A recent State Department report expressed concerns about suspected unconventional weapons programs in the Middle East and elsewhere but with language that showed slight or no differences from last year’s assessment for the countries and programs it covers.
For example, the report, which was released Aug. 31, said the United States “is concerned” that Syria “may be engaged in activities that would violate its obligations” under the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) if it were a party to the treaty. As the report noted, Syria has signed but not ratified the BWC.
Last year’s version of the report said that “[i]t remained unclear” whether Syria “is engaged in activities prohibited by the BWC and whether it would consider the use of biological weapons as a military option.”
Asked about the differences between the two versions of the report in its language on Syria and other issues, a State Department official said in a Sept. 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today that “[a]s a matter of policy, we do not comment on intelligence but suffice to say we have concerns as highlighted in this report.” Independent experts said in e-mail comments that the change in language did not necessarily suggest new intelligence.
A report sent to Congress earlier this year by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that “Syria’s biotechnical infrastructure is capable of supporting [biological weapons] agent development,” without elaborating.
The U.S. government, other governments, and independent experts express much greater confidence about the existence of a chemical weapons program in Syria. The intelligence report to Congress said Syria has had a chemical weapons program “for many years” and possesses a stockpile of agents that “can be delivered by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets.” The State Department report did not assess Syria’s chemical weapons program because the report assesses compliance with arms control treaties and Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).
Concerns about Syria’s possession and potential use of chemical weapons have increased as an uprising that started in early 2011 appears to making headway in weakening Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power.
In July a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman made comments that were widely interpreted as confirming that Syria possesses unconventional weapons. (See ACT, September 2012.) Der Spiegel last month cited witness accounts as indicating that the Syrian army tested firing systems for chemical weapons systems at the end of August. According to the report, Iranian officers were present at the tests.
The State Department referred to another case of alleged chemical weapons assistance by Iran, noting “reports that Iran transferred [chemical weapons] munitions to Libya in the late 1980s.” The document did not elaborate on the reports.
An article in The Washington Post last November said U.S. officials suspect that, during the rule of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, Iran provided Libya with artillery shells used for chemical weapons. Libya joined the CWC in 2004 and began destroying its declared chemical stockpile. After the fall of the Gaddafi government last year, additional, undeclared chemical stocks were discovered.
The main State Department compliance report covers compliance by the United States and other countries with the BWC, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and most other major arms control treaties. Separate documents address the CWC and the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty.
On nuclear issues, the report found Iran and Syria to be in violation of the NPT and their safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In the case of Syria, the language of the finding appeared to be blunter than last year’s. For Iran, the report also cited Iranian uranium-enrichment activities that, although under IAEA safeguards, are “inconsistent with” UN Security Council resolutions that require Iran to suspend such activities. The findings on Iran closely track those in last year’s report.
As for Myanmar (Burma), the report says that U.S. concerns expressed in last year’s report regarding Myanmar’s “interest in pursuing a nuclear program, including the possibility of cooperation with North Korea, were partially allayed.” The U.S. government, the report said, is “encouraged” by Myanmar’s commitment to implementing UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, which prohibit nuclear, ballistic missile, and other weapons of mass destruction trade with North Korea. In addition, the report said Myanmar is “seriously considering” signing an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement, which would give the IAEA increased authority to carry out inspections. On those points, the report cited assurances by Myanmar President Thein Sein to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last December.
In spite of the encouraging signs, the United States “will remain alert to any indications” of activities relevant to a nuclear weapons program, the report said.
Assessment of Russia
The report reiterated long-standing U.S. concerns about Russian compliance with the BWC and the CWC. With regard to the BWC, the report says that “[a]lthough Russia had inherited the past offensive program of research and development from the Soviet Union, Russia’s annual BWC confidence-building measure declarations since 1992 have not satisfactorily documented whether this program was completely destroyed or diverted to peaceful purposes in accordance with Article II of the BWC.”
In a Sept. 4 statement posted on its website, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the report “makes unfounded statements with no actual proof” and decried the repetition of the BWC and CWC claims “from year to year.” Regarding the report’s statements that it is unclear if certain Russian activities were “conducted for purposes inconsistent with the BWC,” the ministry fired back that the uncertainties could have been avoided “if ten years ago [the] American party did not torpedo the process of negotiations on multi-sided elaboration of [a] mechanism of Convention inspection.”
In 2001 the United States rejected a compliance protocol for the BWC on the grounds that the proposed verification mechanism would not improve or increase trust in compliance with the convention. The Obama administration has said that effective verification under the treaty is impossible and has made clear that it will not seek to revive the talks on a compliance protocol.