This is Part I of a two-part examination of Syria's chemical and biological weapons—how Syria built them, configures them, and (in Part II) might even use them.–The Editors
Syria today is a prominent member of the chemical and biological weapons (CBW) club, and it is not a junior member either. As early as 1992, the U.S. Defense Department ranked Syria as the sole Muslim state possessing a "chemical systems capability in all critical elements"  for chemical weapons. And in recent years, Syria has added biological weapons to its store—weapons with far more strategic value than chemical weapons. Budgets are also there, and in plenty. The picture of poverty that is drawn for the Syrian army's conventional ordnance is misleading. Syria spends between $1 billion and $2 billion annually on its ballistic and CB capabilities, an enormous share of the Syrian military budget.
Syria's successful development of its CBW capabilities is a story that deserves to be told, for this reason: it is a textbook case of how a small but determined state can operate beneath the radar of international scrutiny, to build a formidable array of non-conventional capabilities under ostensibly scientific cover. The Syrian approach provides a striking contrast to the failed Iraqi model, and possible parallels with what Iran is attempting to achieve today in the nuclear sphere.
Yet media reports of Syria's offensive CBW capabilities have been superficial and misleading, and most discussions of Syrian CBW programs have been far from adequate. What strategic concepts inform Syria's programs? Just what are the Syrians up to, in CBW production and delivery systems? And above all, what does Syrian possession of this arsenal portend for the stability and peace of the Middle East?
The origins of Syria's strategic concept regarding non-conventional weapons lie in its joint preparations with Egypt for their October 1973 surprise attack on Israel. Thanks to transfers from Egypt, Syria for the first time acquired a chemical offensive capability. Damascus received artillery shells and aerial bombs, containing a non-persistent, lethal chemical warfare agent (sarin nerve agent) and a persistent agent (mustard blistering agent). The shells and bombs could be deployed for tactical and strategic purposes. This was the first time one Arab state supplied chemical weapons to another—in this case, in the framework of a full-fledged strategic and military alliance.
It was a radical step, but even now it is impossible to say just how Syria thought it might use these weapons. By this time, both Egypt and Syria must have been certain that Israel possessed powerful non-conventional weapons. It seems likely that Syria's new chemical weapons were in constant operational readiness during the war. But they were never used, despite the fact that the war on the Syrian front was launched to recover occupied Syrian land (the Golan Heights), and its later stages were fought within artillery range of Damascus.
In any event, the war's outcome persuaded Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad that Syria had to bolster its independent military capabilities. The need to "go it alone" against Israel was confirmed by Egypt's post-war moves toward bilateral agreements and a separate peace with Israel. Asad responded with the doctrine that became known as "strategic parity." Its objective was to provide Syria with a balanced defensive and offensive capability, both strategic and military, vis-à-vis Israel.
The 1973 war had left little doubt about Israel's conventional supremacy. Moreover, Syrians understood they would not be able, in the near term, to build a technological infrastructure to support the development of nuclear weapons. Syria thus decided to explore the CBW option. When the chemical weapons Syria received from Egypt became obsolete, Syria moved independently into two main areas of self-armament: the first, aerial bombs and surface-to-surface missile warheads containing nerve agents; and the second, biological weapons.
In the early 1980s, traces of the decision could be detected in the Syrian military literature, in articles published by retired officers. But by the late 1980s, the hints and allusions were emanating from the highest echelons. In January 1987, President Asad told a Kuwaiti newspaper that Syria was seeking a technical solution that would constitute a direct counterweight to Israel's nuclear weapons. A few months later, in May 1987, Radio Damascus emphasized that Syria had an answer to the Israeli nuclear threat, possibly of even greater power. A year later, Syrian chief of staff Hikmat ash-Shihabi noted that Syria possessed deterrent weapons against Israel's extremely lethal weapons. For those who read between the lines, these statements confirmed the existence of chemical weapons in Syria, and even alluded to biological weapons either in Syria's possession or in the process of development. The statements even implied that the Syrians thought biological weapons trumped nuclear weapons.
Syrian diplomacy also arrayed itself against chemical disarmament. Foreign Minister Faruq ash-Shar', representing Syria at the Conference on Chemical Disarmament in Paris in 1989, told Le Monde that Syria would commit itself to the elimination of all types of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—if Israel did. Chemical weapons, he argued, could only be eliminated in the context of a total elimination of all WMD. Syria pressed other Arab states and the Arab League to endorse its rejection of the Chemical Weapons Convention (as did Egypt). In December 1992, a few weeks before the signing of the convention,Shar' announced that Syria would not sign, "because it will not agree to be exposed to the non-conventional threat from Israel." Neither Syria nor Egypt signed, and to this day, the two states coordinate their positions, leading the Arab camp opposed to joining the Chemical Weapons Convention as well as the Biological Weapons Convention.
The Kuwait war of 1990-91 compelled Syria to take a public stance on strategic weapons in their totality, including ballistic missiles. In this somewhat different context, Syria argued that the destruction of one state's strategic weapons—in this case, Iraq's—could only be justified if linked to the destruction of the strategic weapons of all Middle Eastern states. When asked about Syria's Scud-C missiles and non-conventional capabilities, Asad declared, in a press interview, that their purpose was defensive. By such public statements, Asad conveyed his own personal strategic vision, projected a modern image for Syrian power, and imbued the Syrian armed forces with a sense of self-confidence.
In 1993, Asad announced that a Syrian solution existed for regaining the Golan Heights, despite Israel's nuclear supremacy. In 1995, Syria's information minister declared that Syria possessed "cards" that it had not yet played, but would play according to need in case of a military confrontation with Israel. On other occasions, Asad alluded to "other types of weapons" which Syria would dispose of "only after Israel's nuclear disarmament," or to "special weapons" that could cause Israel great damage.
Syria's public statements leave little room for doubt about the Syrian motive: Syria sees its CB arsenal as a counter to Israel's nuclear arsenal. Information from other sources hints more specifically at Syrian strategy. Satellite photographs of Syria's operational deployment of Scud-C missiles have revealed the integration of chemical warheads, in such a way as to furnish an option for a surprise chemical strike. The missiles are deployed such that they could be launched at Israel's nuclear reactor in Dimona, and at Israel's airports and large cities—without affording Israel the option of a preemptive strike. After the magazine Jane's published satellite photographs of Israel's nuclear operational system, it must be assumed that Syria has the information necessary to target this system with a chemical strike. Syrian has also moved many of the facilities for production and storage of chemical and biological weapons from aboveground to underground installations. This makes it more difficult to monitor and strike them.
On the battlefield itself—presumably, the Golan Heights—Syria also envisions CB weapons as a counter to Israeli superiority in artillery and armor. Syrian chemical weapons are apparently maintained or exercised adjacent to the Golan. And despite the supremacy of the Israeli air force, the Syrian air force is also part of the strategy, through its deployment of chemical-tipped aerial bombs.
It is no exaggeration to say that the main thrust of Syrian strategy today is the reinforcement of its ballistic-chemical-biological nexus, with the goal of maximizing its power and preparedness, while minimizing its transparency and vulnerability.
Syrian "Los Alamos"
To build its capability, Syria mounted a sustained, covert effort over several decades. It all began with 'Abdullah Watiq Shahid, a senior Syrian nuclear physicist, who was appointed minister of higher education in Syria in 1967. Shahid envisioned mobilizing Syria's meager technological and scientific resources for the national goal of weapons development. In 1971, in implementation of a presidential directive of 1969, an instrument for this activity was established:the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), an ostensibly civilian agency. Shahid was appointed director-general.
In 1973, Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad issued a new directive, officially authorizing relations between the SSRC and the Syrian army. The SSRC, which had its own link to the president's office, immediately became the principal engine for the local development and refinement of weapons for the Syrian army. In 1974, Shahid was appointed chairman of the Committee for Scientific Manpower, apparently to make it easier for him to channel manpower and financial resources to the SSRC. He simultaneously controlled the Supreme Syrian Committee for Science.
When Shahid and Asad concluded that Syria could not develop nuclear weapons, Shahid began to explore the CBW option. Syria was the second Arab state (after Egypt, and in parallel with Iraq) to commit itself to the development of CBW. Its main instrument would be the SSRC, which promoted itself internationally as a civilian science agency.
For example, the SSRC had departments of chemistry and biology under one roof, together with various armament departments—itself an unusual combination. So a pretense was manufactured: these departments were working on chemical and bacteriological pollution of rivers, sewage treatment, and the building of water purification facilities. In 1978, the SSRC sponsored the creation of an open scientific body called the Arab School for Science and Technology (ASST). This provided additional cover.
Concealment of the military mission of the SSRC was crucial to its operation, especially for its prospects of winning international funding. In the summer of 1979, when Shahid led a Syrian delegation to a U.N. scientific conference in Vienna, he described the SSRC in elliptical language, as "designed along the lines of other national institutions, and devoted to research that is specifically aimed at serving various aspects of development.The center is autonomous, and most of its researchers work full-time. Some serve in faculties of state universities." In an interview, Shahid stated that "the Center concentrates its attention on a number of critical technical problems of interest to Syria in the fields of: applied and industrial chemistry, applied physics, electronics, mechanical engineering, applications of computer science and science policy."
Despite this recitation of non-military concerns, the SSRC did not win international funding. Shahid expressed his frustration over this failure in an interview with the scientific journal Nature. There he complained about what he called the prevailing biases and injustice in the world scientific and technological order. Why did the lion's share of budgetary allocations go to the more advanced of the developing countries, such as Yugoslavia and Brazil? It was precisely less advanced states like Syria, he argued, that most needed this funding. 
Eventually, the SSRC did secure some financial support from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for the purchase of equipment. And it received financial backing from the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR), for organizing professional symposia, held formally under the auspices of the Arab School for Science and Technology. Leading foreign scientists, mainly from the West, took part in the symposia; the SSRC was the main beneficiary. The Arab League extended official sponsorship to the conferences held in Syria. The Kuwaiti connection provided invaluable financial resources, allowing the SSRC to dispatch dozens of scientists abroad, where they acquired vital technological information and equipment.
Of course, people in the know, knew the truth. In 1982, Ziauddin Sardar published his book, Science and Technology in the Middle East, and did not hesitate to characterize the SSRC as a body that "belongs to the Syrian defense ministry, and conducts military research." Nor did Asad's directives leave much room for doubt. Asad published another one on October 4, 1983, which raised the standing of the SSRC. All departments were upgraded to the status of research institutes, and the director-general was accorded the rank of a minister. Most importantly, however, the directive stipulated that the chief of staff would appoint members of the board of the SSRC, as well as its technical staff. (The president would continue to appoint the SSRC director-general.) The military would also authorize all appointments in the SSRC's new branch for applied sciences, the Higher Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology (HIAST). It is this institute that has trained professional personnel in chemical, ballistic, and other fields.
Behind the scenes, the independent production of chemical munitions became one of the core projects of the SSRC. It was the SSRC that set up the first facility for the industrial production of chemical weapons: the "Borosilicate Glass Project," outfitted by the West German glass company Schott. The components of the facility included chemical-reaction vessels and pipes, all of them chlorine-resistant. The project produced di-chloro, a substance that is the main source of the nerve gas sarin.
Press reports have placed production sites for sarin nerve agent, VX nerve agent, and mustard gas in plants near Damascus, Hama, Homs, Aleppo, and Lattakia—all around the country. Some or all of these facilities were founded ostensibly as civilian extensions of the SSRC. Syria can also tap the production capability of over a dozen government-controlled pharmaceutical plants, likewise spread across the country.
The SSRC also promoted the establishment of various plants for the acquisition of dual-use chemicals, a modus operandi now familiar from revelations about Iraq. For example, a Damascus company named Setma imported ninety tons of trimethyl phosphate from an Indian company, supposedly for the production of the organophosphate insecticide DDVP. The compound is a precursor of nerve agents. Another Syrian company, GAS group, made similar acquisitions. But the SSRC itself remained the major "civilian" buyer, taking advantage of its ramified connections with chemical firms around the world.
Late in the day, in 1992, the German government warned German research institutes not to maintain contacts with the SSRC, on the grounds that it belonged to the Syrian defense ministry, and that it simultaneously conducted military and civilian activities, including the production of chemical and biological weapons. Up to that point the SSRC had operated for years without arousing any untoward questions. But by this time, it had served its purpose well. In the heyday of "innocent" international scientific cooperation—before the specter of proliferation loomed large—the SSRC had siphoned off an impressive amount of knowledge and material from the scientific cornucopia of the developed world.
Who Helped Them?
As we shall see, Syria's achievements in CBW development and production are impressive. Yet they stand in striking contrast to the very low level of Syria's technical and scientific infrastructure. How did they close the gap?
First and foremost, they achieved an optimal integration of their covert objective and their overt program. Unlike their Iraqi neighbors, the Syrians stayed sober, followed a pragmatic program, adhered to their objective, admitted their own limitations, and carefully distinguished between limitations they could change and those they could not. When they ran up against the latter, they sought help from their friends.
Second, friends did help. Syria found plenty of willing suppliers of technology, who may or may not have been aware of the end uses of the transfers, and whose governments may or may not have known Syria's real objectives.
Third, Syria proved resourceful in identifying a wide variety of suppliers, and in shifting gradually and with perfect timing, from European to Asian suppliers.
The friends were many. Egypt's transfer of chemical munitions (which also included small quantities of chemical warfare agents for research purposes) was a onetime affair. But in the late 1970s and during the 1980s, Syria made important strides thanks to knowledge obtained from the Soviet Union (and later, Russia), West Germany, France, and Iran.
The link with the Soviet army developed from its patronage of the Syrian army. The Soviet contribution to the Syrian chemical enterprise is not completely clear, but it seems to have included institutional transfer of information (in part, by the Soviet Chemical Corps), turning a blind eye to information collection by Syrian scientists and chemists-in-training who came to the Soviet Union, and the provision of sample components of munitions.
When the Syrians first developed an aerial bomb containing binary sarin nerve gas, they made use of the Soviet aerial incendiary bomb ZAB for the weaponization of DF and isopropyl alcohol. From these, sarin is obtained in a binary system.At a later stage, the Syrians also explored the possibility of developing chemical warheads for the Soviet aerial cluster bomb PTAB-500 (which contains bomblets) and for the short-range Soviet missiles in Syrian possession, the FROG-7 and SS-21. By the time the commander of the Soviet Chemical Corps visited Syria in 1988, it was widely assumed that the Soviet Union had provided its Syrian clients with the capacity to arm Scud missile warheads with the persistent nerve agent VX.
The connection has continued between Syria and post-Soviet Russia. In 1993, Syria acquired at least 800 kilograms of raw material for production of an updated version of VX, through a straw company established by the retired general Anatoly Kuntsevich, at that time Russian president Boris Yeltsin's adviser on chemical disarmament and commander of the Russian Military Academy for Chemical Warfare. The material was smuggled from the academy, apparently together with technological knowledge about its use. (Kuntsevich was later sacked.) Russian suppliers are believed to have provided additional raw materials via Cyprus, and to have facilitated Syria's production of advanced VX and its development of improved cluster chemical warheads.
But it is in delivery systems that the Russian role is most pronounced. For a host of reasons, both economic and political, Russian arms manufacturers have been actively marketing upgraded weapons systems to Syria. The Syrian air force is aging and deteriorating, due to lack of maintenance and spare parts. Syria sees its missile arsenal as compensation. Some of these systems are particularly suited to WMD, especially a new optically-guided Scud missile that might be capable of penetrating U.S.- and Israeli-made missile defense systems. According to the Russian sources, the upgraded Scud is much more accurate than its predecessors, with a miss distance not exceeding 10 to 20 meters. Accuracy is crucial to delivering the extremely persistent nerve agent VX.
West German companies also did their share. The first Syrian project involved setting up a production line for serial manufacturing of di-fluoro—DF, from which sarin nerve gas for binary munitions is obtained. The process involves two stages. The first requires resistance to a compound that includes chlorine, which has to be produced before the DF; and the second requires resistance to fluoride, an even more destructive component than chlorine. The processes require highly resistant industrial glass components. Syria chose two German companies to provide them: Schott and Sigri.
Schott is one of the largest industrial glass manufacturers in Germany.The company's commercial name, Boresist, highlights its specialization in installations for the production of chemicals, made from glass of high durability in which boric oxide is a supplement to silicon oxide. It was this that led the SSRC to camouflage the entire operation under the name "Borosilicate Glass Project," whose components—chlorine-resistant chemical-reaction vessels and pipes—were supplied by Schott. Thus began the production of chemical weapons in Syria. A few years later—after many tons of the chlorine compound di-chloro (and from it, DF) had been manufactured—a spokesman of the Schott Glasswerke, answered critics. He explained that the company had no idea of the real purpose the Syrians had intended for the equipment Schott sold them. In competitive industries, he claimed, it was quite common for customers not to tell suppliers the reasons for their purchases.
The German company Sigri demonstrated the same reluctance to ask questions. Sigri specialized in internal Teflon coatings for reaction vessels and for other instruments in the chemical industry that are made of stainless steel. The Teflon, in its optimal configuration, is fluoride-resistant, and the accumulated experience of the Sigri company had taught its engineers how to weld Teflon surfaces at various thicknesses, for every requirement. It too provided essential equipment for the Syrian production line. The German companies Weber, Leifeld, Carl Schenck, Ferrostaal, and others also supplied the SSRC with mixing vessels, high-temperature furnaces, hot isostatic presses, and sophisticated mechanical instruments.
The raw materials for DF production were purchased from various west European companies; conspicuous among them was, again, a German company, Gerit-van-Delden. The technologies, equipment, and raw materials for production of chemical and biological weapons were supplied to Syria mainly by large chemical middleman and brokerage offices, located in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Britain, and Austria. Syria—together with Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and some further 50 countries—is still named by Britain as an importer of chemicals included in the "Australia Group" list of chemicals used in weapons production.
In their development of munitions that contained sarin, the Syrians were aided by classified information obtained by a Syrian-born German, Rif'at Ramahi, who spied for Syria while working for a company that specialized in the clean-up of chemical munitions sites. In 1992-94, Syrian military intelligence ran another German agent, one Hans-Joachim Rose, who provided industrial secrets. A German court later charged him with industrial espionage.
French scientific institutes also played a role, through their relations with the SSRC. The tradition of Franco-Syrian relations extended to science, with the SSRC—in French, the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Scientifiques (CERS)—presenting itself as the equivalent of the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). The Syrians took away from their French scientific exchanges a storehouse of knowledge applicable to the biological field.
In the 1980s, a pattern developed, whereby the same west European companies were contracted to carry out Syrian and Iranian projects, suggesting that the close relations that developed in these years between Syria and Iran included consultations on CBW. For example, Karl Kolb, a West German firm, worked on questionable projects in Iran, after it had done similar work in Syria (and Iraq). Uhde, another West German firm, assisted in the establishment of a suspicious plant for medicines in Syria, after it had established a suspicious plant for insecticides in Iran. The British company MW Kellogg simultaneously set up identical plants (for ammonia and for urea) in Syria and in Iran. These plants produced classic dual-use products, with civilian and chemical weapons potential. As the Syrian-Iranian relationship deepened both strategically, technologically, and in military terms, it would have been naïve to assume that CBW technologies and material did not pass freely between them.
Everyone's Fault—And No One's
Syria now possesses the most formidable CBW capabilities of any Arab state. Its arsenal probably even exceeds that of Iran in quantity and quality. Yet in building it from scratch, under the rule of Hafiz al-Asad, Syria has always managed to stay just outside the spotlight of international scrutiny. It did so by diffusing its efforts, and by playing its political cards with supreme skill—entering (and exiting) the Arab-Israeli "peace process" at just the right times, joining the Kuwait war coalition, cutting back at the last moment on its support for Kurdish separatism in Turkey, and so on. The West has always had some reason not to include Syria on its blackest list. Other regional problems have also drawn attention away from Syria. The United States is still preoccupied with Iraq and Iran, alongside which Syria appears benign.
But at this moment in time, it is a fact: Syria has more destructive capabilities than either of them. The West is often accused of a double standard—of tolerating Israel's possession of WMD, while preventing those same weapons from coming into the hands of Arabs or Muslims. But if there is such a double standard, then how does one explain the West's silence, if not complicity, in the building of Syria's CBW capabilities? A simple explanation would be to say that Syria outwitted the world. But that explanation may be too simple. Many parties profited from the Syrian build-up, and foreign strategists thought that a strong Syrian deterrent might give Hafiz al-Asad the confidence to make peace.
He never did, however, and now that he is gone, war seems as likely as peace. What are the possible scenarios? Part II of this article will assess Syria's present CBW capabilities, look at Syria's delivery options, and ask what it all means for the stability of the Middle East.
Part II will appear in the Fall Middle East Quarterly.
Dany Shoham is a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University. He holds his doctorate in medical microbiology.
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Related Topics: Syria | Dany Shoham | Summer 2002 MEQ
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