Bioweapons alarmism in Syria

By | October 4, 2013

As Secretary of State John Kerry challenged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons in early September, articles published in the Washington Post and National Interest argued that the current focus on Syria’s chemical weapons is distracting the international community from a much deadlier threat: Syria’s biological weapons. The sources for the Washington Post article (one of whom also happens to be a co-author of the National Interest piece) warn that Assad’s regime could use its biological weapons in retaliation against Western forces or its own population. Both articles assert that Syria has maintained a dormant program since the country last engaged in biological weapons developments in the 1970s and 1980s and could easily reactivate its program to produce, on short notice, the stockpile of agents required to retaliate against its enemies. This threat is real, the argument goes, because Syria could tap into its pharmaceutical and agricultural industries to support the effort. Finally, the articles warn that Syria might have retained a strain of smallpox from a 1972 outbreak, which could be used to develop a devastating biological weapon.

These two articles provide no tangible evidence to support their claims. More important, their speculations contradict extant empirical evidence on the difficulty of achieving the level of biological weapons capability that the articles claim Syria maintains or could reestablish. To avoid falling prey to the same biological weapons hysteria that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is important to look carefully at such claims. Close examination shows them to be exaggerated, at best.

To evaluate Syria’s ability to revive a dormant program, one would need to know what kind of research and production infrastructure the Syrian government currently possesses. There is, however, very little publicly available information on the scope of Syria’s bioweapons program, if any.  

If Syria retains only a small research capability developed in its bioweapons program of the 1970s and ‘80s, the likelihood that it would be able to quickly produce sufficient amounts of bioweapons for retaliation is very slim. The country would first need to create the research, development, production, and weaponization infrastructure needed for a crash program, a process that may take several months to even years, particularly in a war zone. Assuming that the Syrians already have stocks of agents—and it is pure speculation to say they do— they will need to conduct exploratory research to determine which agent is the most promising as a bioweapon and develop a production process that will maintain the agent’s lethal characteristics during scale-up and storage. Creating this production capability is also neither easily or quickly achieved.

In the early 1980s, Iraq attempted to reactivate a biological weapons program that had been largely abandoned in the preceding decade; it took the Saddam Hussein regime three years—from 1983 to 1986—to conduct the needed exploratory research and identify the agents most desirable for bioweapons work. Even then, the Iraqis were able to develop only crude liquid agents that lost toxicity within six to eight months. They were also unable to develop a bioweapons-specific dissemination capability, relying instead on personnel from their chemical weapons program to adapt chemical bomb casings and warheads for bioweapons use. This strategy resulted in ineffective weapons that would have released agents upon impact, destroying most of the bio-agent in the process.

Even if Syria already has significant bioweapons infrastructure in place, reactivating it would not necessarily be a quick or simple process. When in the early 1980s Soviet-era authorities decided to activate the mobilization facility in Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan in order to produce anthrax, it took about two years to launch production, even though the facility had been established for several years and had the equipment and minimum staff needed for its operation. The suggestion that Syria could swiftly launch a crash program from a long-dormant infrastructure and produce effectively weaponized agents in amounts sufficient for a retaliatory military attack seems a considerable stretch from likely reality.

The attempted reactivation of a roughly 40-year-old bioweapons program will face another problem: the specific expertise available to Syria. Even if we assume that Syria maintained some research activities during the past four decades, the launch of a crash program will likely face a lack of expertise at key stages of bioweapons development and production. When Iraq revived its bioweapons program after a hiatus of about 10 years, for example, the country lacked expertise in fermentation, drying, testing, and weaponization, and even though it had access to the appropriate equipment to perform some of these processes, they could not use it, because they did not know how.

The belief that Syria could marshal the needed expertise from its pharmaceutical and agricultural industries is fanciful. Similar attempts in past state and terrorist bioweapons programs have shown that civilian expertise is not directly applicable to bioweapons work, and the acquisition of bioweapons-related skills may require several years of specialized training. For example, the Vector facility—one of the core research institutes of the Soviet bioweapons program—did not conduct any bioweapons work during the first five years of its existence. This time was spent training its personnel, who were hired from the civilian sector, in methods and processes needed to work on bioweapons agents. In the early 1980s, the civilian personnel were supplemented with military scientists who had expertise in key aspects of bioweapons work.

Programs that could not rely on a pre-existing cadre of bioweapons experts—as was the case with Iraq and the Japanese terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo—faced the difficulty of matching the available expertise to the agents selected for work. The head of Aum’s program, Seiichi Endo, had training in veterinary studies and cancer research, but no expertise working with bacteria. Yet, the group elected to work on bacteria-caused diseases —anthrax and botulinum—and the program experienced repeated development and dissemination failures over its six-year, $10 million existence. Similarly, most scientists in the Iraqi program had training and degrees that bore no relation to the agents selected for work. For example, the head of the program, Rihab Taha, had expertise in plant pathogens, while another key scientist, Huda Ammash, had expertise in cancer research. Neither expert had training that was directly applicable to work on the causative agents of anthrax and botulism that they elected to develop. Both the Aum and Iraqi programs had to face a long and steep learning curve to achieve very modest results. The Syrians would likely face the same kinds of challenges.

The Washington Post and National Interest articles suggest that Syria might use a strain of smallpox retained from a 1972 natural outbreak as a basis for bioweapons development; the challenges of such a program are daunting. Assuming that Syria has a sample of the virus (which is merely an assumption), the question would be: Are Syrian scientists capable of producing the strain in sufficient quantities for weaponization? They would first face the challenge of acquiring the appropriate expertise, which is significant, given that the disease has been essentially eradicated for decades. Second, scaling up fragile microorganisms that are sensitive to environmental conditions and susceptible to change—and viruses are more sensitive than bacteria—has been one of the stiffest challenges for past bioweapons programs to overcome, even with appropriate expertise at hand. Scaling-up requires a gradual approach, moving from laboratory sample, to a larger laboratory quantity, to pilot-scale production, and then to even larger-scale production. During each stage, the production parameters need to be tested and often modified to maintain the lethal qualities of the agent; the entire scaling-up process can take several years.

The Soviet Union needed five years to scale up an anthrax weapon. To develop a large-scale production process for smallpox, the Soviets required the combined efforts of smallpox experts from Vector and the Zagorsk military research facility, who had a decades-long experience working with the smallpox virus. Scaling-up exposes bio-agents to contamination, which can compromise the entire effort. The former Soviet and US bioweapons programs routinely encountered contamination problems, which delayed many of their projects; pharmaceutical companies and the biodefense industry encounter the same difficulties today.  The notion that Syria could whip up smallpox bioweapons rapidly is, at the very least, far-fetched.

Finally, because of the sensitivity of bioagents and the challenges of scale-up, biological weapons programs require a high level of integration and coordination. Coordination and integration require a stable environment, in which scientists and technicians can cooperate freely and move from one facility to the other. Such conditions have been difficult to achieve in past programs, particularly when they must confront the constraints of covertness. In the Soviet, Iraqi, South African, and Aum Shinrikyo bioweapons programs, the lack of coordination and integration was one of the primary sources of failure. It is unlikely that Syria could achieve better results during a civil war.

Any analysis of a potential Syrian biological weapons threat needs to be grounded in a systematic analysis of Syria’s current capabilities and an informed appreciation of the technical, organizational, and logistical challenges an attempt to reconstitute a Syrian bioweapons program would face. Exaggerating those capabilities, minimizing those challenges, and offering little in the way of evidence does not make for persuasive or useful journalism. 

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Topics: Biosecurity, Opinion

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