US-Russia Deal Silent on Syria’s Germ Warfare Capabilities

By Patrick Goodenough | September 17, 2013 | 4:11 AM EDT

Personnel in protective gear at the NATO multinational Chemical, Biological Radiological and Nuclear Defense Battalion in Liberec, Czech Republic. (Photo: NATO)

( – The Obama administration says it is concerned about the Assad regime’s biological weapon capabilities, but they are not covered by the chemical weapons framework agreement negotiated by the U.S. and Russia in Geneva.

Asked whether biological weapons President Bashar Assad is known to possess are being dealt with under the deal, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said, “I don’t believe that they are.”

She confirmed that the administration was concerned about the biological weapons issue.

“We’re worried about every possible bad weapon that could be used on the ground by the Syrian regime.”

The U.S. and Israel suspect that Syria has developed a biological warfare capability involving bacterial agents, including anthrax, and toxins including botulinum. Experts say these disease-causing microorganism, used the right meteorological conditions, would be multiple times deadlier than chemical weapons.

Producing bio-agents requires only modest pharmaceutical expertise, and they can be “weaponized” via conventional means of delivery, such as missile warheads, artillery rounds, cluster munitions – or even unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Late last week, as Secretary of State John Kerry was negotiating with the Russians in Switzerland over a plan to remove Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) urged him in a letter to include bioweapons in any agreement.

“Assad’s bioweapons, either in his hands or the hands of terrorists, represent a direct security threat to the U.S. and our allies,” he wrote. “In many ways, bioweapons can be easier to hide, transport, and employ than chemical weapons, making them a potentially even graver threat.”

A photomicrograph of of the Bacillus anthracis bacterium, the cause of the anthrax disease. (Photo: CDC Public Health Image Library)

“If weaponized biological agents, their component materials, or even technical manuals were to fall into the hands of Hezbollah or another terrorist group, this would be a direct threat to the U.S. and our allies, particularly Israel,” he added.

Cornyn – a critic of President Obama’s now-suspended plan to carry out limited military strikes in response to Assad’s Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack – expressed skepticism that any deal negotiated with Russia would service America’s national security interests.

“However, any credible agreement must force the surrender of both Assad’s bioweapons and chemical weapons, and it must achieve their destruction in a way that is workable, effective, timely, and verifiable,” he said.

Cornyn’s spokeswoman said late Monday the senator had received no response from Kerry.

Syria last week informed the international community it will sign the Chemical Weapons Treaty, and members of the U.N. Security Council are now working on a resolution to formalize the U.S.-Russia agreement aimed at removing and destroying its chemical weapons stockpile.

The equivalent treaty covering biological warfare is the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), which outlaws the production of any biological weapon. Syria signed, but has never ratified it.

Syria is a signatory to a much earlier agreement, the 1925 Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare. But unlike the BWC the Geneva Protocol bans only the use of bioweapons, not their manufacture, storage or transfer.

In an annual report on threats facing the U.S., Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said last March that “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.”

“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,” the report stated.

In his letter to Kerry, Cornyn cited a 2008 Center for Strategic and International Studies analysis on Syria’s weapons of mass destruction.

Among its conclusions, the report by Anthony Cordesman said that the “design of biological bombs and missile warheads with the lethality of small nuclear weapons may now be within Syrian capabilities, as is the design of UAV, helicopter, cruise missile, or aircraft-borne systems to deliver the agent slowly over a long line of flight and taking maximum advantage of wind and weather conditions.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow