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Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: Syria

Updated: October 2013

This profile summarizes the major arms control agreements, regimes, initiatives, and practices that Syria subscribes to and those that it does not. It also describes the major weapons programs, policies, and holdings of Syria, as well as its proliferation record. This profile is one of a series focused on the arms control record and status of key states, all of which are available on the Arms Control Association’s website at http://www.armscontrol.org.

Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties

 

 

Signed

Ratified

Geneva Protocol 1925 1968

Biological Weapons Convention

1972

- - -

Chemical Weapons Convention

- - -

2013*

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

- - -

- - -

Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)

1968

1969

Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons

- - -

- - -

Outer Space Treaty

- - -

1968

Ottawa Mine Ban Convention

- - -

- - -

Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM)

- - -

- - -

CPPNM 2005 Amendment

- - -

- - -

International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism

2005

- - -

*Syria sent a letter to the United Nations Secretary General on September 12, 2013, which said that Assad signed a presidential decree allowing Syria's accession to the CWC. Normally, the treaty enters into force 30 days after the deposit of the instrument of ratification, but Syria indicated in the letter that it would begin implementation of the treaty's obligations immediately.

Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards

Australia Group: Not a member.

Missile Technology Control Regime: Not a member.

Nuclear Suppliers Group: Not a member.

Wassenaar Arrangement: Not a member.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol: Syria has not negotiated such an agreement.

Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism: Not a participant.

Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation: Not a participant.

Proliferation Security Initiative: Not a participant.

UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1673: Syria has filed reports on its activities to fulfill the resolutions.

 

Major Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

Biological Weapons: Syria signed the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, but has not ratified the treaty. In July 2012, a spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry confirmed that the country possesses biological warfare materials, but little is known about the extent of the arsenal. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence annual report on the acquisition of materials related to WMD production in 2011 confirms that the country’s biotechnical infrastructure could support the development of biological weapons.[1]

Chemical Weapons: Until September 12, 2013, Syria was one of five countries that had neither signed nor ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC.) Under growing pressure from the international community after the use of chemical weapons against opposition forces on multiple occasions in 2013 and the threat of a U.S. military strike, Assad passed a presidential decree allowing the country to accede to the CWC. Two countries, Israel and Myanmar, have signed but not completed ratification. However, in 1968, Syria ratified the 1925 Geneval Protocol, which prohibits the use "of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices" in war.

Syria is believed to possess hundreds of tons of mustard gas, blister agents, and nerve agents, which could include sarin and the agent VX. In July 2012, the Syrian government publically acknowledged the existence of its chemical stockpile for the first time. The spokesman said Syria would only use such weapons in the event of foreign intervention in the armed conflict between the government and domestic opposition forces. According to a 2011 report to Congress, on the acquisition of technology relating to WMDs, the National Director of Intelligence said that Syria has had a chemical weapons program for many years and its stockpile is deliverable by “aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets.”[2] It is dependent, however, on foreign sources for key elements of its program.

On March 21, 2013, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon announced that the United Nations would begin an investigation into alleged uses of chemical weapons at the request of the Syrian authorities. He requested the full cooperation of all parties involved and said that any party responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable.

In an April 25, 2013 letter from the White House to Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), said that the nerve agent sarin may have been used “on a small scale” in Syria but that the United States cannot confirm “how exposure occurred and under what conditions” because the “chain of custody” for the evidence, which included “physiological samples,” is “not clear.” Further investigation is needed, the letter said.

On June 13, the White House released a statement saying that the United States government had high confidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against opposition forces on several occasions. Samples from multiple sources within Syria indicated exposure to the nerve agent sarin.

On August 21, reports indicated that a larger chemical weapons attack took place in an area of Damascus controlled by rebel fighters. Estimates place the number of casualties at well over 1,000 and many of the victims as non-combatants. Syrian armed forces denied the allegations, but officials from the United States, United Kingomd, France, and several other governments issued statements saying that the Assad regime was likely responsible for the attack.

An emergency session of the Security Council was held on August 21, and produced a statement demanding further clarity regarding the incident. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said on August 23 that any use of chemical weapons, under any circumstances, is a violation of international law, and such a "crime against humanity" should result in "serious consequences." President Obama convened a meeting of the National Security Council on August 24 to review evidence about the attack and a range of potential response options.

On August 25, the Assad regime said it would allow UN inspectors to visit the site of the August 21 attack. A UN team arrived in Damascus the following week after several months of negotiations with the Assad regime as to the scope of their investigations into past chemical weapons attacks. However, on August 26, when the inspectors began their investigations the team was not able to reach several of the main areas affected due to "security concerns" cited by the Syrian armed forces.

In a August 26 statement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that while investigations are still underway, initial evidence and reports "strongly indicate" that chemical weapons were used and that the Syrian regime has the capacity to launch an attack of this nature. He also strongly criticized the Assad regime for refusing to allow the UN inspectors access to the site for five days, and attempting to "cover up" its actions through further shelling. Kerry said that there would be "accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people."

On August 30, the White House released the U.S. Government Assessment on the use of chemical weapons in Syria during the August 21 attacl. The report says that the intelligence community has "high confidence" that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against the opposition elements in Damascus. Secretary Kerry, in an address, also said that the regime used chemical weapons "multiple times" over the past year. Kerry said discussions on military action are underway. The following day, August 31, President Obama made a statement saying that he would seek an authorization on the use of force from Congress for a limited military strike in Syria. Given the evidence of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime, Obama said he supported limited action in order to deter further chemical weapons use and uphold international norms.

On September 9, citing the desire to avert military strikes, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced a proposal whereby Syria would agree to place its chemical weapons under international control, dismantle them, and join the CWC, and the United States would agree not to conduct a military strike on the country. Prior to the Russian announcement, Secretary of State Kerry, speaking in the United Kingdom, suggested that if the Assad regime turned over all of its chemical weapons to the international community "without delay," a miltiary strike could be averted.

On September 10, while in Moscow, Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said that the Assad regime welcomed Russia's plan, which also seemed to gain support in the West. On the same day, President Obama, French President Francois Hollande, and British Prime Minister David Cameron discussed how to implement the plan through the UN Security Council, with France beginning to draft a resolution based on the Russian proposal, but reportedly with stipulations that force be authorized should Assad fail to implement the resolution.

On the same day, in an address to the nation, President Obama also requested that Congress postpone a vote on the use of force while the diplomatic path proposed by the Russians is pursued in the UN Security Council, but reiterated his commitment to pursue miltiary action if a deal on securing Syria's chemical weapons is not reached.

On September 12, the Assad regime sent a letter to the United Nations Secretary General which said that Assad signed a legislative decree providing the accession of Syria to the Chemical Weapons Convention. In the letter, Assad said Syria woud observe its CWC obligations immediately, as opposed to 30 days from the date of accession, as stipulated in the treaty.

On September 14, after two days of meetings, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reached an agreement on a detailed plan for the accounting, inspection, control, and elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. The plan requires Syria to provide a full declaration of its stockpile “within a week” and provide the OPCW and the UN access to all chemical weapons sites in Syria. The plan calls for the OPCW inspectors  to complete their initial inspections by November and calls for the destruction of the stockpile of chemical weapons and chemical agents by the first half of 2014. The United States and Russia will now seek to secure approval of the plan by the OPCW executive council and then a UN Security Council resolution. The agreement outlined states that “in the event of non-compliance, including unauthorized transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon delivered a report on September 16 on the results of the UN investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The report concluded that chemical weapons were used against on August 21 on a "relatively large scale", and that the victims included civilians. The report cited evidence of the nerve agent sarin both in the environment and present in victims of the attack. It was outside of the report's mandate to assign blame for who used the chemical weapons.

On September 20, following the schedule laid out in the US-Russian agreement, Syria submitted a declaration of its chemical weapons stockpiles to the OPCW. The following week, on September 27, the Executive Council of the OPCW adopted a timeline for destroying Syria's chemical weapons. Hours later, the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted to adopt a resolution endorsing the OPCW timeline. The Security Council Resolution also says that the body will impose measures under Chapter VII of its charter if Syria does not comply with the resolution, or uses or authorizes the transfer of any chemical agents.

In accordance with the plan, Syria submitted the details of its plan for destroying the stockpile of its chemical weapons to the OPCW on October 27. The OPCW now has until November 15 to respond to the plan.

On October 31, the OPCW confirmed that Syria destroyed, or rendered inoperable, its declared facilities for mixing and producing chemical weapons. The OPCW inspectors were able to visit 21 of the 23 sites and confirmed that the equiptment from the remaining two sites that they could not visit because of security concerns were removed and destroyed elsewhere.

 

Missiles:

  • Ballistic Missiles: Syria’s ballistic missile arsenal is comprised primarily of short-range liquid-fueled Scud B and C missiles that have ranges of 300 and 500 km, respectively. A 700 km range Scud D missile is currently under development. These missiles are likely able to deliver chemical weapons.[3] The Syrian military also deploys a 120 km solid-fueled SS-21. While shorter in range than the Scuds, this missile is more accurate. Syria, however, probably does not have the capability to produce solid-fueled motors for these missiles indigenously.  While Syria’s domestic capability to produce liquid-fueled ballistic missiles is improving, it still relies on foreign suppliers, such as Iran and North Korea, for key technology. Reportedly, in the late 1980s, Syria attempted to buy more accurate missiles from China, but there are conflicting reports as to whether or not Beijing ever delivered the weapons.
  • Cruise Missiles: Syria is known to possess several highly accurate anti-ship cruise missiles that could carry chemical warheads; the Sepal and several variants of the Styx.[4] Less is known about a land-attack cruise missile capability.

Nuclear Weapons:

Syria currently does not possess nuclear weapons or fissile material stockpiles that could be utilized for a nuclear weapons program, although it has long publicly expressed interest in developing a nuclear power program and covertly pursued building a reactor. It is widely assumed that Syria cooperated with North Korea to build a reactor that could produce plutonium for weapons. An Israeli airstrike destroyed the Dair al Zour facility near Al Kibar in 2007 before it became operational. Syria claims that the destroyed site was not a nuclear facility. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) currently is investigating allegations of undeclared Syrian nuclear activity.

In June 2011, in a report to the IAEA Board of Governors, the agency concluded that Syria should have declared the construction of the Dair al Zour facility to the IAEA. This conclusion was reached without an actual inspection of the site because Syria had continually denied the IAEA’s request to visit the destroyed facility. The agency relied on satellite and radar imagery to make its conclusions.[5] Based on the report, the Board of Governors determined that Syria was in non-compliance with its IAEA Safeguards Agreement, and sent their conclusions to the UN Security Council.

Syria does possess a Chinese supplied research reactor that is currently under IAEA safeguards and is estimated to contain less than 1 kilogram of highly-enriched uranium.

Conventional Weapons Trade:

Syria’s primary conventional weapons suppliers are Russia and China. According to a 2011 Congressional Research Service Report, between 2003-2010, Syria’s total conventional arms purchases equaled $1.7 billion, with $1.2 billion coming from Russia and $300 million from China.[6]

Under diplomatic pressure by Western countries, in July 2012, Russia agreed not to deliver new weapons to Syria while armed conflict between the military and opposition forces is ongoing and the political situation is unstable. The Russian government specified then that it would not supply the Yak-130 aircraft, although the contract was already signed.[7]

Proliferation Record

Given Syria’s increasing domestic capability to produce ballistic missiles with little foreign assistance and their suspected ties with terrorist organizations, the United States has expressed concern that the country could pose a risk for proliferating its ballistic missiles and technology to others. In 2003, Syria was estimated to produce as many as 30 Scud C missiles per year.[8] It is widely held that Syria acts as a transit country for Iranian armaments to the Shia militant group, Hezbollah, which operates out of southern Lebanon.[9] Israel also accused Syria of supplying Hezbollah with Scud missiles, although this has not been confirmed.[10] Given the current armed conflict in Syria, the international community also is concerned that advanced conventional armaments or chemical weapons could be knowingly or unknowingly trafficked out of the country to nonstate actors.

Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities

In 2010, Syria was one of two countries that abstained from voting on the UN General Assembly resolution that urged the Conference on Disarmament (CD) to begin negotiations on “a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”, or Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).[11] At the 2012 Conference on Disarmament, Syria advocated against negotiating a FMCT, stating that the issue was not ready for negotiations, and that the CD should instead focus on nuclear disarmament.

The United States and other countries are actively seeking to prevent Syria from continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction capabilities. In 2005, the United States added Syria to the Iran Nonproliferation Act, legislation designed to prevent Iran from obtaining technology related to weapons of mass destruction, missiles, and other conventional armaments.

Researched and prepared by Kelsey Davenport and Lauren Weiss.


1. Director of National Intelligence, “Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, Cover 1 January to 31 December 2011.” January, 2012.

2. Ibid.

3. Magnus Normark et al., "Syria and WMD Incentives and Capabilities," FOI Swedish Defence Research Agency, June 2004.

4. "Syria: Country Profile,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, June 2012.

5. Ibid.

6. Richard F. Grimmett, Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2003-2010, Congressional Research Service, September 22, 2011.

7. “Russia suspends new arms shipments to Syria,” CNN, July 9, 2012.  http://edition.cnn.com/2012/07/09/world/meast/syria-unrest/

8. Anthony Cordesman, "If it's Syria: Syrian Military Forces and Capabilities," Center for Strategic and International Studies," 15 April 2003, p. 7, www.csis.org.

9. Jeremy Sharp and Christine Blanchard, “Armed Conflict in Syria: U.S. and International Responses,” Congressional Research Service, July 12, 2012.

10. Amoz Harel and Avi Issacharoff, “Syria is shipping Scud missiles to Hezbollah,” Haaretz, July 5, 2012.

11. United Nations General Assembly 65/65. Treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. 8 December 2010. http://daccess-ods.un.org/TMP/7094332.57579803.html