Syria bio-weapon threat worries neighbors

Program thought long dormant feared as retaliation for airstrikes

by Joby Warrick

The Washington Post

Last month’s alleged chemical attack near Damascus has refocused attention on Syria’s 30-year-old biological weapons research and raised concerns about whether its regime could activate an effort to make a weapon.

Syria’s bio-weapon program, which U.S. officials believe has been largely dormant since the 1980s, is likely to possess the key ingredients for a weapon, including a collection of lethal bacteria and viruses as well as the modern equipment needed to covert them into deadly powders and aerosols, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern officials and weapon experts.

This latent capability has begun to worry some of Syria’s neighbors, especially after allegations that the regime of President Bashar Assad used internationally banned chemical weapons against civilians in an Aug. 21 attack.

Top intelligence officials in two Middle East countries said they have examined the potential for bio-weapon use by Syria, perhaps as retaliation for Western military strikes against Damascus. Although dwarfed by the country’s larger and better-known chemical weapon program, Syria’s bio-weapon capability could offer the Assad regime a way to retaliate because the weapons are designed to spread easily and leave few clues about their origins, the officials said.

“We are worried about sarin, but Syria also has biological weapons, and compared to those, sarin is nothing,” said a senior Middle Eastern official. “We know it, and others in the region know it. The Americans certainly know it.”

U.S. officials acknowledge the possibility of a latent bio-weapon capability but are divided about whether Syria is capable of a sophisticated attack.

Historically, more than a dozen countries have manufactured biological weapons, including the United States, Britain and Russia, all of which abandoned their programs. Syria is one of the few countries that Western intelligence agencies suspect continued some research.

Syria appeared to publicly acknowledge its biological weapon capability in an unusual statement in July 2012 by the oreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi. Responding to Western reports about Damascus’ chemical weapon stocks, Makdissi said in a televised interview that the country would never use “any chemical and biological weapons . . . inside Syria.” He said the Syrian military was safeguarding “all stocks of these weapons.”

It was the first direct acknowledgment by Syria that such stockpiles might exist, and Makdissi’s voluntary mention of biological weapons took many analysts by surprise. Shortly afterward, Makdissi retracted his remarks in a statement posted on Twitter, saying Syria had no chemical or biological weapons of any kind.

But other countries, including the United States, have long believed that Syria has developed at least a rudimentary biological weapon capability along with its massive stockpile of chemical munitions.

A report prepared for the U.S. Congress this year by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded that Syria possesses a “long-standing biological weapons program,” adding that parts of the program “may have advanced beyond the research and development stage, and may be capable of limited agent production.”

Other intelligence assessments have been more cautious, citing a lack of hard evidence that Syria’s fledging efforts progressed to “weaponizing” pathogens for use in military rockets and shells. But some officials and independent experts say military biological weapons are not needed to launch a bio-terrorist attack on civilian populations.

“We know that they went at least as far as research and development,” Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in an interview.

Syria’s early research on cultivating strains into weapons has been confirmed by multiple Western governments, with U.S. intelligence agencies tracking Syria’s efforts through the 1970s and 1980s to counter archrival Israel’s nuclear weapons and conventional military dominance. In 2001, a declassified CIA assessment asserted that it was “highly probable” that Syria was developing an “offensive BW (biological weapons) capability.”

U.S. assessments have frequently cited the Scientific Studies and Research Center in Damascus, a military-run laboratory previously linked to covert programs for research on chemical and nuclear weapons.

A 2008 profile of Syria’s unconventional weapon programs by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded that Syria’s military had developed “probable production capacity for anthrax and botulism, and possible other agents.” The report said delivery systems for such weapons were within the grasp of Syria’s armed forces, which have long possessed missiles and rockets tipped with warheads.

Although little is publicly known about the state of Syria’s program today — including whether it is active — the country has gained new capabilities in recent years through the regime’s massive investments in the local pharmaceutical industry. Much of the equipment acquired by Syria’s military laboratories in recent years is regarded as “dual use” and can be used either for weapons or legitimate research.