscontrol.org.
[14] "Syria chemical attack: Key UN findings," BBC News, 17 September 2013, www.bbc.co.uk.
[15] "Press release by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations on the advance team in Syria," Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, 11 October 2013, www.opcw.org.
[16] David Alexander and Roberta Rampton, "U.S. Ship Cape Ray Readied for Possible Chemical Arms Destruction," Reuters (Washington), 1 December 2013, www.reuters.com.
[17] "OPCW Awards Contracts to Two Companies for Destruction of Syrian Chemicals and Effluents," Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, 14 February 2014, www.opcw.org.
[18] Anthony Deutsch, "Syrian Chemical Weapons Stalling Tests Limits of U.S.-Russia Deal," Reuters (The Hague), 9 February 2014, www.reuters.com.
[19] "Syria Chemical Weapons Facilities ‘Destroyed’," Al-Jazeera, 1 November 2013; Frank Gardner, "Syria Chemical Weapons: Time Running Out for Destruction," BBC, 10 April 2014. www.bbc.co.uk.
[20] Associated Press, "Syria Chemical Destruction Deadline Still Possible," U~T San Diego, 10 April, 2014, www.utsandiego.com.
[21] "R-17 (Scud B/C/D variants)," Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems, 30 April 2012, www.janes.com.
[22] Missile Threat, "M-9 variant," The Claremont Institute, www.missilethreat.com; Jeffrey Lewis, "Iran Marketing Missiles?" Arms Control Wonk, 8 August 2011, www.armscontrolwonk.com; "Fateh A-110 variant (M-600)," Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems, 27 April 2012, www.janes.com.
[23] Anthony H. Cordesman, "Syrian Weapons of Mass Destruction: An Overview," Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2 June 2008, www.csis.org.
[24] Andrew Tabler, "Inside the Syrian Missile Crisis," Foreign Policy, 14 April 2010; "Photos Show Hezbollah Has Missiles, Report Claims," Global Security Newswire, 1 June 2010, www.nti.org; Amos Harel, "Syria still transferring supply of rockets, missiles to Hezbollah," Haaretz, 13 August 2006, www.haaretz.com; "An Inside Look at Hezbollah's Iranian and Syrian Sponsored Arsenal," The Israel Project, www.theisraelproject.org; Gary C. Gambill, "Sponsoring Terrorism: Syria and Hamas," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol. 4. No. 10, October 2010; Alon Ben-David, "Bracing for a Barrage," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 17 May 2010, www.lexisnexis.com.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

Get the Facts on Syria

  • Found in noncompliance with its international safeguards obligations by the IAEA in June 2011
  • Refuses to renounce its chemical weapons program until Israel abandons its nuclear weapons
  • Received assistance from Russia, China, the DPRK and Iran for its ballistic missile program