U.S. officials now clearly believe that a program of some sort exists. As recently as this March, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told Congress that the United States was "tracking Syria's munitions stockpiles, particularly its chemical and biological warfare agents." But specifics about U.S. knowledge concerning Syria's biological weapons program are elusive in part because details remain classified.
Several nongovernmental sources name Syria's Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) in Damascus as the locus of military research and development of biological, chemical, and nuclear technology. A 2002 report by Israeli microbiologist and former intelligence analyst Dany Shoham asserted unequivocally that the government-controlled SSRC was producing chemical and biological weapons.
This contention was buttressed five years later when the U.S. Treasury Department prohibited Americans from commercial interaction with the center because it was the "Syrian government agency responsible for developing and producing non-conventional weapons." The department further stated that despite the SSRC's guise as a civilian institution, "its activities focus substantively on the development of biological and chemical weapons."
When asked what an inspector should be looking for to uncover Syria's presumed biological weapons program, former U.N. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer's reaction was quick: Not an easy question, he said. Then he harked back to his years tracking Iraq's biological weapons program in the 1990s. "We found evidence that unusual quantities of growth media had been imported," he recalled. "Also, we found munitions with markings that signified they were intended to deliver anthrax and other biological agents." Interviews with scientists and examining records were also essential in making determinations, he added.
In fact, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein repeatedly frustrated U.N. inspectors by providing them with incomplete information or by blocking access to suspicious locations. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must not be permitted to impose any such restrictions.
Identifying an illegal biological program is complicated by the fact that the required equipment is largely the same as that for legitimate activity. Syria's dozen or so pharmaceutical plants could be converted secretly and quickly to grow large stocks of pathogens from small quantities of bacteria or viruses. The same is true for the country's public health laboratories and vaccine production facilities.
Thus revelation about Syria's biological program requires three elements. The first is access by outside inspectors to the SSRC and other suspect facilities. Second, staff scientists and administrators at these institutions must be available to experts for interviews about their activities. Third, inspectors must be able to review the logs on biological research and production activities at these institutions during the past decade.
Unless outside inspectors have access to Syria's biological program as they presumably will have to its chemical inventory, the country's biological weapons status will remain unclear. But speculation on a subject with such deadly potential should not be the last word, especially when dealing with a dictator with a penchant for rampant murder. Assad has killed more than 100,000 Syrians in the past two years with bombs, guns, and grenades -- which prompts comment about why his regime has been fingered in the chemical murder of another 1,000. Who knows what misery he could unleash with a fully functioning biological arsenal?
The first large-scale use of chlorine, mustard, and other gases as weapons occurred during World War I. The indiscriminate nature of the exposures and the agony suffered by victims prompted a postwar international agreement, the Geneva Protocol, to prohibit the use of such agents in war. Subsequent treaties prohibit even the development and stockpiling of biological and chemical weapons. The taboo against biological weapons in particular was underscored by wording that first appeared in the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, which describes the use of these weapons as "repugnant to the conscience of mankind."
This morally charged phrase applies to all weapons of mass destruction -- chemical, nuclear, and radiological as well as biological. Permitting the use of any of these weapons without retribution weakens the taboo against all of them. Assad's professed willingness to relinquish his chemical arms has for now sidetracked the promise by Barack Obama's administration's to punish Assad for using them. Whether Assad will try to cheat on his chemical promise is an open question. But what is not in question is the imperative for disclosure and elimination of Syria's biological program.
Concern about Syria's biological and chemical weapons programs does not supplant the need to address the other horrors perpetrated by the Syrian regime. Further, the norm against the use of these weapons is not only a moral precept but a highly pragmatic one. Weakening the taboo against them would make their use more likely and more frequent. Ultimately it would risk a condition of WMD anarchy.