Chemical Belly of the Syrian Beast

With civil war raging, Syria, a state sponsor of terror, has attacked its own people with chemical weapons and attempted to skirt international sanctions. The United States, the EU, Russia and the U.N. must identify the full extent of the threat and eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons capacity. Syria’s Centre D’Etudes et de Recherches Scientifiques (CERS), the Scientific Studies and Research Center, is reportedly at the heart of Syria’s efforts to produce and disseminate weapons of mass destruction.

Established in 1971 to advance and coordinate scientific endeavors, it serves as Syria’s Los Alamos and is believed to be responsible for research and development of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons (CBW) arsenal. It also played a central role in Syria’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, which, thanks to Israel, is no longer active. According to U.S. and European officials, CERS answers to President Bashar al-Assad and the most senior members of his Alawi clan. French intelligence asserts that the clandestine Unit 450 of CERS has overall responsibility for the weapons stockpiles and for maintaining security over sites where they are held. As a direct result of work by CERS, Syria possesses the region’s largest CBW capability, estimated at over 1,000 metric tons. Government agencies on both sides of the Atlantic suspect, however, that there might be yet more.

Syria is the second country in the Middle East to deploy chemical weapons against its people. Iraq was the first, using mustard gas, tabun and sarin in the 1980s and killing an estimated 40,000 Iraqi Kurds and Iranians. The U.N. has presented “clear and convincing evidence” that on August 21 of this year, sarin used in Syria killed more than 1,400 people, including 400 children. Most of the international community believes the government is behind the attack.

Of added concern is the spread of these weapons within Syria and transferred to sub-state actors like Hezbollah and Hamas. CERS has reportedly been dispersing its stockpiles to as many as 50 sites around the country, impeding the West’s ability to track and destroy them through inspections or military strikes. The regime’s CBW have traditionally been held at several large sites in western Syria, but U.S. officials contend that CERS began to disperse them about a year ago.

Preventative measures

Over the last six years, Israel has allegedly carried out at least four airstrikes against Syria, three of them against CERS and related entities. The first, in 2007, destroyed Syria’s nuclear reactor in Deir Ezzour which, according to Israeli sources, was built and managed by CERS with North Korea’s assistance. The second and third strikes took place in January and May, targeting the CERS facility in Jamraya. Other Western allies have targeted CERS and its subsidiaries through other means. The United States maintains a blacklist of terrorism financiers, weapons proliferators and other illicit global actors. In 2005, President Bush issued Executive Order 13882, targeting CERS for proliferating weapons of mass destruction. Two years later, the U.S. Treasury expanded the program, pursuing CERS subsidiaries and blacklisting the Higher Institute of Applied Science and Technology (HIAST), the Electronics Institute, and the National Standards and Calibration Laboratory (NSCL) for their support of Syria’s WMD program. Other countries, including Japan and South Korea, have also targeted some or all of these entities.

Syrian rebels, too, have focused on CERS and its three subsidiaries, investing tremendous effort in seizing the main CERS facility in Damascus. They have also posted a “wanted list” (translation) of CERS employees, providing their names and positions, the types of cars they drive and other identifying information. The rebels recently assassinated Shaza Sliman, a CERS engineer and a teacher at HIAST, which according to the U.S. Treasury, is the main institution training CERS engineers.

Stopping Syria’s nuclear ambitions: the next steps

Short of neutralizing CERS through a bombing campaign, what can be done to stop Syria from maiming and killing innocent civilians? The United States and the EU should blacklist any international companies and individuals that continue to conduct business with CERS, HIAST, the Electronics Institute and NCSL and block their access to U.S. and European markets. In addition, they should publish the names of employees of these institutions, particularly Unit 450. Information from the rebels and human and signals intelligence can help identify those playing a role in the regime’s CBW program. Furthermore, many HIAST graduates and current and former CERS employees have profiles on social and professional networking sites, including LinkedInFacebook and Russian VK. Most live in Syria, but some reside in other countries, including throughout Europe, Latin America and even the U.S., where they are more easily reached.

The United States and EU should also consider cyber-attacks against Syria like the Stuxnet and Flame viruses used against Iran. Furthermore, no one should be surprised if Syrian scientists start meeting untimely deaths through assassinations, car bombings, drive-by shootings or “random” acts of violence. The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (U.N.ODA) and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) also have a critical role to play. U.N.ODA’s mission is to curb the use and deployment of weapons of mass destruction. The FATF is tasked with issuing standards on anti-money-laundering, terrorism finance and proliferation finance guidance and assessing countries’ compliance. U.N.ODA and FATF’s Typologies Working Group should issue a report on CERS (and its subsidiaries) and the methods they employ to finance themselves and procure weapons, then issue guidance to global financial institutions and law enforcement agencies on CBW proliferation.

The international community must prevent Syria from using chemical weapons again. This will require a strategy employing economic and diplomatic means; low-intensity conflict, such as cyber warfare and assassination; public diplomacy; and/or military means. Unless the international community addresses Syria’s flagrant use of weapons of mass destruction, other rogue regimes will assume they can use them with impunity, something that must be avoided at all costs.