Syria and weapons of mass destruction

Syria has researched, manufactured, and allegedly used weapons of mass destruction.

On September 14, 2013, the United States and Russia announced an agreement that would lead to the elimination of Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles by 2014.[1] In October 2013, the OPCW-UN Joint Mission destroyed all of Syria's declared chemical weapons manufacturing and mixing equipment.[2] Several months later, Syria disclosed that it maintained a ricin chemical weapons program, which the Syrian government claims has fallen into the hands of Syrian Opposition forces in the east of the country.[3] The following month Syria, further disclosed that it had 4 more previously hidden chemical weapons production sites.[4] The Israeli intelligence community believes the Syrian government retains several tons of chemical weapons.[5]

The Syria file at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) remains open, amid Syria's failure to respond to the IAEA's questions about a facility, destroyed in 2007 by Israel, that the IAEA concluded was "very likely" a nuclear reactor, including the whereabouts of the reactor's nuclear fuel.[6] In January 2015, it was reported that the Syrian government is suspected to be building a nuclear plant in Al-Qusayr, Syria, allegedly with the aim of developing nuclear weapons.[7]


Following the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War, and South Lebanon in 1978, the Syrian government has regarded Israeli military power as a threat to Syrian security.[8] Syria first acquired chemical weapons, from Egypt, in 1973 as a military deterrent against Israel before launching the Yom Kippur War.[8] Despite the fact that Syrian officials did not explicitly declare the chemical weapons capability, they implied it through speeches and in addition warned of retaliations. Internal Syrian chemical weapons capability may have been developed alongside indirect Russian, German, Chinese and Indian technical and logistical support.[8]

According to security analyst Zuhair Diab, Israeli nuclear weapons were a primary motivation for the Syrian chemical weapons program. Their rivalry with Iraq and Turkey were also important considerations.[8]

On July 23, 2012 Syria implicitly confirmed it possessed a stockpile of chemical weapons which it says are reserved for national defense against foreign countries.[9] During the Syrian civil war in August 2012, the Syrian military restarted chemical weapons testing at a base on the outskirts of Aleppo.[10][11] Chemical weapons were a major point of discussion between the Syrian government and world leaders, with military intervention being considered by the West as a potential consequence of the use of such weapons.[12]

Chemical weapons

Syria's chemical weapons program

Syria's chemical weapons program began in the 1970s with weapons and training from Egypt and the Soviet Union, with production of chemical weapons in Syria beginning in the mid-1980s. In July 2007 Syrian arms depot explosion, there were suggestions that the incident involved a secret chemical weapons facility.

In September 2013 Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (formally acceding on 14 October), and agreed to the destruction of its weapons, to be supervised by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, as required by the Convention. Syria had been one of a handful of states which had not ratified the Convention, and joined after international condemnation of the August 2013 Ghouta chemical attack, which Western states held the Syrian government responsible for (whilst Syria and Russia held the Syrian rebels of the Syrian civil war responsible). Prior to September 2013 Syria had not publicly admitted to possessing chemical weapons, although Western intelligence services believed it to hold a massive stockpile.[13] In September 2013, French intelligence put the Syrian stockpile at 1,000 tonnes, including Yperite, VX and "several hundred tonnes of sarin".[14] In October 2013, the OPCW found a total of 1,300 tons of chemical weapons.[15] On 16 October 2013, the OPCW and the United Nations formally established a joint mission to oversee the elimination of the Syrian chemical weapons program by mid-2014.

Syrian opposition chemical weapons capability

The Syrian government claims that the opposition has the capacity to launch large chemical attacks such as those seen at Ghouta. Sources such as the United States[16] and Human Rights Watch[17] disagree, claiming there is no significant evidence the opposition has any significant chemical weapons capability.

According to Syria, on 1 June 2013, the Syrian Army seized two cylinders holding the nerve agent sarin from Syrian opposition fighters in Hama.[18] A Syrian military source told SANA, the official news agency in Syria, that the Syrian Army seized two containers with sarin together with automatic rifles, pistols and homemade bombs (IEDs) in a rebel hideout in the al-Faraieh neighborhood (also spelled Al-Faraya)[19] of the city of Hama,[20][21][22] which has been the scene of fighting between government troops and armed opposition groups.[23] The Syrian government declared the two cylinders "as abandoned chemical weapons" and told the OPCW that "the items did not belong to" them.[24] On 14 June 2014, the Joint OPCW-UN Mission confirmed that the cylinders contained sarin.[24] On 7 July 2014, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon informed the UN Security Council about the findings.[24]

In December 2013 investigative journalist Seymour Hersh controversially reported that multiple U.S. intelligence agencies had allegedly produced top secret assessments in the summer of 2013, regarding Syrian rebel's supposed chemical weapons capabilities. The alleged assessments were said by Hersh to have concluded that the Al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda in Iraq were capable of acquiring, producing, and deploying sarin gas "in quantity".[25] A spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence replied that Hersh's report was "simply false."[26]

In September 2015, a U.S. official stated that the rebel militant group ISIS was manufacturing and using mustard agent in Syria and Iraq, and had an active chemical weapons research team.[27][28]

Biological weapons

Syria is generally considered not to have biological weapons.[8][9] However, there are some reports of an active biological weapons research and production program. According to NATO Consultant Dr Jill Dekker, Syria has worked on: anthrax, plague, tularemia, botulism, smallpox, aflatoxin, cholera, ricin and camelpox, and has used Russian help in installing anthrax in missile warheads. She also stated "they view their bio-chemical arsenal as part of a normal weapons program".[29]

Nuclear program

Nuclear program start date 1979[30]
First nuclear weapon test None
First fusion weapon test None
Last nuclear test None
Largest yield test None
Total tests None
Peak stockpile None
Current stockpile None
Maximum missile range Scud-D (700km)
NPT signatory Yes

Syria is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and maintains a civil nuclear program. On September 6, 2007, Israel unilaterally bombed a site in Syria which it believed had hosted a nuclear reactor under construction. U.S. intelligence officials claimed low confidence that the site was meant for weapons development.[31] Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said the site in discussion was just "a military site under construction"[32] and that Syria's goal is a nuclear-free Middle East.[33] Syria allowed the IAEA to visit the site on June 23, 2008, taking environmental samples that revealed the presence of man-made uranium and other materials consistent with a reactor. On May 24, 2011, IAEA Director General Amano released a report which assessed that the destroyed facility was a reactor, and the IAEA Board of Governors voted 17-6 (with 11 abstentions) to report this as non-compliance to the UN Security Council.

Open nuclear programs

Syria is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has repeatedly attempted to purchase small research type nuclear reactors from China, Russia, Argentina, or other countries. Despite these purchases being openly disclosed and IAEA monitored, international pressure has caused all these reactor purchases to be cancelled. Syria has open and IAEA monitored nuclear research programs including a Chinese made non-reactor miniature neutron source.[30]

On November 26, 2008 the IAEA Board of Governors approved technical aid for Syria despite Western allegations that the country had a secret atomic program that could eventually be used to make weapons. China, Russia and developing nations, criticized Western "political interference" that they said undermined the IAEA's programme to foster civilian atomic energy development.[34] The top U.N. nuclear official also strongly rebuked Western powers for trying to deny the request, saying this shouldn't be done without evidence and merely on the existence of an investigation.[35]

Alleged nuclear reactor

Satellite photo of the destroyed site
Intelligence photo of the alleged reactor vessel under construction
Intelligence photo of the alleged reactor head and fuel channels under construction

Bombing of alleged reactor

On September 6, 2007, Israel bombed an officially unidentified site in Syria which it believed had been a nuclear reactor under construction.[36] This was called Operation Orchard. It was further claimed that the nuclear reactor was not yet operational and no nuclear material had been introduced into it.[37] Top U.S. intelligence officials claimed that the site was meant for weapons development.[31]

Western press reports asserted that the Israeli air strike followed a shipment delivery to Syria by a North Korean freighter, and that North Korea was suspected to be supplying a reactor to Syria for a nuclear weapons program.[38] On October 24, 2007 the Institute for Science and International Security released a report which identified a site in eastern Syria's Deir ez-Zor Governorate province as the suspected reactor. The report speculated about similarities between the Syrian building and North Korea's Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, but said that it was too early to make a definitive comparison.[39] On October 25, 2007, Western media said the main building and any debris from it following the air strike had been completely dismantled and removed by the Syrians.[40]

After refusing to comment on the reports for six months, the Bush administration briefed Congress and the IAEA on April 24, 2008, saying that the U.S. Government was "convinced" that Syria had been building a "covert nuclear reactor" that was "not intended for peaceful purposes."[41] The briefing included releases of satellite photographs of the bombed site and overhead and ground level intelligence photographs of the site under construction, including the alleged reactor vessel steel shell before concrete was poured and of the alleged reactor head structure.

Reaction to allegations

On June 23, 2008, IAEA inspectors were allowed to visit the Dair Alzour site (also referred to as Al Kibar), and take samples of the debris. On November 19, 2008 an IAEA report stated that "a significant number of natural uranium particles" produced as a result of chemical processing were found at the Al Kibar site;[42] however, the IAEA did not find sufficient evidence to prove Syria is developing nuclear weapons.[43] Some American nuclear experts have speculated about similarities between the alleged Syrian reactor and North Korea's Yongybon reactor[44] but IAEA Director General ElBaradei has pointed out that "there was uranium but it doesn't mean there was a reactor".[45] ElBaradei has shown dissatisfaction with the United States and Israel for only providing the IAEA with photos of the bombed facility in Syria,[46] and has also urged caution against prematurely judging Syria's atomic program by reminding diplomats about false U.S. claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.[47] Russia, China, Iran, and non-aligned countries have also supported giving Syria nuclear guidance despite pressure from the United States.[47]

Joseph Cirincione, an expert on nuclear proliferation and head of the Washington-based Ploughshares Fund, commented "we should learn first from the past and be very cautious about any intelligence from the US about other country's weapons."[48] Syria has denounced "the fabrication and forging of facts" in regards to the incident.[49]

IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei criticized the strikes and deplored that information regarding the matter had not been shared with his agency earlier.[31] Syria has declined to let the IAEA visit other military sites the United States recently made allegations about, arguing it fears that too much openness on its part would encourage the U.S. to push for years of relentless international scrutiny.[50] Syria has said it will voluntarily cooperate with the IAEA further if it isn't "at the expense of disclosing our military sites or causing a threat to our national security."[51]

The Non-Aligned Movement has called for the establishment of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East and called for a comprehensive multilaterally negotiated instrument which prohibits threats of attacks on nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.[52] The Gulf Cooperation Council has also appealed for a nuclear weapons free Middle East and recognition of the right of a country to expertise in the field of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.[53] The IAEA has also approved a resolution urging all Middle East nations to renounce atomic bombs.[54]

IAEA non-compliance finding

For nearly three years, Syria refused the IAEA requests for further information on or access to the Dair Alzour site. On May 24, 2011, IAEA Director General Amano released a report concluding that the destroyed building was "very likely" a nuclear reactor, which Syria was required to declare under its NPT safeguards agreement.[55] On June 9, 2011, the IAEA Board of Governors found that this constituted non-compliance, and reported that non-compliance to the UN Security Council.[56] The vote was 17–6, with 11 abstentions.[57]

Delivery systems

The U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center reported in 2009 that Syria possessed road-mobile Scud-D and Tochka missiles, with fewer than 100 launchers.[58] In addition Syria has aircraft and artillery delivery systems.

International partnerships

United States diplomatic cables revealed that two Indian firms aided Syrian chemical and biological weapon makers in trying to obtain Australia Group-controlled equipment.[59][60] One cable stated that India "has a general obligation as a Chemical Weapons Convention State Party to never, under any circumstances, assist anyone in the development of chemical weapons".[60]

In 2012, Iranian and North Korean officials and scientists were brought to bases and testing areas to aid in the development and use of chemical weapons.[10]

In November 2014, the anti-government Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that five nuclear scientists, one of which that was Iranian national, were assassinated by a gunman in Damascus. The pro-government Al-Watan's account differed, reporting that "four nuclear scientists and electrical engineers" were killed. Al-Watan suggested the Nusra Front might be behind the attack; others suspect Israel.[61]

See also


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