Joshua PollackDid Syria Admit to Bio-Weapons?

Over at, David Hoffman examines biological weapons and the Biological Weapons Convention through the lens of the State Department’s 2010 Compliance Report. (There’s a lot to say about this, but here’s the bottom line: if you want to know what a weak arms-control treaty really looks like, it’s one without any verification measures.)

Something that caught my eye was the discussion of Syria. In its discussion of the BWC, the compliance report mentions that President Bashar al-Asad “stated in 2004 that Syria was entitled to defend itself by acquiring its own chemical and biological deterrent.”

This comes as a bit of a surprise. Syria has signed — although not ratified — the BWC.  So has Asad really acknowledged a biological-weapons program, or claimed to be entitled to one? The Syrians tend to be pretty elliptical about these issues.

After a little scratching around, I believe the most likely answer is, “No, he hasn’t admitted to a bio-weapons program.” The source of this claim appears to be a January 6, 2004 article by Benedict Brogan in the Daily Telegraph, which reads, in part:

Syria is entitled to defend itself by acquiring its own chemical and biological deterrent, President Bashar Assad said last night as he rejected American and British demands for concessions on weapons of mass destruction….

Speaking to The Telegraph, Mr Assad said that any deal to destroy Syria’s chemical and biological capability would come about only if Israel agreed to abandon its undeclared nuclear arsenal….

Asked about American and British claims that Syria had a WMD capability, he stopped short of the categorical denial that has been his government’s stock response until now.

Instead, he pointed to the Israelis’ recent attack on alleged Palestinian bases in Syria and the occupation of the Golan Heights as evidence that Syria needed a deterrent. “We are a country which is [partly] occupied and from time to time we are exposed to Israeli aggression,” he said. “It is natural for us to look for means to defend ourselves. It is not difficult to get most of these weapons anywhere in the world and they can be obtained at any time.”…

He called on the international community to support the proposal that Syria presented to the United Nations last year for removing all WMD from the Middle East, including Israel’s nuclear stockpile.

“Unless this applies to all countries, we are wasting our time.”

You will notice that Asad is not actually quoted as mentioning biological weapons; that’s just the reporter’s gloss — an easy distinction to miss. (This June 2004 report from the Swedish Defense Research Agency may have added confusion by placing the opening words of the article in Asad’s mouth, not Brogan’s; see p. 24.) So unless the State Department had a different 2004 statement in mind, or they’ve got the interview transcript and are satisfied that this is in fact what Asad said, then the compliance report would seem to be in error. And since it uses Brogan’s exact words, that’s probably what the report is going by.

(In case you’re wondering, official suspicions of a Syrian BW program don’t hang on this one Daily Telegraph article; the compliance report also mentions “BW-related activities of Syrian entities.”)

By contrast, Asad has been downright forthcoming about Syria’s chemical weapons. (Syria is not a Chemical Weapons Convention signatory.) In a January 19, 2009 interview with Der Spiegel, after denying the existence of a Syrian nuclear-weapons program, he give the following hint:

SPIEGEL: So you have no ambitions to produce weapons of mass destruction, not even chemical weapons?

Assad: Chemical weapons, that’s another thing. But you don’t seriously expect me to present our weapons program to you here? We are in a state of war.

There you have it: transparency, Damascus-style.

Now go read Hoffman’s entire article. And while you’re at it, go check out his book, which contains a remarkable portrait of the Soviet bio-weapons program.


  1. kme (History)

    Are bio-weapons really militarily useful enough to be an effective deterrent, anyway?

    • joshua (History)

      There are well-known differences of opinion on that one. It may depend on degrees of national capability — the USSR might have been able to weaponize things that perhaps some other countries could not. But this is not my specialty, so I’m reluctant to speculate too much.

      For whatever it’s worth, the abovementioned Swedish Defense Research Agency report does contain an interesting detail or two on this point, and also on chemical weapons:

      A unique reference to biological weapons was made by a Syrian government official in an article written by the spectacular Syrian Minister of Defence, Mustafa Tlas, in late 1999. In the article, titled “Biological Warfare, A new and Effective Method in Modern Warfare”, Tlas highlighted different types of biological agents, ways of dispersal, BW defence and important aspects to consider regarding offensive use of biological weapons against an adversary. The article was published in the conservative politico-military publication SAFF, administrated by the Ideological Bureau of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The article is poorly written with a number of faults regarding technical aspects. Thus, the article seems to serve a political purpose rather than a scientific one.

      Using an Iranian officer periodical is an effective way of spreading the message to intelligence services worldwide, and thereby further enhancing a perceived WMD deterrence strategy.

      The most explicit official statement referring to Syrian possession of chemical weapons was reportedly made by the acting Syrian ambassador to Egypt at the time, Issa Darwish, in November 1996 shortly after Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Israeli Prime Minister and the peace process had stalled. The Israeli Minister of Defence, Yitzhak Mordechai, made a statement in which he warned Syria of threatening Israel with weapons of mass destruction as Israel would defend itself and harm the other side with an exceptional military ability. As a reply to the statement, ambassador Darwish was quoted in the weekly newspaper Al-Ahram stating that Syria was now preparing to face up to any Israeli threat and that Syria would respond by using chemical weapons. The next day, Darwish made a new statement in which he denied any Arab state possessing weapons of mass destruction and that all Arab states had adhered to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) while Israel refused to do so. Thereby he implied that Israel constitutes a threat to peace and security in the region and Europe by its possession of nuclear weapons. Mr Darwish was Syria’s ambassador to Egypt from 1989 to 1999 and later became Syria’s deputy foreign minister.

      Other official statements, interpreted as being parts of Syria’s deterrence strategy, have been made by President Hafiz al-Asad. In a speech made in June 1990, Asad stated that the Arabs could, with what they had, inflict the same disasters on Israel as Israel is capable of inflicting on the Arab states in case of war. In this statement, the word “disaster” may be interpreted as a reference to the Israeli nuclear capability, thus constituting a warning claiming that the Arab states also had WMD capability.

      To which we might add other, similar statements.

  2. BiologicalTerrorAlert (History)

    I remember blogging about Syria a couple months ago after reading an article about satelliete photos of a Syrian facility believed to be home to Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons stockpile. Evidence indicates that WMDs were smuggled out of Iraq to Syria before the 2003 invasion.

    • joshua (History)

      Since no BW production facilities were found in Iraq, it’s a stretch to allege that a BW stockpile is missing.

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