Over at ForeignPolicy.com, David Hoffman examines biological weapons and the Biological Weapons Convention through the lens of the State Department’s 2010 Compliance Report. (There’s a lot to say about this, but here’s the bottom line: if you want to know what a weak arms-control treaty really looks like, it’s one without any verification measures.)
Something that caught my eye was the discussion of Syria. In its discussion of the BWC, the compliance report mentions that President Bashar al-Asad “stated in 2004 that Syria was entitled to defend itself by acquiring its own chemical and biological deterrent.”
This comes as a bit of a surprise. Syria has signed — although not ratified — the BWC. So has Asad really acknowledged a biological-weapons program, or claimed to be entitled to one? The Syrians tend to be pretty elliptical about these issues.
After a little scratching around, I believe the most likely answer is, “No, he hasn’t admitted to a bio-weapons program.” The source of this claim appears to be a January 6, 2004 article by Benedict Brogan in the Daily Telegraph, which reads, in part:
Syria is entitled to defend itself by acquiring its own chemical and biological deterrent, President Bashar Assad said last night as he rejected American and British demands for concessions on weapons of mass destruction….
Speaking to The Telegraph, Mr Assad said that any deal to destroy Syria’s chemical and biological capability would come about only if Israel agreed to abandon its undeclared nuclear arsenal….
Asked about American and British claims that Syria had a WMD capability, he stopped short of the categorical denial that has been his government’s stock response until now.
Instead, he pointed to the Israelis’ recent attack on alleged Palestinian bases in Syria and the occupation of the Golan Heights as evidence that Syria needed a deterrent. “We are a country which is [partly] occupied and from time to time we are exposed to Israeli aggression,” he said. “It is natural for us to look for means to defend ourselves. It is not difficult to get most of these weapons anywhere in the world and they can be obtained at any time.”…
He called on the international community to support the proposal that Syria presented to the United Nations last year for removing all WMD from the Middle East, including Israel’s nuclear stockpile.
“Unless this applies to all countries, we are wasting our time.”
You will notice that Asad is not actually quoted as mentioning biological weapons; that’s just the reporter’s gloss — an easy distinction to miss. (This June 2004 report from the Swedish Defense Research Agency may have added confusion by placing the opening words of the article in Asad’s mouth, not Brogan’s; see p. 24.) So unless the State Department had a different 2004 statement in mind, or they’ve got the interview transcript and are satisfied that this is in fact what Asad said, then the compliance report would seem to be in error. And since it uses Brogan’s exact words, that’s probably what the report is going by.
(In case you’re wondering, official suspicions of a Syrian BW program don’t hang on this one Daily Telegraph article; the compliance report also mentions “BW-related activities of Syrian entities.”)
By contrast, Asad has been downright forthcoming about Syria’s chemical weapons. (Syria is not a Chemical Weapons Convention signatory.) In a January 19, 2009 interview with Der Spiegel, after denying the existence of a Syrian nuclear-weapons program, he give the following hint:
SPIEGEL: So you have no ambitions to produce weapons of mass destruction, not even chemical weapons?
Assad: Chemical weapons, that’s another thing. But you don’t seriously expect me to present our weapons program to you here? We are in a state of war.
There you have it: transparency, Damascus-style.