The World Hasn’t Tackled Syria’s Real WMD Nightmare

Forget the nerve gas. It's Assad's bioweapons program that should keep you up at night.

Photo: JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

A recent U.N. report on chemical weapons use in Syria has strengthened claims that the regime killed more than a thousand innocent Syrians, including hundreds of children, with the nerve agent sarin. Video images after the Aug. 21 attacks showed victims frothing at the mouth, convulsing, and suffering tortured deaths. But the effects of a chemical attack, horrible as they are, can be minuscule compared with a worst-case assault with a biological weapon.

Sarin, like similar nerve agents, degrades after release and poses little danger over an extended period. But bacteria, viruses, and other bioagents reproduce and could make an area more dangerous with the passage of time. A microorganism that causes contagious disease such as influenza or smallpox could infect individuals who further spread the disease, thus turning them into biological bombs. Such germ-caused outbreaks have occurred throughout human history.

A lethal strain of influenza killed more than 50 million people during the 1918-1919 "Spanish flu" pandemic. An estimated 300 million people died of smallpox in the 20th century. Although smallpox was deemed eradicated in 1980, the virus is still legally stored in a laboratory in the United States and at another one in Russia. Suspicions have been raised that it might be illegally held elsewhere as well.

Some lethal agents, like anthrax bacteria, are highly durable and could pose a long-term danger at a site of infestation. This was amply demonstrated after anthrax spores leaked from threat letters that were sent in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Scores of buildings were later found to contain anthrax bacteria, including the Capitol, the Senate and House office buildings, the Federal Reserve, the Pentagon, and numerous postal facilities. Several remained closed for months before they were properly decontaminated. One postal sorting center didn’t reopen until 2005.

The danger posed by biological weapons continues to be broadly recognized. A 2012 Aspen Institute report on weapons of mass destruction, titled "WMD Terrorism," reiterated a White House determination that "effective dissemination of a lethal biological agent within an unprotected population could place at risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of people."

With this understanding, it would be irresponsible not to press for full disclosure about Syria’s biological program. Views about the Syrian program vary from the belief that it poses no immediate threat to worry that it might already include the production capability of agents that cause anthrax, botulism, and other fatal illnesses.

A 2008 assessment by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency reflects this uncertainty. It affirms that Syria "has a program to develop select biological agents as weapons." Yet it also says the regime "is not known to have successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system." The statement, larded with qualification, hardly offers a sense of comfort.

U.S. officials now clearly believe that a program of some sort exists. As recently as this March, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told Congress that the United States was "tracking Syria’s munitions stockpiles, particularly its chemical and biological warfare agents." But specifics about U.S. knowledge concerning Syria’s biological weapons program are elusive in part because details remain classified.

Several nongovernmental sources name Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) in Damascus as the locus of military research and development of biological, chemical, and nuclear technology. A 2002 report by Israeli microbiologist and former intelligence analyst Dany Shoham asserted unequivocally that the government-controlled SSRC was producing chemical and biological weapons.

This contention was buttressed five years later when the U.S. Treasury Department prohibited Americans from commercial interaction with the center because it was the "Syrian government agency responsible for developing and producing non-conventional weapons." The department further stated that despite the SSRC’s guise as a civilian institution, "its activities focus substantively on the development of biological and chemical weapons."

When asked what an inspector should be looking for to uncover Syria’s presumed biological weapons program, former U.N. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer’s reaction was quick: Not an easy question, he said. Then he harked back to his years tracking Iraq’s biological weapons program in the 1990s. "We found evidence that unusual quantities of growth media had been imported," he recalled. "Also, we found munitions with markings that signified they were intended to deliver anthrax and other biological agents." Interviews with scientists and examining records were also essential in making determinations, he added.

In fact, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein repeatedly frustrated U.N. inspectors by providing them with incomplete information or by blocking access to suspicious locations. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must not be permitted to impose any such restrictions.

Identifying an illegal biological program is complicated by the fact that the required equipment is largely the same as that for legitimate activity. Syria’s dozen or so pharmaceutical plants could be converted secretly and quickly to grow large stocks of pathogens from small quantities of bacteria or viruses. The same is true for the country’s public health laboratories and vaccine production facilities.

Thus revelation about Syria’s biological program requires three elements. The first is access by outside inspectors to the SSRC and other suspect facilities. Second, staff scientists and administrators at these institutions must be available to experts for interviews about their activities. Third, inspectors must be able to review the logs on biological research and production activities at these institutions during the past decade.

Unless outside inspectors have access to Syria’s biological program as they presumably will have to its chemical inventory, the country’s biological weapons status will remain unclear. But speculation on a subject with such deadly potential should not be the last word, especially when dealing with a dictator with a penchant for rampant murder. Assad has killed more than 100,000 Syrians in the past two years with bombs, guns, and grenades — which prompts comment about why his regime has been fingered in the chemical murder of another 1,000. Who knows what misery he could unleash with a fully functioning biological arsenal?

The first large-scale use of chlorine, mustard, and other gases as weapons occurred during World War I. The indiscriminate nature of the exposures and the agony suffered by victims prompted a postwar international agreement, the Geneva Protocol, to prohibit the use of such agents in war. Subsequent treaties prohibit even the development and stockpiling of biological and chemical weapons. The taboo against biological weapons in particular was underscored by wording that first appeared in the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, which describes the use of these weapons as "repugnant to the conscience of mankind."

This morally charged phrase applies to all weapons of mass destruction — chemical, nuclear, and radiological as well as biological. Permitting the use of any of these weapons without retribution weakens the taboo against all of them. Assad’s professed willingness to relinquish his chemical arms has for now sidetracked the promise by Barack Obama’s administration’s to punish Assad for using them. Whether Assad will try to cheat on his chemical promise is an open question. But what is not in question is the imperative for disclosure and elimination of Syria’s biological program.

Concern about Syria’s biological and chemical weapons programs does not supplant the need to address the other horrors perpetrated by the Syrian regime. Further, the norm against the use of these weapons is not only a moral precept but a highly pragmatic one. Weakening the taboo against them would make their use more likely and more frequent. Ultimately it would risk a condition of WMD anarchy.

<p> Leonard A. Cole is an adjunct professor of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. He is author of The Anthrax Letters. </p>