FAS | Nuke | Guide ||||| Index | Search | Join FAS

Syria - Special Weapons

Syria is a party to the Treaty on the Non- Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and Syria has called for an area free of all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Although Syria has long been cited as posing a nuclear proliferation risk, the country seems to have been too strapped for cash to get far. Syria allegedly began a military nuclear program in 1979 and has not provided the IAEA with full information on all its nuclear activities. Syria has claimed that it was interested in nuclear research for medical rather than military purposes, but Israel and the United States have opposed sales of a reactor to Syria on the grounds that it would serve as an important step toward the building of a nuclear weapon.

In 1991, China reported to the IAEA the potential sale of a 30 KW research reactor to Syria. The IAEA blocked the sale and Syria subsequently reduced its nuclear activities. In 1995 the United States pressured Argentina into abandoning a proposed sale of a reactor to Syria. In 1997 it was reported that the Russian government was interested in selling a nuclear reactor to Syria. On 23 February 1998 Syria and Russia signed an agreement on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. In July 1998 the two sides agreed on the time table for the realization of a 25-MW light-water nuclear research center project in Syria with the participation of Russia's Atomstroyeksport and Nikiet. The Syrian fertilizers plant under construction at Homs [34 40' N 36 40' E] is ownded and operated by the Atomic Energy Commission of Syria. The facility will engage in Uranium recovery from phosphates using the D2EHPA-TOPO process.

Syria has a limited biotechnology infrastructure but could support a limited biological warfare effort. Though Syria is believed to be pursuing the development of biological weapons, it is not believed to have progressed much beyond the research and development phase and may have produced only pilot quantities of usable agent. Syria has signed, but not ratified, the BWC.

Syria has a mature chemical weapons program, begun in the 1970s, incorporating nerve agents, such as sarin, which have completed the weaponization cycle. Future activity will likely focus on CW infrastructure enhancements for agent production and storage, as well as possible research and development of advanced nerve agents. Munitions available for CW agent delivery likely include aerial bombs as well as SCUD missile warheads. Syria has not signed the CWC and is unlikely to do so in the near future.

Syria has been producing chemical warfare agents and munitions since the mid-1980's. While the Syrian program was "quite closely held," former CIA Director William Webster told a Congressional panel in 1989 that the CIA had determined foreign assistance was of "critical importance in allowing Syria to develop its chemical warfare capability. West European firms were instrumental in supplying the required precursor chemicals and equipment. Without the provision of these key elements, Damascus would not have been able to produce chemical weapons".

In addition to mustard gas, Syria is known to be manufacturing nerve gas agents, and can pack CW agents into a wide variety of munitions, including ballistic missiles. Israeli intelligence analysts believe that Syria is actively seeking to manufacture VX agents, which are several magnitudes more powerful than other nerve agents. Syria's current CW stockpiles have been estimated at "several thousand aerial bombs, filled mostly with sarin," and between 50 to 100 ballistic missile warheads.

Syria first acquired CW artillery shells as a "gift" from Egypt just prior to the 1973 war. Shortly thereafter, Syria purchased defensive chemical warfare gear from the USSR and from Czechoslovakia. However, the Soviets are said to have consistently refused to provide manufacturing processes or assistance in building CW facilities in Syria.

Israeli intelligence analysts have expressed their concern with the rapidity and ease with which the Syrians have been able to obtain the know-how to produce VX nerve gas. Secretly assisted by Russian chemical experts, the Syrian military research and development and industrial complex known as the Scientific Studies and Research Center had little trouble getting the required expertise, technology and materials from Russian sources.

General Anatoly Kuntsevich, Russian President Yeltsin's personal adviser on chemical disarmament and Russia's highest official authority on the subject, was dismissed from his position for suspicion of smuggling nerve gas precursors to Syria in early 1995.

General Kuntsevich admitted in an interview in 1998 with the New York Jewish weekly The Forward that shipments to Syria of small amounts of nerve gas components had indeed taken place. According to him, however, these shipments were only intended for "research purposes" and had been authorized by the Russian government under previously undisclosed terms of a treaty with Syria. The materials shipped to Syria were intended for the production of the Soviet/Russian version of the VX nerve agent - code-named Substance 33 or V-gas. Such a deal might have been made in the early '90s or late '80s during a visit to Syria by the then-commander of the Russian Chemical Corps, General Pikalov.

Program Direction

Atomic Energy Commission of Syria 
P.O.Box 6091 Damascus, Syria
Telephone: 6668114/5
Telefax  :  6620317 

Scientific Studies and Research Center [SSRC]
Scientific Research Council [CERS] 
P.O. Box 4470
Tel. +963 11 772 603
Fax +963 11 2223771

As might be surmised from its apparently innocent name, the Scientific Studies and Research Center is the Syrian government agency responsible for non-conventional weapons development and production, including research on weapons of mass destruction and missiles that can deliver them.

The overt goals of the Center are to promote and coordinate scientific activities in the country, particularly those related to Education, Research & Development, Consulting, manufacturing and maintenance, and to work on research and development projects needed for the economic and social development of the country, particularly on the computerization of governmental enterprises and institutions.

The the extensive foreign activities of Syrian intelligence services include substantial acquisition efforts focused on biological and chemical weapons. The Syrian procurement structure uses the Scientific Studies and Research Center as cover.

Secretly assisted by Russian chemical experts, the Syrian military research and development and industrial complex known as the Scientific Studies and Research Center had little trouble getting the required expertise, technology and materials from Russian sources to produce VX nerve gas.

The Washington Times reported on July 23, 1996 that the CIA had discovered that Syria's Scientific Studies and Research Center received a shipment of missile components from China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation, China's premier firm selling missiles (particularly M-11s) abroad.

Production facilities

Production facilities have been built with the help of Western firms. Most are controlled by the Scientific Research Council, also known by its French acronym, CERS Syria is now believed capable of producing several hundred tons of CW agents per year.

Four production sites have been positively identified, one located just north of Damascus, and the second near the industrial city of Homs. The third, in Hama, is believed to be producing VX agents in addition to sarin and tabun. Officials in Washington identified a fourth facility dedicated to the production of biological agents in Cerin, while Israeli intelligence is monitoring several additional "suspicious" sites.

Israeli Chief of Staff Ehud Baraq told an audience of leading industrialists in Tel Aviv on December 6, 1991 that Syria's chemical weapons capability was "larger than Iraq's." Several dual-use sites are also of concern, including a pharmaceuticals plant in Aleppo that was left mysteriously "unfinished" in 1989 after the Syrian government had invested nearly $ 40 million in its construction. Syria also runs a large urea and ammonia plant in Homs, and plans to build a $ 500 million super-phosphate complex in the desert near Palmyra.

Syrian CW factories have been operating for more than ten years, intelligence analysts agree. Stockpiles of precursor chemicals were purchased in the West in the early 1980s before their export was controlled. Unlike Iraq and Libya, Syria's CW plants tend to be relatively small, and as a result have been harder to detect. In addition to dedicated facilities, Syria can tap the potential of more than a dozen government-run pharmaceuticals plants spread across the country, which could be converted rapidly to produce a wide variety of CBW agents.

Western suppliers

Syria's principle suppliers of CBW production technology were large chemical brokerage houses in Holland, Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany, including many of the same companies that were supplying Iraq.

At least one German company, Schott Glasswerke, has been subjected to an official inquiry, for its delivery of glass-lined reactor vessels, sarin precursors and production equipment to a suspected Syrian poison gas plant. And one French source suggests that the United States may have supplied Syria with precursors and CW production equipment prior to 1986, at a time when Syria was subjected to international sanctions for its attempt to plant a bomb on an El Al plane in London.

Syria has remained far more discreet in its purchasing patterns than either Iran, Iraq, or Libya. As one senior intelligence analyst explained, Syria considers chemical and biological weapons as "strategic" systems, meaning they are intended more as a deterrent than for recurrent, tactical use on the battlefield. Instead of producing large quantities of CBW agents, Syria is seeking to develop a smaller but high quality arsenal, which it can deliver accurately against military targets.

Pharmaceuticals as a cover

Syria has used the expansion of its pharmaceuticals industry as a convenient cover for purchases relating to its CW program, since this is an area where is impossible to distinguish legitimate civilian projects from military programs.

The use of pharmaceuticals plants for poison gas production appears to have led to a series of accidents over the past year. In 1991, the Syrian Ministry of Health was compelled to close down five pharmaceuticals plants (three in Aleppo, one in Damascus, and one in Homs), following what were termed "complaints from citizens and doctors" that products "did not meet the required standards." Later in 1991, Syria signed a cooperation agreement with Libya in that called for Syrian experts to train the Libyans in pharmaceuticals production.

Major German pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and machine-building companies have helped Syria to establish its modest and well-dispersed production facilities, some with the support of official "Hermes" export credits from the German government. In addition to Schott Glasswerke, which continues to export licensed goods to Syrian chemicals plants, special mixing vats, high temperature furnaces, hot isostatic presses (HIP) and sophisticated machine-tools have been shipped with German export licenses to Syria's Scientific Research Council (CERS) by Ferrostaal, Carl Schenck, Leifeld, Weber GmbH, and other major German companies. It is not believed that these shipments were illegal under German law.

Syria's French Connection

France has played the key role in building up Syria's very well developed pharmaceuticals industry. With the active encouragement of the French embassy in Damascus and French government export credits, the biggest names in the French pharmaceuticals industry flocked to Damascus in the 1980s. Many of them opened branch offices and built production facilities in Syria, to make French pharmaceuticals under license. As a result, the French increased their share from 13.11% of Syria's pharmaceuticals imports in 1982 to 23% by 1986. This was all the more unusual since Syria was expanding its domestic production and therefore importing less during this same period.

The French government screens exports to determine whether goods proposed for sale to Syria, Iran, Libya (and other countries) merit review because of proliferation concerns. While France has been applying the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime for several years, she only began applying controls on production equipment that could go into a chemical weapons plant in early 1992. "Only in the past six months has there been a universal will to impose this type of controls," a senior French foreign ministry official said in May 1992. "Before then, CW production equipment was freely available."

Like Britain and Italy, France has been unwilling to impose unilateral export controls on CW production equipment without an internationally-accepted control regime, so French companies could not accuse the government of putting them at a disadvantage on lucrative Third World markets. The Australia Group, which oversees the control of CW precursors, only finalized a list of production equipment that should also be subjected to international controls in late 1991. It was only adopted (after stiff opposition from France and Great Britain) in June 1992.

"Every day I sign off on export licenses," another senior French licensing official present at the same forum said, "and I wonder whether I have not just signed my resignation. In the area of chemical weapons manufacturing equipment, it is totally impossible to distinguish between civilian and military end-use," he admitted. "The equipment is strictly identical." France only began to computerize export licensing records in 1990. As this report goes to press, it appears that the hemorrhage of French technology has been enormous.

Pharmaceuticals plants

Since Syria simplified the procedures for foreign investments in a May 1991 law, the pharmaceuticals sector has been targeted by Syrian planners for additional expansion. New Syria companies are being set up almost every month, to negotiate licensing and technology transfer agreements with foreign suppliers.

The largest project of this kind has been announced by a well-known Syrian businessman, Saeb Nahas, whose GAS group is partially owned by the Syrian state. GAS owns a 51% share in the newly-formed Ibn Zahr Pharmaceuticals Company, which claims to be negotiating to build "one of the largest pharmaceuticals plants in the Middle East" at a cost of $ 15 million. Discussions are currently under way with companies in Germany, Britain, and Holland to obtain production licenses and manufacturing technology, and with the European Community to obtain export financing.

Similarly, the American medical supplier group, Baxter International, has contracted to build a factory to produce intravenous fluids for the Syrian military. Of concern in this case are the manufacturing processes, which could be applied to a broad-range of CBW activities, and the end-user, which is the Syrian army. Vigorous intervention by the Simon Wiesenthal Center with Baxter director, G. Marshall Abbey, caused the company to back off from this contract temporarily in 1991. However, it was subsequently reported that Baxter was attempting to complete the sale through the intermediary of an unknown supply house called Medport, located in Amhurts, Ohio.

Despite the attempts to attract private sector interest, the two largest pharmaceuticals conglomerates in Syria, Thameco and DIMAS, remain under rigid state control. Together they control a third company, Saydalaya, which serves as the foreign procurement board for all Syrian imports of chemicals and processed medicines Thameco is controlled the Syrian Ministry of Industry and employs approximately 900 people at its principle production site in Damascus. A second plant, built in Aleppo at a cost of nearly $ 40 million by a consortium of French pharmaceuticals companies in the late 1980s, was reportedly "abandoned" in 1989 because of financial difficulties. However, suspicion remains that Syria may have simply switched suppliers, in order to better disguise conversion of the plant to the production of CW agents.

DIMAS (the General Establishment for Blood and of Medical Industries) is directly controlled by the Syrian Ministry of Defense, and is the only manufacturer of serum in Syria. DIMAS is run by General Hikmat Tahrani, and controls a large production plant in Damascus.

Sources and Methods

FAS | Nuke | Guide |||| Index | Search | Join FAS

Created by John Pike
Maintained by Webmaster
Updated Friday, May 12, 2000 7:56:06 PM