Assad's Biological Weapons

Will the Syrian Army revert to using biological weapons after the destruction of its chemical weapons? A comprehensive study reveals the scope of Syria's biological weapon industry, which includes such weapons as Smallpox and Anthrax

Assad's Biological Weapons
Syria possesses biological weaponry, and lots of it. The only reason why Syrian biological weapons are not at the center of global attention has to do with the fact that these weapons have not been used as of yet. If Syria had employed its biological weapons, not just its chemical weapons, the US would have 'woken up' a long time ago (as though the deaths of 100,000 people to date by 'conventional' weapons in Syria's civil war were not a good enough reason for international intervention).

Syria's biological weapons project is confidential, naturally, but there has been abundant evidence of its existence. This study, based on open sources, reveals the scope of the biological weaponry inventory available to President Bashar Al-Assad. While the Syrian chemical weapons are being eliminated in accordance with the agreement between Syria and the UN Security Council, the biological weapons remain on hand in the Syrian warehouses.

Bacteria, Viruses & Toxins

Biological warfare generally employs bacteria and viruses such as Anthrax, Ebola and SARS-CoV, or toxins like Botulinum or Ricin. Viruses and toxins are used as weapons of mass destruction.

Most Western states currently have defensive biological warfare programs - they possess the ability to control bacteria, viruses and toxins with the intent of producing cures or vaccines for coping with them. These states, as well as Syria, receive assistance from international health organizations such as the UN, but they all commit to civilian use solely. Some states have also developed offensive biological warfare capabilities with the intent of controlling the pathogen to the extent that it may be dispensed effectively as a weapon. This activity is forbidden by the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

In the development of biological warfare agents, natural, violent microorganisms are normally used. There are about 40 contaminants that could be used as biological weapons, but only a handful can cause casualties on a massive scale while being effectively controlled. Apparently, Syria currently has a large number of biological warfare research programs underway, and it controls a considerable number of pathogens and toxins. The most lethal of those toxins is Ricin, a toxin produced from the common castor oil plant (Ricinus Communis). One kilogram of Ricin can cause the same damage as eight tons of Anthrax bacteria, which Syria possesses as well. Anthrax is regarded as a fairly common and easy to produce biological weapon. Syria also possesses the Smallpox virus (Variola major), which tops the list of the world's most lethal contaminants.

Syria has kept Smallpox specimens since the last natural outbreak of the disease in the country in 1972, and probably received genetically-engineered versions from North Korea in 2006. The severity of Smallpox is not only in the lethality of the virus itself, but also in the secondary infecting potential, if no measures are taken to quarantine the carrier.

Straw Companies

Syria embarked on the mission of obtaining biological weapons as far back as 1983. In order to acquire the necessary means and research tools, it established several factories and government-owned 'straw' biomedical companies, which purchased dual-use technologies from such countries as Germany, Britain, Holland, France, the US, Egypt and Russia. Syria acquired knowledge and technical microbiological capabilities for the purpose of controlling the cultivation potential, maintaining cleanliness, stabilizing and concentrating the pathogen, as well as the ability to manufacture optimal size particles for effective dispensing of the contaminant.

Syria's biological weapon programs normally operate out of so-called 'legitimate' research facilities. Most of the laboratories operate as part of the national pharmaceutical industry. Syria uses this industry as a cover for the programs associated with the development of biological weapons, and the Syrian pharmaceutical industry is currently regarded as one of the most advanced in the Middle East. The pharmaceutical industry is formally under the supervision of the Ministry of Health, but it is managed directly by the Syrian Ministry of Defense and Military Intelligence.

One example that illustrates the connection between the Syrian pharmaceutical industry and the biological weapon industry is the story of Baxter Biomedical, which sold equipment for the production of fluid infusion intended for the Syrian Army in the 1990s. The equipment was sold by a consortium of French pharmaceutical companies to the Dimas plant established in the city of Aleppo in the 1980s, and was directly controlled by the Syrian Ministry of Defense. During the 1990s, the plant was shut down for a while, probably in order to convert it to the production of chemical and biological weapons, along with another company, Tamco, which operates a major manufacturing facility in Damascus. These plants employ about 900 employees charged with the importation of chemicals and drugs into Syria.

Some of the investments in the pharmaceutical industry come from Syrian businessman Saeb Nahas, a local tycoon who commands various gas-related businesses. Nahas maintains commercial relations with Lebanon, Iraq and other countries, and even places his business operations at the disposal of Syrian intelligence occasionally. Nahas had planned to establish one of the world's largest pharmaceutical plants in Syria. 

One of the most senior Syrian scientists at the Syrian Scientific Studies & Research Center (SSRC) is Dr. Suzan Wayesh, an expert in chemical synthesis and raw materials, who operates out of the agency's main research center in Damascus under the title "pharmaceutical engineering expert". Dr. Wayesh deals, among other things, in the development of measures for inserting chemical and biological agents through human skin, using injections and even without them. She often attends international scientific conferences alongside such individuals as Dr. Khaled Al-Azzam, the scientist in charge of chemical weapon facilities at the SSRC, scientists from the Atomic Energy Commission of Syria (AECS) and other colleagues from the Syrian Ministry of Health, in charge of the national pharmaceutical industry.

Previous experience gained from Iraq's biological weapon industry, revealed following the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, proved that the brains behind the development programs in various biological warfare fields were women, who dominate the field of microbiology worldwide. One of the most famous of these women was  Dr. Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, known as Mrs. Anthrax and Chemical Sally, who was responsible for Saddam Hussein's biological weapon program until surrendering to coalition forces in 2003. Another is Dr. Rihab Taha, a toxins expert who headed the biological weapon programs at the Iraqi Salman Pak and Al-Hakum facilities. Taha was handed over in 2005, but was later released.

Iraq was engaged in the development of biological weapons for many years and was way ahead of Syria in this field. Among other things, Iraq produced 8,350 liters of Anthrax bacteria in liquid form, which could fit into one of the fermentation and storage containers purchased from the Russian plants, and about 19,000 liters of Botulinum toxin – the most lethal toxin manufactured in Iraq. This amount is equal to the capacity of a standard hotel swimming pool. Pursuant to the Second Gulf War, there were concerns that the knowledge gained in Iraq, especially with regard to the testing, arming and dispensing of biological weapons, would be transferred to Syria.

International Cooperation

Syria's biological warfare programs are based on three categories: human pathogens, animal pathogens converted to attack humans, and a series of lethal toxins normally produced from plants. For any engineering of a pathogenic species, the system is required to produce a vaccine that provides protection against the pathogen. Some of the vaccines already exist, as an outcome of the activities of Syria's preventive medicine system.

Each category is handled by the relevant institutes and organizations, in cooperation with the local industry. The program based on animal pathogens (such as SARS and Swine Flu) also incorporates various veterinary institutes. The program based on the production of lethal toxins from plants (such as Ricin, produced from the castor oil plant) also incorporates institutes engaged in the research and development of agricultural engineering and biological pest control technologies. Between 2003 and 2011, Syria had encouraged the growing and production of castor oil up to an average production of 1,400 tons per year. In the context of this production activity, the toxic protein concentrations found in the husks of the castor beans were produced as well.

Many of the Syrian researchers involved in the field of biological warfare possess rich resumes that include specialization studies and scientific cooperation with research institutes around the world, including visits to the scientific and technological research centers of Iran. Senior Syrian scientists also serve as members of joint scientific committees of Iran and North Korea, which have been assisting the manufacture of chemical and biological weapons in Syria for many years. Since the late 1990s, Sudan is also regarded as an active partner, along with Syria and Iran, in the development of chemical and biological weapons, and – according to NATO intelligence sources – has provided the grounds for field trials of chemical and biological weapons.

Over the years, several accidents have taken place in the context of Syria's chemical and biological warfare programs. Some of these accidents were the result of ventilation infrastructure problems. Among others, in July 2007 a weapon facility near Aleppo exploded while Iranian and Syrian engineers were attempting to adapt a mustard gas warhead to a Scud missile.

A major portion of the research and development of biological weapons is managed from the SSRC complex on the outskirts of Damascus. The trial programs, production and storage of the bacteria and viruses (Anthrax, Smallpox, Cholera, Ricin, Tularemia, Botulism, et al.) occur at three central facilities. These are the Sarin facility near the city of Homs, the military missile testing facility to the south of Homs and the Al-Safir facility near Aleppo.

The Sarin facility is located near the manufacturing plants in Homs and serves, according to intelligence experts, as the primary storage facility of Syria's biological weapons. Contrary to the chemical weapon stockpiles, biological weapons do not require large storage areas in order to store the agents. In this case, the quality of the pathogen (as opposed to quantity), along with the ability to fit it into munitions and dispense it, are the important criteria as well. These substances cannot be detected and remain latent during the manufacturing process as well as when they are actually used.

Experiments on Prisoners

Encapsulating biological weapons is a major challenge if biological warfare is to be used as a primary weapon in a war. The challenges are the dispensing of the viruses so that they inflict maximum damage without damaging the dispensing process. For this purpose, mathematical models are used to examine the ability to dispense the agent effectively over the largest possible area. In Syria, this particular development process takes place mainly at the SSRC facility in Al-Safir, and the trials are conducted at the proving grounds located about 15 kilometers to the south of Homs, near the biological weapon storage facilities.

As with the storage facilities, the testing facilities are heavily defended and are used for the testing of missiles and munitions adapted for carrying chemical and biological warheads. There have been several limited indications of the development or testing of biological variants of incendiary bombs, cluster munitions, Scud warheads, UAVs, aircraft and cruise missiles for dispersing biological agents over a large area, while exploiting wind and weather conditions.

Syria was also involved in the development of micro-spraying technologies intended for biological terrorism purposes, as well as in the development of viruses and bacteria intended for mass infection through a human carrier. A state becomes aware of the fact that it is under a biological warfare attack only when people start showing up in clinics and hospitals. This type of weapon category has a sparse and very faint fingerprint.

A few years ago, Syria developed an engineered species of Anthrax with Russian assistance that may be fitted to missile warheads. The Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR) in Ness-Ziona developed vaccines for that Anthrax species. Between the years 1998 and 2006, the Institute, along with the IDF Medical Corps, conducted a secret experiment code-named "Omer-2" that tested the effectiveness of the new vaccine against the engineered Anthrax species. The fact that the experiment had been conducted was revealed in May 2007 on Israeli television.

Dr. Jill Dekker, who had served as NATO advisor on chemical warfare until 2007, gives periodic interviews in which she refers to evidence that Syria conducted chemical and biological weapon experiments on prisoner populations. Additionally, over the last few years, human rights organizations operating in Syria blamed the Syrian government for the unexplained deaths of dozens of prisoners in Syrian prisons, mainly in the Damascus and Aleppo areas. Some of these deaths occurred over the last two years while others were explained as the collateral outcome of fires started by the rebels who had shelled the facilities in question, which could have masked deaths by chemical strangulation or biological poisoning.

As Syria controls several species of lethal diseases, it is reasonable to assume that some of these biological warfare capabilities will be transferred to Hezbollah as well. NATO officials estimate that knowledge and capabilities in this field have already been transferred by the Iranians and the Syrians to the Lebanese organization. Hezbollah operatives have been receiving biological warfare instruction and training at a facility of the Quds Force in Iran - where local inhabitants residing near the facility reportedly suffered from unexplained skin diseases - and even trained under field conditions on Sudanese soil. One of the primary concerns involves measures developed by Syria for launching biological weapons by anti-tank or anti-aircraft man-portable missiles. Hezbollah, which also employs MUAVs, could use those vehicles to attack civilian populations without implicating itself in a biological warfare attack.

In December 2012, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida reported that Israel was behind an explosion in a Hezbollah munitions warehouse in the village of Tir-Harfa in southern Lebanon. According to this newspaper, whose reports were attributed in the past to leaks by Israeli officials, the warehouse where the explosion occurred had contained missiles capable of carrying chemical or biological warheads, which had been transferred recently from Syria to Lebanon.

Experts maintain that Syria was engaged in the development of a non-lethal biological weapon intended to neutralize IDF troopers in the event of a war on the Golan Heights, in a manner that would appear as the natural outbreak of an epidemic. In 2007 and in 2011, two unusual outbreaks of Newcastle Disease (a viral disease that affects birds and sometimes humans, whose symptoms are similar to those of Avian Influenza) occurred in the Galilee area.

A German company currently known as Lohman Animal Health assisted Syria indirectly with one of its biological weapon programs, when, in the early 2000s, it illegally supplied more than 14 million doses of its vaccine for Newcastle disease to a Syrian company. The vaccines contained a live attenuated virus transferrable to humans, which generates mild symptoms.

Anthrax on the Golan Heights

Israel is preparing for a biological terrorist attack scenario and vaccines against various toxins are being developed. Among other things, joint projects of MAFAT (the Israel Ministry of Defense R&D Directorate) and the US Pentagon's R&D agency are engaged in the development of instruments designed to detect and identify toxins in water. Additionally, in a research project conducted at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology and financed by the IMOD (among others) a new method was developed to immediately identify bacterial contamination in water.

The importance of early detection and identification in the management of irregular biological incidents is critical, clear and immediate. About two years ago, in November 2011, a large-scale exercise, code-named "Orange Flame 6", was conducted in Israel. The exercise simulated the outbreak of a biological disease as a result of a terrorist attack or a natural disease (such as SARS or Avian Influenza). The joint exercise by the IDF Homefront Command and the Israel Ministry of Health, in which all of the defense forces and emergency services participated, examined such capabilities as promptly identifying and isolating the virus, transferring samples quickly, monitoring data, and others. In an actual event, the speed and thoroughness in which the teams operate and how they protect themselves will be of the utmost importance. The exercise also pointed to the importance of efficient computer-based systems to the monitoring of patients and preventing secondary infection of a dangerous disease.

In the last two years, two outbreaks of Anthrax occurred on the Golan Heights. The most recent incident occurred just a few months ago, when Anthrax bacteria resulted in mortality in a herd of cattle belonging to farmers from Moshav Nov in the central Golan Heights. This particular area has intensive troop movements, as well as water flowing to the Sea of Galilee and various local reservoirs. The Anthrax bacteria can exist for decades in a dormant state, and the area where it was discovered suffered an Anthrax epidemic back in 1984. One wonders, however, if the pathogens survived for nearly 30 years, or whether the outbreak was the result of a new infection.

Assuming the Syrian Army cooperates with the UN inspectors in the destruction of all of Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles, will it dare use biological weapons in the future, in its war against the rebels or against Israel?

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