The fate of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons

Israel has good reason to fear that Syria’s chemical and biological weapons arsenal could fall into the wrong hands.

Gas masks 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Gas masks 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Syria’s vast arsenal of operational-level chemical and biological weapons, based on lethal and incapacitating agents, is diverse by any standard. The country also possesses many sophisticated launch platforms and much dispersion equipment, including missiles, rockets, aircraft, artillery shells, cluster warheads and unitary ammunition – most of which are of high quality. Syria has Scud missiles capable of carrying chemical warheads that can strike anywhere in Israel, even when launched from deep behind its front lines.
As the rule of Bashar Assad comes to an end, the fate of Syria’s non-conventional arsenal is causing growing alarm.
The complexity of the issue has far-reaching ramifications. The transfer – even the possibility of the transfer – of chemical weapons to Hezbollah or other terrorist organizations could force Israel to take military steps against Syria, even if this risks escalation to a wider conflict. Such a development is definitely worrisome, especially since it raises the likelihood of the Syrians actually employing chemical or biological weapons.
This explains why warning lights recently flashed in American intelligence agencies when they discovered that the Syrian army had removed an unspecified number of chemical weapons from their storage sites. The US is deeply concerned that the Assad regime might employ such weapons against its opponents if conventional weapons fail and Assad senses that the end is approaching; a last-ditch apocalyptic act of après moi, le déluge. There is a precedent: Assad’s father, former president Hafez Assad, ordered the massacre in 1982 of approximately 18,000 Sunnis in Hama with cyanide gas.
No less troubling are the alternatives: Part of the weapons have already been removed from storage sites as either a deterrent against military intervention or for conveyance to non-Syrian parties, such as Hezbollah or Iran. There is also the possibility that they are being hidden for use at a later date. Syria’s chemical weapons are locally manufactured but contain the telltale prints of Iranian and possibly Russian assistance, a fact that heightens these countries’ interests in concealing or rescuing the weapons. Another complication is that an appreciable quantity of Iraq’s chemical and biological arsenal was smuggled into Syria prior to and during the Second Gulf War and is now part of the Syrian stockpile.
What is known for certain is this: The Syrian chemical weapons arsenal is primarily based on the volatile – and hence large-area-inflicting – nerve agent sarin. It is estimated that Syria possesses thousands of aerial bombs and more than 100 Scud B, C and D missiles with warheads containing this lethal chemical warfare agent in operable state. A smaller inventory of aerial bombs and ballistic warheads contains the more advanced persistent nerve agent VX, mainly in the form of bomblet munitions. In addition, Syria possesses rockets filled with nerve gases, and mustard gas, the incapacitating blistering agent. Syria does not deny that is in possession of such weapons.
The biological warfare agents that are believed to have been developed by Syria include virulent pathogens, such as anthrax germs, and the lethal biological toxins botulinum and ricin. Western estimations suggest that the country has significant quantities of these biological warfare agents, although the evidence for this is inconclusive. Syrian possession of the smallpox virus is likely.
The fact that Syria attempted to develop nuclear weapons is further evidence of its ambition to go beyond chemical weapons despite its enormous arsenal. It is therefore very likely that Syria is also equipped with biological weapons. Iran and North Korea have closely assisted Syria in the production and development of chemical and nuclear weapons, respectively. Thus, it is again plausible that Syria has received generous assistance in biological weapons development from these countries as well. Both Iran and North Korea have known biological weapons stockpiles, and it is also likely that these weapons were smuggled into Syria from Iraq.
The two main factors before us are a regime whose fate is sealed and whose huge stockpile of operational, nonconventional weapons is still under its control. The government’s impending loss of control raises the risk of the weapons falling into the hands of terrorist organizations or other malevolent hands. Assad stands at the helm of a brutal and repressive regime that lacks a sense of international responsibility. The world is witnessing the savagery Damascus inflicts upon its citizens and, because Assad’s demise seems imminent, is doubtful whether Syria will listen even to its staunchest allies, Russia and China, or to the Arab states.
Under these circumstances it could decide to unmask its ultimate weapons. While Iran has the greatest influence on Syria’s crisis management, it is far from a pillar of stability in the eyes of the international community.
The neutralization of Syria’s nonconventional weapons by an international force would be a blessing, but currently this seems a most unlikely scenario. However, the revelation of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons, and their methods of development, production and storage – information that is known to foreign intelligence sources – would provide valuable findings about the parties supplying technological assistance to Syria.
Most of these sources, whether commercial companies or countries, would prefer to remain incognito. Such findings would certainly expose Iranian and North Korean chemical and biological weapons capacities. This is significant since Iran, unlike Syria, is a signatory to international agreements that outlaw chemical and biological weapons. Such exposure could further devastate Iran’s credibility within the international community.
In this extremely volatile situation, the best-case scenario would be the transfer of Syria’s nonconventional weapons to designated UN agencies, but again, the chances of this happening are slim to none. The worstcase scenario is for the Syrians to employ the weapons or transfer them to terrorist organizations in the regime’s closing moments. The likelihood of the worst-case scenario is uncertain and may not be appreciable, but nevertheless it cannot be ruled out.
Between the two extremes – the ideal and the worstcase scenarios – is a spectrum of possibilities. If Syria decides to smuggle its nonconventional arsenal out of the country, it would probably prefer to send it to Iran (first) or Hezbollah (second). While Syria can deliver weapons to Hezbollah by land, it requires air or sea transportation to reach Iran.
In another scenario, a disorderly transfer might be made to an alternative regime in Syria with a lower threshold for the use and transfer of chemical weapons.
The most plausible scenario is the continued control of the unconventional weapons arsenal by the present government, followed by an attempt to transfer the arsenal to Iran towards the last days of the regime; or, in case of agreed regime transformation, a relatively secured transposition of the arsenal to the new regime.
The West (including Israel) does not have many good options. In May, Jordan and the US held a large-scale, nearly month-long military exercise with over 12,000 special forces from the US and other countries, including Arab states – focused on military preparedness for emergency situations involving chemical and biological weapons in Syria. A follow-up study found, however, that the daunting figure of 75,000 troops would be needed to secure Syria’s chemical arsenal. Outright bombarding of Syrian chemical or biological arms stockpiles could result in significant environmental pollution.
In sum, predicting events in a situation as complex as this is nearly impossible. Collecting maximum real-time information from senior Syrian officers and officials who have defected can facilitate the situation assessment, and this is undoubtedly being done. However, until a clearer picture is available, the ability of concerned nations to act is severely limited. At any rate, the fate of Syrian weapons of mass destruction constitutes a prime challenge.
Lt.-Col. (res.) Dr. Dany Shoham, a microbiologist, is recognized as a top Israeli expert on chemical and biological warfare in the Middle East. He is a former senior intelligence analyst in the IDF and the Defense Ministry, and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

His previous publications for the BESA Center include Chemical and Biological Weapons in the Arab Countries and Iran – An Existential Threat to Israel? (Hebrew); Chemical Weapons in Egypt and Syria: Evolution, Capabilities, Control (Hebrew); and Invisible Red Line: The Futility of Trying to Detect an Iranian Order to Build the Bomb.