Middle Eastern intelligence officials are concerned that Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime could for the first time deploy biological weapons in retaliation to an expected U.S. missile strike, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday.
Senior-ranking spy officials from two Middle Eastern nations anonymously told the Post that they have studied the possibility of Syrian biological attacks in response to Western strikes on the Syrian capital. The United States is seeking to build international support around limited cruise missile attacks on the Assad regime as punishment for its widely suspected Aug. 21 gas attack on Syrian civilians in the Damascus suburbs.
"We are worried about sarin, but Syria also has biological weapons, and compared to those, sarin is nothing," one of the interviewed officials said. "We know it, and others in the region know it. The Americans certainly know it."
Details of Syria's research and development of biological weapons remain somewhat mysterious. A 2008 analysis by a Washington think tank concluded that the military likely had established the ability to produce, at a minimum, botulism and anthrax.
Jill Bellamy van Aalst, a biodefense adviser to NATO, said Syria in recent years has acquired much pharmaceutical equipment that is "dual use." Though it may be used for valid health research, the technology also could be used to produce pathogens for weaponizing, the Post cited her as saying.
"You don't stockpile biological weapons anymore, because today it's all about production capacity -- and in Syria the production capacity is quite substantial," the biodefense consultant said.
Syria reportedly possesses the equipment necessary for modifying pathogens into aerosol or powder form -- the better for dispersal in military attacks. There is disagreement among U.S. officials about just how advanced a potential Syrian biological attack would be.