Top U.S. Officials Voice Concern About Syria's WMD Capability

Paul Kerr

Secretary of State Colin Powell will visit Damascus in early May, following several statements in April by U.S. officials that sparked speculation the United States might attack Syria. Some top U.S. officials cited concerns that Syria is developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—a primary U.S. justification for invading Iraq.

In an April 24 interview with al-Arabiyya television, Powell said he was looking forward to his third trip to Syria. Powell’s decision to visit Syria came as the United States began to cool down rhetoric toward Syria that had heated up after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “We have seen some progress. The president has noted that the Syrians have been taking some action that we are pleased about, but there are still these fundamental issues of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, that I need to discuss with the Syrian president,” Powell said. U.S. officials have also expressed concern that Syria might have allowed Iraqi leaders to take refuge inside its borders.

Some administration officials have also indicated that Syria might facilitate the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction from neighboring Iraq. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated in an April 13 interview on NBC’s Meet the Press that the United States had “reports” suggesting Iraq might have sent weapons of mass destruction and related materials to a neighboring country, but he did not elaborate. Undersecretary of State John Bolton said in an April 5 interview with Radio Sawa that “the intellectual capital that [Iraqi] scientists and others have developed [could] find its way to other rogue regimes.”

Bolton issued one of the strongest statements against Syria’s weapons activities in the April 5 interview, saying the Iraq invasion would send “a message” to Syria that “the cost of their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is potentially quite high…[and] the determination of the United States…to keep these incredibly dangerous weapons out of the hands of very dangerous people should not be underestimated.”

Bolton also said that Iran and Libya should learn a similar lesson. Washington has repeatedly accused both countries of pursuing weapons of mass destruction. (See ACT, April 2003.)

The United States toned down its rhetoric somewhat later in the month. Powell stated in an April 15 press briefing that “there is no war plan” to attack Syria and Bush stated April 20 that Syria is “getting the message” that it should not harbor Iraqi officials. Powell hinted during an April 14 press briefing that the United States would examine additional diplomatic or economic sanctions against Syria as a possible response to their actions. Syria is already subject to limited U.S. sanctions because it is included on the State Department’s list of countries sponsoring terrorism.

U.S. assertions that Syria has WMD programs are not new. Syria has “a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin that can be delivered by aircraft or ballistic missiles” and “a combined total of several hundred SCUD” and short-range ballistic missiles, according to a 2001 Department of Defense report. “Syria is believed to have chemical warheads available for a portion of its SCUD missile force,” the report says. Rumsfeld stated during an April 14 press briefing that Syria has tested chemical weapons “over the past twelve, fifteen months.”

A CIA report issued April 10 also states that “Russia and Syria have approved a draft cooperative program on…civil nuclear power” that “[i]n principal [sic]…provides opportunities for Syria to expand its indigenous capabilities, should it decide to pursue nuclear weapons.” Bolton expressed concern that Syria might be pursuing a nuclear weapons program in an April 15 interview with Arms Control Today. “I’m not saying they’re doing anything specific,” Bolton said. “I’m just saying it’s a worrisome pattern that we’ve seen.”

The CIA report also states that it “is highly probable that Syria…is continuing to develop an offensive [biological weapons] capability.”

Syria is not prohibited from possessing chemical weapons because it is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Syria is a nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) state-party with full-scope International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Syria has signed but not ratified the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

Syrian Ambassador to Russia Wahib Fadel denied the U.S. accusations in an April 17 statement to Interfax. Partly in response to U.S. accusations, Syria introduced a resolution at the UN Security Council April 16 that would require all countries in the Middle East to forswear the development of nuclear weapons. Syrian officials often complain about the threat of Israel’s WMD programs.

A U.S. official said in an April 23 interview that the resolution was submitted the previous day to a UN group of experts but failed to gain support because most Security Council members felt it was “ill-timed.”

The official added that the United States “has always supported” a nuclear-free Middle East, but that a lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is necessary to attain that goal.

When asked during an April 21 interview how U.S. support for a nuclear-weapon-free Middle East relates to the U.S. position with respect to Israel’s nuclear weapons program, a State Department official said Washington “has long-standing concerns about Israel’s nuclear program, particularly the existence of unsafeguarded nuclear facilities in Israel.” The United States has urged Israel to sign the NPT, the official said.

Israel is widely considered a de facto nuclear weapons state. Estimates of the Israeli nuclear arsenal range from 75–200 weapons, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s 2002 Nuclear Notebook.

Israeli embassy press secretary Mark Regev reacted to the Syrian proposal in an April 21 interview, saying the “tensions between Syria and the United States have nothing to do with Israel” and that Syria’s “natural reflex mechanism is to blame Israel.”

He added that “Israel’s long-standing position is that it will not be the first state to introduce nuclear weapons into the region.” Israel will neither confirm nor deny that it possesses nuclear weapons.

Israel has not signed the NPT or the BWC. It has signed but not ratified the CWC. Syria refuses to sign the CWC unless Israel signs the NPT.



Syria’s Weapons of Mass Destruction

Nuclear: Syria is a state-party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and its nuclear research reactor is under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. In its 2001 report Proliferation: Threat and Response, the Pentagon stated that Syria is not pursuing nuclear weapons. A report released this month from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), however, cautioned, “In principal, broader access to Russian expertise provides opportunities for Syria to expand its indigenous capabilities, should it decide to pursue nuclear weapons.”

Chemical: The U.S. government assesses that Syria has a stockpile of sarin, which is a nerve agent that can be lethal to victims who inhale it or absorb it through the skin or via eye contact. Syria is believed to be capable of delivering sarin with missiles and combat aircraft. The United States also asserts that Syria is trying to develop VX, the most potent nerve agent. The CIA claims that Syria is reliant on foreign suppliers to support “key elements” of its chemical weapons activities. Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, although it acceded to the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting biological and chemical weapons use in war.

Biological: Syria is not known to have produced any specific biological weapons agents, although the CIA deemed it “highly probable” that Damascus is trying to develop an offensive biological weapons capability. Syria has signed but not ratified the Biological Weapons Convention.

Missiles: Syria’s arsenal includes several hundred Scud B, Scud C, and SS-21 tactical ballistic missiles. The estimated maximum range of its operational missiles is approximately 500 kilometers, which enables Syria to target all of Israel and much of Turkey. Syria is reportedly receiving North Korean, Chinese, Russian, and Iranian assistance to improve its missile capabilities. —Wade Boese