This is Part II of a two-part examination of Syria's chemical and biological weapons (CBW). Part I, which appeared in the Summer Middle East Quarterly, revealed how Syria built its capabilities. Part II catalogues Syria's present CBW stocks, investigates

This is Part II of a two-part examination of Syria's chemical and biological weapons (CBW). Part I, which appeared in the Summer Middle East Quarterly, revealed how Syria built its capabilities. Part II catalogues Syria's present CBW stocks, investigates how Damascus has weaponized them, and ponders possible scenarios for their use.

Syria today has the most formidable chemical and biological weapons capabilities of any Arab state. How did Damascus achieve this? As we saw in Part I, Syria's chemical "Los Alamos" was abetted by Western suppliers, ever eager to provide chemicals, factories, and technology, and also by Western governments, conveniently content to look the other way.

Iraq under Saddam Husayn had the same ambition, but Hafiz al-Asad proceeded with greater caution. The Syrian military built the infrastructure under ostensibly scientific auspices, abjuring grand innovations and sticking to tried and tested technologies that the Syrians knew they could implement without much direct foreign guidance. And because Asad joined the international coalition against Iraq, and then entered a "peace process" with Israel, Syria's progress was never scrutinized like that of Iraq and Iran.

But capabilities are one thing; an actual CBW strategic option is another. A CBW deterrent requires a highly integrated combination of materials and delivery systems. And for this option to be truly strategic, Syria needs to be able to threaten its adversaries with CBW not just on the battlefield but on the home front—an option achievable, first and foremost, by the use of ballistic missiles. Has Syria achieved the necessary degree of integration to threaten and deter potential adversaries—above all, Syria's only declared enemy, Israel?

Missiles at the Ready

The conflict with Israel makes it incumbent on Syria to foster and maintain a high level of operational preparedness, both to deter Israel and, if necessary, to launch effective strikes against it. (While Syria must also take into account two problematic neighbors, Turkey and Iraq, they take a back seat to Syria's strategic preoccupation with Israel.) Ballistic missiles are the backbone of the Syrian posture, so that missiles effectively shape Syrian strategic orientation and operational preparedness as a whole. Missiles, of course, can be equipped with a variety of warheads. But before examining these, just what are the delivery systems at Syria's command?

The Syrian missile command is based in Aleppo. It is known to control three mobile surface-to-surface missile brigades, each of which includes one battalion of (antiquated) FROG-7 SSM, one battalion of SS-21 Scarab SRBM, and one battalion of Scud-B missiles.[1] The missiles in mobile brigades have ranges of 70 to 300 kilometers. Some sixty TEL (Transporter-Elevator-Launcher) vehicles provide mobility.

In addition to mobile brigades, Syria has recently constructed hardened silos and a deep network of tunnels. At least fifteen such underground installations, built with North Korean and Chinese assistance, are being readied for some 1,000 Scud-C missiles, which have a range of 500 kilometers.

An additional four tunnels have been built to house Scud-D missiles, which have the longest range in the Syrian arsenal, 700 kilometers. The Syrians now manufacture these missiles themselves, with North Korean, Chinese, and Iranian help. In May 2000, Syria was reported to have received deliveries from North Korea of a new ballistic missile based on the Scud-D, which has a modern navigational system, making it much more accurate than its predecessor.[2]

Syria's acquisition of Scud-D missiles is significant because they allow Damascus to strike targets throughout Israel from launchers positioned well inside Syrian territory, and thus, less easily detected or attacked by Israel. The tunnels will provide a considerable degree of defense against conventional bombing for both the missile storage and maintenance facilities, and they are linked to a large number of camouflaged launch facilities.[3] All types of Scud missiles are designed to carry, along with conventional warheads, chemical and biological warheads.

Syria has two large underground missile production facilities near Aleppo and Hama, both built with Iranian, North Korean, and Chinese assistance. Iran and Syria jointly produce Scud-C and Scud-D missiles. Syria is believed to be attempting to acquire Chinese medium-range ballistic missile technology in the form of the M-9 and may indeed have already acquired M-11 missile systems.[4]

Most of the warheads fitted to these missiles contain conventional explosives for strikes against Israeli defensive positions and reinforcements in the Golan, or they are tipped with cluster bombs designed to put airfield runways out of commission. A number of the longer-range Scuds are apparently aimed at Israel's nuclear facility at Dimona and its Jericho ballistic missile launch sites at the Sdot Micha airbase.[5] Airfields in general, plus other key military installations and major cities, are probable candidates for targeting as well. The Syrians believe that a massive and sustained missile assault against Israel's airfields could go some way to nullifying Israel's air supremacy by the destruction of aircraft, runways, and airfield infrastructure.

At the same time, nearly all of the missiles in the Syrian inventory, covering every range and payload, can be fitted with chemical or biological weapons. Just what has Syria accomplished in its efforts to built a non-conventional, missile-based deterrent?

A Chemical Present

In the early years, even before Syria had missiles, it built delivery systems for chemical weapons. Since the mid-1980s, Syria has manufactured varieties of aerial bombs containing sarin. According to Russian intelligence, Syria has a stock of thousands of chemical aerial bombs that are carried by Su-22, Su-24, and MiG-23 planes.[6] Syria also has several thousand tactical munitions, including rockets and artillery shells containing sarin.[7]

The rockets and shells have tactical value, as do the aerial bombs (which also have some strategic value). But the major leap forward towards creation of a strategic deterrent took place only when Syria began to amass chemical warheads for Scud missiles. Syria's adversaries were not capable then—and may not be capable now—of intercepting such missiles. To add to the deterrent power of the missiles, Syria moved to acquire the nerve gas VX, with the intention of deploying it in missile-borne warheads.

In contrast to sarin, VX has a high persistence and is much more lethal when encountered through the respiratory system and the skin. Since 1988, there has been a flood of reports confirming Syrian production of VX in plants located near Hama, Homs, and elsewhere. In 1998, U.S. Central Intelligence (CIA) affirmed that Syria had completed the development of more potent, more toxic, and more persistent nerve agents,[8] referring, in fact, to VX.

Almost as soon as Syria had VX, Syria sought to load it in Scud warheads. The head of the Scud-B missile underwent experimental adaptations for carrying the large nozzles and dispersal mechanisms that are needed for chemical warfare agents, especially for spraying a persistent agent such as VX. Syria also began to explore the possibility of installing VX in short-range Soviet missiles already in Syria's possession—the FROG-7 and SS-21.

Syria is believed to have excluded all Westerners from its Scud VX weaponization project. Hence the importance of the first public reference by the Russian foreign intelligence service to Syria's offensive chemical capability, published in 1993. According to the Russians, Syria possesses between 100 and 200 chemical Scud-B warheads. Moreover, Syria has also armed some sixty Scud-C missiles with chemical warheads. And with the assistance of Russian specialists, Syria has developed a cluster warhead capable of delivering chemical or biological bomblets for the Scud-D.[9]

At least one test firing of a Scud-C missile tipped with VX was conducted near Damascus in May 1998.[10] Syria also conducted successful field tests of two indigenously manufactured Scud-D missiles armed with advanced conventional and non-conventional warheads in September 2000. In July 2001, a Scud-B missile carrying a chemical warhead was launched in a test flight from near Aleppo to a point just short of the Israeli border. Reportedly, Syrian sources confirmed the flight, explaining that this was "a message to Israel not to launch any attack on Damascus."[11] Israel has received the message: the head of the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, told a June 2002 meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization council that Syria had adapted sarin and VX to various Scud warheads (as well as to aerial bombs and rockets).[12]

Syria's main objective according to all assessments is the completion of an arsenal of enhanced-range surface-to-surface missiles tipped with chemical and biological warheads. At present, the focus is on the installation of chemical warheads on the Scud-C, the Scud-D, and the anticipated M-9. Beyond that, the next stage might include cruise missiles that carry warheads with chemical or biological cluster munitions. (Syria apparently possesses SS-N-3b cruise missiles.)

A Biological Future?

At present, Syria's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) deterrent relies entirely on chemical weapons, which are immediately operational. But Syria is well aware that an optimal strategic deterrent should include biological warheads on long-range surface-to-surface missiles. Broadly speaking, biological weapons are considered significantly superior to chemical weapons and in some senses comparable to nuclear weapons. Syria is acting accordingly.

From bits and pieces of evidence, the following picture emerges. The Syrian biotechnological infrastructure is basically inferior, but as with chemicals, the Syrians have succeeded in creating a narrow bridgehead that enables them to progress from stage to stage. And as with chemicals, the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) in Damascus has taken the scientific lead through its biological department. An appreciable portion of the Syrian knowledge in the biological field was obtained by means of the Arab Science Week conferences, which the SSRC regularly organizes. The center's published studies point to work with germs and proteins,[13] while the center's scientists have trained in France in the fields of toxinology and virology. The SSRC and the Syrian Center for Marine Research in Lattakia also cooperate,[14] most probably in the investigation of lethal toxins that are derived from marine animals and plants.

Syrian attention has focused primarily on two bacterial agents, anthrax and cholera, as well as two toxins, botulinum and ricin. Anthrax is an easily grown, deadly germ with maximal stability under extreme conditions (during storage, delivery, and in the field). Cholera is a contagious bacterium, suitable for contaminating food and water supplies, producing violent alimentary epidemics. Botulinum is an extremely toxic protein (derived from a germ) whose toxic power exceeds that of any other substance, natural or synthetic. Ricin is a lethal protein (derived from beans of the castor-oil plant, easily grown in Syria) that offers an optimal relation between cost and toxicity.

In regard to anthrax, Syria has some ongoing experience in the industrial cultivation of germs and viruses for the civilian production of anthrax (and smallpox) vaccines.[15] And while evidence is sketchy, Russian experts hired by Syria are reportedly engaged in cultivating a highly virulent anthrax germ for installation in missile warheads.[16] While Syria has concentrated on anthrax and cholera germs, it has also done work on the brucella germ, establishing a biohazard facility for this pathogen as well as isolating it from sheep.[17] Pasteurella, another bacterial pathogen related to the causative agent of bubonic plague, has also been investigated in Syria. The smallpox virus, which is considered a very reliable and effective biological weapon, last visited Syria in 1972.[18] It is assumed that with its development and production as a biological weapon by Russia, it was secretly delivered to Syria.[19]

It is believed that production facilities for chemical weapons, in the Aleppo area and at other sites, also include wings for biological weapons. An additional facility for biological weapons has been reported in the village of Cerin, alongside facilities for the development and production of medicinal preparations.[20]

Syria has also shown great interest in dispersal methods. At the SSRC, a high-capacity sampler for aerosol particles was developed that was used in fieldwork that dealt with the analysis of micronic particles.[21] Such samplers are extremely useful in field-testing biological weapons. Knowledge with operational value on dispersal techniques was also acquired in the framework of research on the packing, release, and effects of weed-controlling material in a polymer format. This technique, called micro-encapsulation packing (in tiny capsules), enables the controlled and ongoing dispersal of biological (and chemical) warfare agents under unfavorable environmental conditions. Scientists from Aleppo University and Germany worked on the project.[22]

Syria would claim that all its biological research is for peaceful purposes. Syria's official position on biological weapons is that it "supports very close international cooperation in the field of biological activities for peaceful purposes, which is certain to strengthen the influence and the realism of the Biological Weapons Convention."[23] In fact, Syria has had rudimentary biological weapons in its possession since the early 1990s. Syria—together with Iran, Iraq, Libya, Israel, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, China, and Russia—is currently considered to be a biological weapons possessor or developer by the United States.[24]

The Syrian military is also beginning to plan the eventual integration of biological weapons in its tactical and strategic arsenals. In April 2000, Syrian defense minister General Mustafa Talas published a lengthy article entitled "Biological (Germ) Warfare: A New and Effective Method in Modern Warfare." (Interestingly, the article was published in Persian translation in Tehran, the key Muslim strategic ally of Damascus.)[25] All indications suggest that Syria's ultimate objective is to mount biological warheads on all varieties of the long-range surface-to-surface missiles in its possession. This is a goal that can probably be achieved within a few years, and it may already have been realized in part.

Ugly Scenarios

No Syrian spokespersons provide public information about Syrian strategic planning for CBW. At present, analysts regard the likelihood of chemical warfare between Syria and Israel to be low or medium. Syria possesses CBW capabilities, but its Israeli adversary is reckoned to have the ability to retaliate in kind and has additional means to strike Syria's battlefield forces, permanent facilities, and civilian population centers. The Syrians would also have to bear in mind the political and military consequences of a decision to use CBW. Syria's weapons are conceived as a deterrent; apparently, they were built in the hope they would not have to be used.

But the Middle East is an unpredictable place, where unlikely scenarios unfold all the time. What follows is a controlled speculation as to how Syria might actually use its CBW, in a scenario of sharply heightened conflict in the Middle East, and particularly against Israel.

First strike. A first strike, launched at a country as small and densely inhabited as Israel, could be crippling. The implementation of chemical weapons against Israel, especially in a first strike, would be designed to impair Israel's fundamental military superiority by striking its retaliatory capabilities, especially airfields and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) command and control installations. Other likely targets would be mobilization centers, equipment warehouses, and transportation intersections. In the early stages of the war, the mission would be to prevent the arrival of reserve forces at the northern front and exert pressure on Israeli forces at the front. Were Syrians to cross the chemical Rubicon, they might also strike at population centers and industrial areas.

According to satellite imagery, the operational alignment of Syria's Scud-C missiles is such that Syria is positioned to launch a surprise chemical attack. The missiles in those photographs were aimed at the nuclear reactor in Dimona and at Israel's airports and large cities.[26] For Syria, a first strike is a first-rate strategic option—depending on its objectives and provided Syria is prepared to absorb the counterblow.[27] Syrian ballistic missiles armed with chemical warheads could neutralize a substantial number of Israel's military installations and tie up its major population and industrial centers around Tel Aviv and Haifa. The effect would be even greater if the missiles were implemented in a first strike, and even more so in a surprise attack.[28]

Golan grab. A more limited version of this scenario postulates a Syrian attack limited to northern Israel in an attempt to conquer the Golan Heights. Syria would deploy long-range launch systems and long-lasting chemical warfare agents in order to neutralize military targets (air force bases, command and control centers, radar stations, reserve mobilization and assembly areas, and equipment warehouses). Short-range launch systems would implement volatile chemical warfare agents at the front in order to ease the rapid penetration of Syrian ground forces. The idea would be to enable Syria to achieve its goal of seizing the Golan Heights before the IDF could complete the mobilization of its reserves, presenting the international community with a fait accompli.

On the brink of defeat. Were Syria on the verge of conventional defeat, it might also resort to chemical weapons in order to avoid disaster. This option was non-existent in the previous wars between Arab states and Israel. The Syrians would justify the use of chemical weapons by claiming that their very survival was at stake. If Syria were on the brink of military defeat, any use of chemical weapons would almost certainly be aimed at the source of the immediate danger: Israeli forces, other targets at the front, and air force bases. Civilian centers would be a lower priority. But also in these circumstances, a chemical attack on civilian targets cannot be ruled out, especially if it promised to accelerate superpower intervention for a ceasefire.

Restoring deterrence. Syria's chemical weapons are meant to deter strikes against strategic targets deep in Syrian territory, especially highly sensitive targets like government installations, dams, and civilian infrastructure. Were the Syrians to conclude this deterrent were failing, they could use chemical weapons in order to restore it. An example of this scenario was given in Kuwait's Al-Qabas newspaper in a report from its Damascus bureau. There it is suggested that Syria would fire chemical-tipped missiles were Israel to make even limited bombing attacks against Damascus.[29]

One could add still more scenarios to this brief list. The point is that there is no dearth of scenarios, and that they are increasingly realistic.

New Strategic Balance?

Syria's acquisition of a CBW option has not occurred in a vacuum. It also has to be viewed in the context of Syria's own alliances. And the most important of Syria's strategic ties are not with its "brother" Arab states. For fifteen years, Syria's closest strategic and military bond has been with Iran—a large, powerful Muslim state, one that is close to acquiring nuclear weapons and that has missiles capable of reaching Israel.

Could Syria one day find itself under an Iranian nuclear umbrella? If it did—and the road to that point may not be so long—Syria's threshold for first use of CBW could be lowered. For example, in a grab for the Golan, Syria might contemplate a limited chemical exchange with Israel, on the assumption that Israel would not retaliate with a nuclear escalation. Given the futility of all past Syrian attempts to gain military superiority over Israel by means of conventional forces, the CBW option might grow legitimate in Syrian eyes. And if a nuclear Iran gave assurances to Syria, it might diminish Syrian fears and inhibitions in choosing its weapons.

But the strategic significance of Syria's CBW option is not limited to war scenarios. Even if Israel and Syria were to reengage in a peace process, Syria would have every motive for continuing its non-conventional buildup. The goal would be to strengthen Syrian proposals for a comprehensive strategic package, whereby Israel would agree to give up any non-conventional arms it might possesses, in return for a pledge by Syria to dismantle its CBW. Syria has presented the total non-conventional disarmament of Israel, in return for a reciprocal Syrian step, as an important component of the "peace process."[30] Syria thus would seek to obtain what Egypt did not even attempt to attain in its peace agreement with Israel, and what Egypt has failed to obtain by its own recent diplomacy: the nuclear disarmament of Israel.

In the meantime, Syria continues to augment its CBW. It is estimated that about half of Syria's 300 to 400 Scud-B and Scud-C missiles are chemically armed.[31] Biological warheads are probably around the corner. The missiles are now much more protected in their new, reinforced underground silos. Many more Scud-C and Scud-D missiles are slated for addition to the force in the near future. Syria has recently carried out tests on modified Scud missiles using solid fuel, rather than liquid fuel, which increases the range of the missiles, improves their accuracy, and shortens the time interval between launches.[32]

Moreover, Syria has already achieved one of its primary strategic goals. In Israeli eyes, Syria is an adversary that must be reckoned with and that cannot be easily fobbed off by waving Israel's own non-conventional baton. In 1999, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak explained the urgency of pursuing a peace agreement with Syria. "The Palestinians pose no military threat to Israel," he noted. But Syria "has surface-to-surface missiles that are neatly organized and can cover the whole country with nerve gas."[33] The strongest Israeli argument for pursuing an agreement with Syria—and for making concessions along the way—has become Syria's poisoned missiles. The fathers of Syria's "Los Alamos" have every reason to take pride in the ways they have enhanced Syria's power.

Dany Shoham is a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University. He holds his doctorate in medical microbiology.

[1] Richard M. Bennett, "The Syrian Military: A Primer," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Aug.2001, at http://www.meib.org/articles/0108_s1.htm.

[2] Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), May 29, 2000.

[3] Bennett, "The Syrian Military."

[4] Ibid.

[5] Foreign Report (London), May 12, 1998; Bennet, "The Syrian Military"; Yedi'ot Aharonot (Tel Aviv), Sept. 12, 1997.

[6] The Washington Times, Nov. 26, 1999; The Jerusalem Post, Nov. 26, 1999.

[7] Bennett, "The Syrian Military."

[8] Central Intelligence Agency, Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 January through 30 June 1998 (Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, 1998), at http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/bian/bian.html#syria.

[9] The Washington Times, Nov. 26, 1999; The Jerusalem Post, Nov. 26, 1999.

[10] "The Great Arsenal of Autocracy: Syria's Weapons of Mass Destruction," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Feb. 1999, at http://www.meib.org/issues/9902.htm#me2.

[11] Middle East Newsline, July 1 and 15, 2001.

[12] Yedi'ot Aharonot, June 28, 2002.

[13] Middle East Newsline, July 15, 2001, at http://www.menewsline.com/stories/2001/july/07_15_2.html.

[14] Marine Environmental Centers—Mediterranean (Rome: U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 1985), p. 262.

[15] Ath-Thawra (Damascus), Sept. 12, 1982.

[16] Associated Press, Mar. 18, 1999.

[17] There is a "Brucellosis Center" in the ministry of agriculture and agrarian reform in Damascus; M. Darwesh and A. Benkirane, "Field Investigations of Brucellosis in Cattle and Small Ruminants in Syria, 1990-1996," at http://www.oie.int/eng/publicat/rt/2003/DARWESH.PDF.

[18] United Press International, Mar. 26, 1972.

[19] Wendy Orent, "Escape from Moscow," The Sciences, May-June 1998, p. 26.

[20] "Western Firms Helping Syria's WMD Programs," Middle East Newsline, Oct. 9, 2001, at http://www.menewsline.com/stories/2001/october/10_09_4.html.

[21] "Atmospheric Pollution," proceedings of the Arab School for Science and Technology, Zabadani, Syria, Aug. 1985, p. 74.

[22] M. Kamal, G. Pfister, M. Bahadir, and J.P. Lay, "Uptake of 14-C-Simetryn by Duckweed during Release from a Polymer Matrix and the Consequent Herbicidal Effects," Journal of Controlled Release, 7 (1988): 39-44. Kamal was the Syrian.

[23] Statement by the Syrian representative to the Third Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference, Geneva, Sept. 1991.

[24] According to John R. Bolton, the State Department's under secretary for arms control and international security, Syria "has an offensive BW program in the research and development stage, and it may be capable of producing small quantities of the agent." Remarks to the Fifth Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference Meeting, Geneva, Nov. 19, 2001, at http://www.state.gov/t/us/rm/janjuly/6231.htm.

[25] Text in Anthony H. Cordesman, "Syria and Weapons of Mass Destruction," Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., pp. 22-28, at http://www.csis.org/stratassessment/reports/syriaWMD.pdf.

[26] Yedi'ot Aharonot, Sept. 12, 1997.

[27] Seth Carus, "Chemical Weapons in the Middle East," Policy Focus, no. 9, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Dec. 1988, p. 6; Shelley A. Stahl and Geoffrey Kemp, eds., Arms Control and Weapons Proliferation in the Middle East and South Asia (New York: St. Martin's Press in association with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1992), p. 58.

[28] Reuven Pedazur, "Active Defense against Ballistic Missiles—How?" Ballistic Missiles—Threat and Response: The Military Balance in the Middle East, 1987-88 (Tel Aviv: The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 1989), p. 132.

[29] Al-Qabas (Kuwait City), Sept. 15, 1988.

[30] As-Safir (Beirut), Jan. 15, 2000.

[31] Bennet, "The Syrian Military."

[32] Yedi'ot Aharonot, Dec. 27, 1999.

[33] Ha'aretz, June 18, 1999.