The World Hasn't Tackled Syria's Real WMD Nightmare

Forget the nerve gas. It's Assad's bioweapons program that should keep you up at night.

A recent U.N. report on chemical weapons use in Syria has strengthened claims that the regime killed more than a thousand innocent Syrians, including hundreds of children, with the nerve agent sarin. Video images after the Aug. 21 attacks showed victims frothing at the mouth, convulsing, and suffering tortured deaths. But the effects of a chemical attack, horrible as they are, can be minuscule compared with a worst-case assault with a biological weapon.

Sarin, like similar nerve agents, degrades after release and poses little danger over an extended period. But bacteria, viruses, and other bioagents reproduce and could make an area more dangerous with the passage of time. A microorganism that causes contagious disease such as influenza or smallpox could infect individuals who further spread the disease, thus turning them into biological bombs. Such germ-caused outbreaks have occurred throughout human history.

A lethal strain of influenza killed more than 50 million people during the 1918-1919 "Spanish flu" pandemic. An estimated 300 million people died of smallpox in the 20th century. Although smallpox was deemed eradicated in 1980, the virus is still legally stored in a laboratory in the United States and at another one in Russia. Suspicions have been raised that it might be illegally held elsewhere as well.

Some lethal agents, like anthrax bacteria, are highly durable and could pose a long-term danger at a site of infestation. This was amply demonstrated after anthrax spores leaked from threat letters that were sent in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Scores of buildings were later found to contain anthrax bacteria, including the Capitol, the Senate and House office buildings, the Federal Reserve, the Pentagon, and numerous postal facilities. Several remained closed for months before they were properly decontaminated. One postal sorting center didn't reopen until 2005.

The danger posed by biological weapons continues to be broadly recognized. A 2012 Aspen Institute report on weapons of mass destruction, titled "WMD Terrorism," reiterated a White House determination that "effective dissemination of a lethal biological agent within an unprotected population could place at risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of people."

With this understanding, it would be irresponsible not to press for full disclosure about Syria's biological program. Views about the Syrian program vary from the belief that it poses no immediate threat to worry that it might already include the production capability of agents that cause anthrax, botulism, and other fatal illnesses.

A 2008 assessment by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency reflects this uncertainty. It affirms that Syria "has a program to develop select biological agents as weapons." Yet it also says the regime "is not known to have successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system." The statement, larded with qualification, hardly offers a sense of comfort.

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.

Photo: JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images


Remember Cairo?

While Washington focuses on Syria and Iran, Egypt looks headed for a dangerous and destabilizing insurgency.

With the world focused on the crisis in Syria and the possibility of a U.S.-Iranian détente, the fact that Egypt's political situation is going from bad to worse has flown under the political radar. Much to the relief of the generals in Cairo -- and likely also some members of U.S. President Barack Obama's Middle East policy team -- the United States appears to be kicking another difficult regional policy decision down the road.

This is a mistake. By countenancing the July 3 coup and the military's subsequent crackdown on the supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, the United States may be helping to sow seeds that could ripen into a costly and deeply destabilizing insurgency for years to come.

The Obama administration responded to the military crackdown, which resulted in more than 1,000 deaths, with the diplomatic equivalent of a few light raps on the knuckles of Egypt's generals. It canceled joint military exercises with Egypt and announced that the White House's national security staff would begin a comprehensive review of bilateral aid. Since late August, a recommendation to suspend the majority of U.S. military assistance to Cairo has been sitting with the president. Meanwhile, Egyptian security forces have re-escalated their campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, raiding the movement's strongholds and arresting the few remaining senior Brotherhood figures not already in custody.

The Obama administration knows that things are not going well in Egypt. U.S. officials -- privately and rather halfheartedly -- tried to walk back Secretary of State John Kerry's bizarre claim that Egypt's military leaders were "restoring democracy" and have also delayed delivery of F-16 fighters to Egypt. However, Washington's overall response to the undoing of Egypt's democratic process has not come close to matching the gravity of the crisis.

The Obama administration's anemic response is indicative of the larger strategic drift of America's response to the 2011 Arab uprisings. In the immediate aftermath of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, Obama admitted that the United States had not pushed hard enough for democracy in the Arab world, and he promised a new way of doing business in the region. At arguably every major juncture since then, however, whenever Washington has had the opportunity to demonstrate its support for genuine democracy in Egypt, it has instead opted for some version of the "authoritarian bargain" that characterized U.S. regional policy for decades.

Obama's address at the United Nations last week on Sept. 24 seemed to confirm the reality of American policy. In the world-weary tones that have come to define his speeches, Obama acknowledged in unusually explicit terms that democracy was secondary to Middle East policy and that security concerns and "core interests" would take precedence.

The Obama administration appears to be hoping that the Egyptian military, despite its brutality -- or perhaps because of it -- will provide a modicum of stability. This risks repeating the same mistakes of the pre-Arab Spring era: While a sense of calm has returned to parts of Cairo, the specter of renewed violence still looms large. An insurgency is gathering pace in the Sinai Peninsula, with a sharp increase in attacks on security personnel after Morsy's ouster. Meanwhile, the state has lost control of some pro-Morsy strongholds, requiring the use of overwhelming force in the towns of Dalga and Kerdasa in an attempt to regain its authority.

These flare-ups may prove to be only an initial taste of what's to come. The Algerian civil war, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands, offers a cautionary note: The conflict spiraled into full-scale violence not right after the military's January 1992 coup, but at least seven months later.

To make matters worse, the new Egyptian government does not appear to aspire to a return to the stagnant ancien régime, but something worse and more dangerous. Unlike Hosni Mubarak's regime -- which tolerated a certain level of dissent in parliament and the media -- this new political order is aiming for a far more all-encompassing grip on power, where even the mildest criticisms of the Egyptian Army can lead one to be branded a traitor. The sort of repression we are seeing today -- including four mass killings over the summer, one of which was the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history -- will have lasting consequences for Egyptian society. As the New York Times reported recently, "Neighbors have turned against one another and families have been torn apart" by political divisions.

With every passing week, Egypt's authoritarian order entrenches itself even further. On Sept. 23, Egypt's judiciary took yet another dangerous step, banning not just the Muslim Brotherhood but "all the activities that it participates in and any organization derived from it," as the presiding judge put it. Before this decision, there was the possibility that, while the Brotherhood would be dissolved, its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, might be permitted to operate. This now seems increasingly unlikely.

Instead of waiting for any number of negative scenarios to become a reality, the United States needs to move away from ad hoc crisis management and fundamentally shift its policy on Egypt.

There are no quick fixes, but that is no excuse for doing nothing.

First, the United States should suspend its military aid to Cairo. It should also outline the conditions under which its support can resume, which should include the reintegration of Morsy's supporters and anti-coup activists in the political process. This would reintroduce some clarity into U.S. policy and signal that foreign assistance to Egypt cannot continue in any form -- reduced, restructured, or otherwise -- under the present circumstances.

To maximize its leverage, Washington should coordinate this shift with its partners in Europe, Japan, and others in the region, such as Turkey and Qatar. Each individual piece of assistance may not sound like much, but taken together, they can have a real impact. Any International Monetary Fund deal for Egypt -- which along with associated grants and commitments could be worth up to $15 billion -- should be premised on tangible political progress involving all key parties.

Some Egypt watchers, like former U.S. National Security Council regional director Steven Simon, have argued that Washington has little leverage because Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries have pledged to replace any shortfall in funding. This is simply not true. Riyadh and its neighbors can replace lost economic aid, but they cannot provide the military equipment and training that are essential for maintaining Egypt's most advanced tanks and fighter jets. Military-to-military relations between Washington and Cairo have been built over decades and cannot be undone without Egypt incurring considerable and likely prohibitive costs.

Saudi Arabia has also threatened to withhold security cooperation if the United States cuts aid. This is a bluff, and Obama should call the kingdom on it. Riyadh supports the Syrian rebels and backs counterterrorism efforts because such policies are squarely in Saudi Arabia's own interests, not because it's trying to please U.S. officials. It's the United States that has the leverage in this relationship: Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates, is dependent on the U.S. security umbrella, particularly as it relates to the Iranian threat.

Ultimately, the United States needs to fundamentally reorder its strategic priorities in Egypt. In a new Brookings Doha Center paper, we argue for moving beyond the mythology of Camp David -- the idea that Washington needs to "buy" peace with Israel from Cairo -- and rejecting the idea that the Arab world faces a choice between security and democracy. Instead, it should act in accordance with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recognition back in 2011 that "the real choice is between reform and unrest." 

In the long run, U.S. strategic interests can only be preserved by supporting the emergence of a genuine democracy in Egypt. Countries that are accountable to their citizens are more stable because they offer citizens peaceful, legitimate means of expressing their grievances. The "stability" of authoritarian regimes, on the other hand, is brittle and illusory -- as the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia showed us in the early, euphoric days of the Arab Spring.

It is striking how such lessons, which had once been acknowledged by the Obama administration, can so easily be forgotten. The dangers, meanwhile, are becoming more and more difficult to ignore, whether in the form of authoritarian retrenchment, mounting insurgency, or the loss of Egyptian government control over its own territory. The temptation to look away from the Egyptian train wreck is undeniably powerful, but it is a temptation the United States must resist.

Photo: MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images