Assad’s Suspected Biological Weapons More Lethal Than His Chemical Arsenal

By Patrick Goodenough | September 10, 2013 | 4:23 AM EDT

Syria has been suspected for decades of having an undeclared biological warfare program. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Journalist 3rd Class Stephen P. Weaver)

( – The debate surrounding a chemical attack in Syria last month shifted Monday to a proposal for the Assad regime to surrender its chemical weapons arsenal to avoid a U.S. military strike – but little has been said about its alleged possession of even-deadlier biological weapons.

Syria has been suspected for decades of having an undeclared biological warfare (BW) program, although whether this includes actual stockpiles of munitions is unclear.

Syria signed the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), but has never ratified it.

The chemical agents (such as sarin and VX) that Syria has its arsenal are lethal, but they would pale in comparison to bacterial agents such as anthrax, or toxins like botulinum or ricin.

According to the Chemical and Biological Weapons Chronicle, anthrax can induce fatal flu-like symptoms, ricin generates liver and kidney failure and genetic problems, while botulinum is “one of the deadliest substances on earth.”

Experts say that, given the right meteorological conditions, an attack with a biological weapon would not only strike down more people than a chemical one, but could kill as many people as a nuclear device of a similar size. And a germ warfare program is far easier to develop, and to hide, than a nuclear one.

The most recent intelligence community annual report on threats facing the United States, delivered to Congress by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper last March, touched on the concerns regarding Syria’s activities in this field.

“Based on the duration of Syria’s longstanding biological warfare (BW) program, we judge that some elements of the program may have advanced beyond the research and development stage and may be capable of limited agent production,” the report stated.

“Syria is not known to have successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system, but it possesses conventional and chemical weapon systems that could be modified for biological agent delivery.”

“Some experts contend that any Syrian biological weapons program has not moved beyond the research and development phase,” Charles Blair, a senior fellow for state and non-state threats at the Federation of American Scientists, wrote in a report last year. “Still, Syria’s biotechnical infrastructure undoubtedly has the capability to develop numerous biological weapon agents.”

Every five years the international community holds a BWC review conference, with the most recent, the seventh, held in 2011. Two conferences earlier, in late 2001, the Bush administration’s undersecretary for arms control and international security, John Bolton listed Syria as a suspect, saying the U.S. believed that Damascus “has an offensive BW program in the research and development stage, and it may be capable of producing small quantities of agent.”

Bolton also voiced concern that al-Qaeda – which had attacked the U.S. homeland two months earlier – was attempting to acquire biological weapons. The U.S. called on countries at the conference to “look beyond traditional arms control measures to deal with the complex and dangerous threats posed by biological weapons.”

A year later, speaking in Tokyo, Bolton again named Syria, along with Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea, as regimes which he said were “pursuing these illegitimate and inhumane [biological] weapons.”

In 2002 the Middle East Quarterly published a seminal two-part article on Syria’s non-conventional weapons programs by a leading expert on biological and chemical warfare and a doctor in medical microbiology, Dany Shoham of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Shoham detailed how an entity in Damascus called the Scientific Studies and Research Center, set up by the late President Hafez Assad in 1971, developed an extensive chemical weapons program – the region’s biggest – and later also evidently began working in the biological area.

“Syrian attention has focused primarily on two bacterial agents, anthrax and cholera, as well as two toxins, botulinum and ricin,” he wrote. Although the regime would claim its biological research is for peaceful purposes, said Shoham, “Syria has had rudimentary biological weapons in its possession since the early 1990s.”

In an article published in 1996 by the United States Air Force’s Air University, author Lt. Col. Robert Kadlec wrote about the relative effectiveness of biological and chemical weapons, saying that the former were “many times deadlier, pound-for pound,” than the latter, with ten grams of anthrax spores able to kill as many people as a ton of sarin.

Ideal conditions for a biological or chemical attack would be at night, with favorable mild to moderate winds, Kadlec said.

“The relative coverage of 1,000 kilograms of nerve agent Sarin is 7.8 square kilometers under these meteorological conditions. Attacking a major metropolitan city like Washington, D.C., would result in an estimated 3,000 to 8,000 deaths.

“A similar attack using 100 kilograms of anthrax under the same conditions would cover 300 square kilometers and result in 1 to 3 million deaths,” Kadlec wrote. “Anthrax, under favorable meteorological conditions, could kill as many people as a comparably sized nuclear device.”

In the weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks 12 years ago, letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to U.S. Senate offices and various media outlets. Five people died and 17 more were infected. (A lengthy FBI investigation eventually concluded that a scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases was responsible. The suspect died of a prescription-drug overdose while federal prosecutors prepared to charge him.)

No verification

The BWC prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons. Unlike the Chemical Weapons Convention and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, however, it does not have a verification mechanism, and governments have long wrangled over the issue.

The U.S. is among those that argue that verification is complicated by the dual-use nature of biological facilities and agents.

“The very nature of biological research is such – it is so decentralized, it requires relatively simple equipment, fairly simple level of scientific knowledge, that you simply cannot design a verification mechanism that would work in the way that the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] works in the nuclear field,” an administration official told reporters on the eve of the seventh BWC review conference in 2011.

“We simply don’t believe you can design a verification mechanism in this field that will achieve the goal of giving genuine confidence about other countries’ programs and intentions.”

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow