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Biological Last updated: August, 2014

Very little open source information exists to characterize Syria’s interest and potential activities in biological warfare (BW). Official U.S. government assessments note that Syria's infrastructure could support the production of biological agents, but make no definitive comment on whether or not a program actually exists. [1]

In the past, unclassified statements by U.S. officials occasionally claimed reason to suspect Syria of maintaining an offensive BW program. [2] However, in contrast to discussions of Syrian chemical warfare (CW) capabilities, such claims have not included any details on the size and scale of Syria's potential BW program, and are not presented alongside supporting evidence. Instead, discussions on this topic have focused on speculative extrapolations of Syrian dual-capable industry and on Syrian political motivations. Such analysis can be neither detailed nor comprehensive. Although the existence of a biotechnology industrial base would suggest that Syria has some indigenous expertise useful for developing a biological weapons capability, it does not imply and cannot confirm the existence of an offensive biological weapons program. Furthermore, from the Syrian perspective, the tactical utility of deploying biological weapons is questionable given that their use against its foremost security concerns, whether foreign or domestic, poses a significant risk of "blowback." 

History

Syria is a party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which bans the use of biological weapons. [3] Syria signed the  Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in April 1972, but has not ratified the treaty. [4] Officially, Syria has expressed interest in a region-wide ban on weapons of mass destruction, but has also rebuked calls to unilaterally disarm given the continued Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights and Israel’s own WMD arsenal. [5]

Syria appears to have acquired a limited defensive capability against biological weapons in the early 1970s, a result of receiving modern Soviet land warfare systems such as tanks and armored personnel carriers that included standard NBC protective equipment. [6] Syria has not publically disclosed any further investment in biodefense technologies since then. Syria may also lack expertise in supporting, maintaining, and updating this hardware, and the current condition of these systems is unknown. From a technology transfer perspective, the import of such systems would provide little if any insight into select agent weaponization.

In the late 1980s, Syria began to invest heavily in the development of its industrial pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors. In just twenty years, Syria’s pharmaceutical industry grew from a very poor industrial base capable of supplying only 6% of national demand to a multi-million dollar sector covering 90% of domestic demand and exporting products to 52 countries. [7] In 2010, Syria was home to more pharmaceutical companies than any other Arab country, and the Syrian pharmaceutical industry included eight or nine large firms practicing modern production techniques, 25 midsized companies producing generics, and 25 factories of limited functionality. [8] By some estimates, Syria’s pharmaceutical companies produced 5,700 types of products and employed a workforce of 17,000. [9] In 2011, Syria’s pharmaceutical industry claimed an estimated output valued at $500 million, $350 million of which was consumed in the domestic market. [10] Syrian pharmaceutical companies produced a broad range of generic pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, antifungals and antivirals, and vitamins. [11] (As discussed below, these statistics are dramatically less impressive as of 2014, as Syria's pharmaceutical and other industrial capabilities have been gravely harmed by the ongoing civil war.) The growth of Syria’s pharmaceutical industry suggests domestic expertise in the biosciences. However, Syria’s pharmaceutical sector has focused primarily on generic drugs, rather than novel research and discovery. [12] Therefore, this activity does not necessarily imply any experience working with select agents or any development of weaponization techniques.

Some allegations of an active offensive BW program have cited the Centre d’Études et de Recherches Scientifiques (CERS) in Damascus, which allegedly also plays a central role in Syria’s chemical and nuclear programs. However, such claims are unsubstantiated. [13] More consistently, open sources only indicate that Syria may have the infrastructure and expertise to produce BW agents, but do not identify sites and do not comment on whether a Syrian BW program actually exists. [14]

Recent Developments and Current Status

Open sources provide no indications that Syria currently possesses an offensive BW capability. Syria has invested heavily in its pharmaceutical industry in the past 20 years, and this sector has grown substantially both in size and in output. This suggests that Syria perhaps has an organizational capacity to develop modern scientific production facilities and also that indigenous scientific expertise in the biosciences exists. However, there is no information on whether this infrastructure or expertise could lend themselves to an offensive BW program. Moreover, the ongoing civil war has drastically undercut the pharmaceutical industry's capacity since its initial growth. The city of Aleppo, once a hub for hospitals and pharmaceutical plants, has been a focal point of the Syrian conflict and has experienced mass violence because of it. [15] More than an estimated 25 pharmaceutical plants have been destroyed, while others are suspending production due to high costs and difficulties accessing materials. [16] According to the 2014 United Nations Syrian Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) report, overall production has declined by 65-70% since 2010. [17] The industry is currently producing enough to meet only five to ten percent of Syria's pharmaceutical needs, and Syria's once-strong pharmaceutical capabilities are likely no longer positioned to expend efforts towards biological weapons research. [18] In any event, the geographic proximity of Israel, Syria's perennial military adversary, as well as opposition forces operating within the country, would undermine the desirability of biological weapons in the Syrian regime's strategic planning.

Official government reports from the United States continue to mention a hypothetical BW threat from Syria. In March 2009 DIA Director Lt General Michael Maples testified that "we judge some elements of the program may have advanced beyond the research and development stage and may be capable of limited agent production. Syria is not known to have successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system, but it possesses a number of conventional and chemical weapon systems that could easily be modified for biological agent delivery." [19] Such assessments were echoed most recently in 2013 and 2014 by the Director of National Intelligence in unclassified reports to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. [20] However, there is no open source discussion of evidence that would support such assessments, and few insights if any exist to elucidate whether these claims reflect political goals or technical realities.

In July 2012, the Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman at the time, Jihad Makdissi, stated that Syria would never use "any chemical and biological weapons....inside Syria," that the Syrian army was storing "all stocks of these weapons" securely, and that such weapons would only be used in the event of 'external aggression.'" [21] In subsequent Twitter exchanges, he tried to take back the apparent acknowledgement of Syria's possession of chemical and biological weapons, something Syria had previously denied. [22] While the subject of great uncertainty, the future prospect, or perhaps the current extent, of a Syrian biological weapons program is most likely limited amid the violence and unrest of the ongoing civil war.  

Sources:
[1] 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 2011, (Washington, DC: Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2011), p. 7, www.fas.org; James R. Clapper, "Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community," Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, March 12, 2013, www.intelligence.senate.gov; James R. Clapper, "Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community," Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, January 29, 2014, www.intelligence.senate.gov.
[2] M. Zuhair Diab, "Syria's Chemical and Biological Weapons: Assessing Capabilities and Motivations," The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Fall 1997), p. 106.
[3] U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, "Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of War in Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare (Geneva Protocol), www.state.gov, accessed 08 December 2011.
[4] Organisation for the Prohibition of Biological Weapons, "Signatory States yet to accede," www.opbw.org, accessed 08 December 2011.
[5] Daniel Williams, "Syria-EU Trade Deal Stalls over Chemical Weapons Issue," The Washington Post, 8 April 2004, p. A18.
[6] John W. Finney, "Abrams cites Intelligence Gained from Soviet Arms in Mideast," New York Times, 15 February 1974, p. 4.
[7] Dirar Kutaini, "Pharmaceutical Industry in Syria," Journal of Medicine and Life, Vol. 3, No. 3 (July-September 2010), pp. 348-350.
[8] UBIC Consulting, "Pharmaceutical Industry of Syria, 201 Update" (Newport Beach: UBIC USA), 2010.
[9] Dirar Kutaini, "Pharmaceutical Industry in Syria," Journal of Medicine and Life, Vol. 3, No. 3 (July-September 2010), pp. 348-350.
[10] The International Exhibition for Medicine and Pharmaceutical Industries, 1st Edition, 14-16 April 2011, Damascus Fairground, Syria.
[11] See, for example, Aleppo Pharmaceutical Industries, LLC, "Products," www.alpha-syria.com, accessed 08 December 2011; Barakat Pharmaceutical Industries "Products," www.barakat-pharma.com, accessed 8 December 2011.
[12] Dirar Kutaini, "Pharmaceutical Industry in Syria," Journal of Medicine and Life, Vol. 3, No. 3 (July-September 2010), pp. 348-350.
[13] For example, in 2001, Richard M. Bennett of AFI Research & Armed Forces Intelligence accused CERS of developing anthrax, cholera, and botulism. However, Bennett does not discuss the background of this claim, does not discuss what evidence he bases this claim upon, and does not formally or informally cite any sources. See: Richard M. Bennett, "The Syrian Military: A Primer," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, August/September 2001, www.meib.org.
[14] See, for example: Gordon M. Burck and Charles C. Flowerree, International Handbook on Chemical Weapons Proliferation (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991), p. 210; W. Seth Carus, "Chemical Weapons in the Middle East," Research Memorandum No. 9 (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy), 1988, p. 212; EJ Hogendoorn, "A Chemical Weapons Atlas," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 53. No. 3, p. 37; M. Zuhair Diab, "Syria's Chemical and Biological Weapons: Assessing Capabilities and Motivations," The Nonproliferation Review,Vol. 5, No. 1 (Fall 1997), p. 106; Damien McElroy, "Syria 'rebuilding' chemical weapons capability," The Telegraph, February 18, 2009, www.telegraph.co.uk, accessed July 13, 2011, 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; and Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions for the period 1 January to 31 December 2008, (Washington, DC: Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2008), p. 7.
[15] Saleyha Ahsan, "In Syria, Doctors Beware," The New York Times, October 3, 2013; Neil MacFarquhar, "In Syria's Civil War, Doctors Find Themselves in Cross Hairs," The New York Times, March 23, 2013.
[16] Lysandra Ohrstrom, "Syria war wreaks havoc on drug industry," The Daily Star Lebanon, July 1, 2013, www.dailystar.com.lb.
[17] "2014 Syrian Arab Republic Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP)," United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, December 15, 2013.
[18] Lysandra Ohrstrom, "Syria war wreaks havoc on drug industry," The Daily Star Lebanon, July 1, 2013, www.dailystar.com.lb.
[19] Lieutenant General Michael Maples, Annual Threat Assessment, Statement for the Record before the US Senate Committee on Armed Services, 10 March 2009, p. 19.
[20] James R. Clapper, "Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community," Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, March 12, 2013, www.intelligence.senate.gov; James R. Clapper, "Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community," Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, January 29, 2014, www.intelligence.senate.gov.
[21] Jihad Makdissi, "Press Conference by Dr. Jihad Makdissi," Syrian TV Official, 23 July 2012, www.youtube.com.
[22] Jihad Makdissi, Twitter Post, 23 July 2012, 7:08 AM, https://twitter.com/Makdissi.

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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.

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