Syria's Bio-Warfare Threat: an interview with Dr. Jill Dekker

by Jerry Gordon (Dec. 2007)


When news leaked out of the September 6th Israeli Air Force and commando raid on a Syrian Nuclear facility followed by revelations about the deaths of dozens of Iranians and Syrians in a Chemical warfare missile accident in July the world was jarred. Recently, it was revealed that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) had aided Syria in its chemical warfare programs. I noted in a recent interview with former US UN Ambassador John Bolton his early concerns about the Syrian Bio Warfare threat. Questions arose, specifically about the size, nature and danger of the Syrian bio-warfare military programs.  For answers and professional views on how extensive the Syrian bio-warfare threat is, we turned to Dr. Jill Dekker, a consultant to the NATO Defense Establishment in bio-warfare and counter terrorism. Dr. Dekker is also a member of the board of advisors of the Intelligence Summit.

Dr. Dekker’s answers give a foreboding picture of how large and refined the Syrian bio-warfare programs are and how little Western Intelligence knows about how the programs were developed.  The potential exists for a significant WMD threat in the Middle East and the West, especially, against America.  Syria is a proxy ally of Iran, North Korea (DPRK) and terror groups such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Thus, the supply of bio-weapons and delivery platforms that could results in mass casualties makes it a real and present danger.

We were pleased that Dr. Dekker took time out from her professional work to answer questions about the Syrian bio-warfare establishment and WMD threat.

Jerry Gordon: Tell us briefly about your professional background and research background in Bio-warfare.

Jill Dekker:  Well, I started working on bio-safety several years ago under the guidance of a colleague at the World Health Organization in Geneva and the concern then was Laboratory Acquired Diseases (LAD’s) and how best to protect workers and the environment from accidental exposure to dangerous pathogens. There were few national requirements to report sharps and sticks accidents as well as other accidents. If you recall Vector in Novosibirsk Russia had an accident with a senior scientist who subsequently contracted Ebola-Vector failed to report the incident until 12 day had passed and by then it was too late for the US team en route to save her life. I also worked on notification for zoonotic diseases (transmissible from animal to human) to public health authorities. Back then in the EU emergency animal disease outbreaks, even with public health consequences, were only notified to the OIE, which is the World Organization for Animal Health. There was little regulation on the reporting of public health cases of Campylobactor, Listeriosis, E-coli 0157 and or strains of Salmonella. Keeping in mind here that with the exception of variola (smallpox) nearly all Category A biological warfare pathogens are zoonotic. I then worked with several organizations involved with the UN Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in Geneva. It was during this work in 2000 that I really came to understand the threat state biological weapons programs posed.

In 2001, when the US suffered its anthrax attacks, everything changed. We went from looking at bio-safety as an aspect of protecting workers and the environment, to bio-security and trying to safe-guard High Consequence Pathogens mainly in P3 and P4 facilities from terrorists. The P4 or Biological Safety Level 4 (BSL4) before 2000 were usually associated with national defense programs. A P4 laboratory or is the highest level of laboratory containment for handling mainly warfare agents or what might be considered battle strains. We went from bio-safety to developing various interventions to prevent the theft, diversion and sale of High Consequence Pathogens by terrorists from laboratories.  After the US postal attacks, institutions such as Sandia, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the World Health Organization in Genève were instrumental in developing this concept of “bio-security” or protective measures for laboratories. Bio-security has remained a focus in the United States and Europe. Events over the last three or four years have shifted the perception of bio-security significantly. While bio-security is certainly still on the agenda, the relationship of states and terrorists has changed.  I now focus on state supported bio-terrorism whereby pathogens don’t need to be stolen or diverted. A state warfare lab, such as exists in Iran and Syria today, could easily provide their terrorist surrogates with the most advanced biological agents for covert operations. This is far more likely and would be far more devastating in terms of kill ratios than some lone terrorist group trying to weaponize pathogens without state support or a warfare laboratory.

Gordon: You are currently a consultant with the NATO Defense Establishment, what are your principle duties?

DekkerFor the past few years, I’ve developed a number of programs which NATO supports and in which NATO is a full participant. Additionally, I represent both governmental and defense industry clients who are interested in collaboration with supranational military structures such as NATO, US Dept. of Defense or Ministries of Defense on this side of the Atlantic. I’ve also worked on national assessments of Mid-East bio-warfare programs and as a strategic advisor for McKenna, Long and Aldridge, LLP in Washington D.C. on their Bio-Defense practice.  I have consulted with the Public Health Preparedness program for the European Homeland Security Association under the French High Committee for Civil Defense. I developed and ran war games for this program.

Gordon: You have written and presented extensively to international groups in the US, EU and Middle East on Syrian Bio-warfare. How did you get interested in the subject?

DekkerInitially, I became interested in looking at bio-safety standards mainly of East European laboratories and the types of pathogens which were being transported pretty much without regulation to other nations in Africa and the Mid-East. The World Health Organization, which I consulted with, was interested in these areas as well. Some laboratories in Africa and the Mid-East tend to have a lower level of bio-safety containment. A P4 is extremely expensive to build and maintain so nations with fewer resources tend to work on their bio-warfare programs in labs which may not be suitable. In the course of this two things happened; I was looking at issues related to the Soviet programs, what pathogens they may have provided to Iraq, Syria, Iran and the DPRK, specifically I was looking at their smallpox and botulinium programs. Then in Afghanistan, you may recall, the US recovered documents which Al Qaeda had on their bio-programs. I moved from an interest in bio-safety and bio-security to looking at the threat state biological warfare labs pose and the types of criteria we need to assess them. Most biological weapons research is dual use. It is quite difficult to determine if it falls within the BTWC, which allows defensive research, or if it is "offensive" which is prohibited. These programs are usually a nation’s most sensitive weapons sections. Thus, it can be very difficult, but not impossible, to estimate how advanced they are.

Gordon: What have your investigations revealed about the level of commitment and investment in Bio-warfare programs by the Syrian military establishment?

DekkerContrary to how the US State Department and other agencies tend to downplay the sophistication of the Syrian biological and nuclear programs, they are very advanced. Syria has always had the most advanced chemical weapons program in the Middle East.  The US and other western agencies have in a sense been distracted by this, but their biological programs and the “concept of use” are robust. Syria’s biological weapons capability today is closely tied to the former and current Soviet and Russian programs respectively, the DPRK, Iran and the former Iraq regime. A major concern is their strategic concept of use - which has gone from one of ‘special weapons’ to incorporation into their ‘conventional arsenal.’ That is a significant shift and one that seems to have eluded the US. The Syrians run their biological programs out of the Syrian Scientific Research Council (SSRC) in Damascus.  They have separate wings for separate pathogens. They also have a number of programs running in Aleppo. The Syrians are 100% committed to deniable operations as their modus operandi. Biological weapons, particularly those which might occur naturally, are the ultimate in deniability, for example, their cryptosporidium program for force reduction.  The Wednesday Report noted a few years ago that in terms of the Syrian anthrax program, Syria has extensive expertise in the industrial cultivation of germs and viruses for the civilian production of anthrax (and smallpox) vaccines. It also noted that Russian experts, contracted by Syria, are apparently helping them to cultivate a highly virulent anthrax germ for installation in missile warheads. Their pharmaceutical infrastructure is fully integrated with their defense structure.  Syrians cannot reach parity with US and Israeli conventional weapons. However, they view their bio-chemical arsenal as part of a normal weapons program.  This is a huge shift in thinking by the Syrian military.  It means they condone the use of biological pathogens as 'offensive' weapons. NATO and the United States should be very concerned about that re-designation.

Gordon: What external resources did the Syrian military establishment draw upon to develop its Bio-warfare capabilities?

DekkerThe Syrians work on most Category A pathogens: anthrax, plague, tularemia, botulinium, smallpox, aflotoxin, cholera, ricin, camelpox.  Some of these they acquired during natural outbreaks, others they acquired from the Soviets, Russians, DPRK, Iran and Iraq. Some of these pathogens such as their botulinium program have their own facilities and sections within chemical weapons institutes and defense labs; others are in veterinary vaccine research facilities and have a ‘latent’ component. Keep in mind ‘defensive’ biological research is completely legal and prior to the 1980’s it was normal to trade in pathogens, even dangerous ones. Although the US gave up its bio-warfare program in the 1960’s, the BTWC of 1972, ratified in 1976, had no verification mechanism. Offensive programs were not that uncommon. The Soviets hid theirs (Biopreparat) and it was massive. US intelligence agencies denied the Soviets could possibly have such a massive program - even after the defection of high level scientists- such Vladimir Pasechnik. You have to wonder at what point they are going to sharpen up and see that nations like Syria also have a robust advanced biological weapons program. Things have changed with genetic modification and other technologies which make the need to 'stockpile' biological weapons obsolete.  The Syrians are intent on having a very agile program; additionally they work on a number of crash programs. Thus, we see a progression from the old Soviet days of bio-weapon development to a far more contemporary way in which the Syrians have made tremendous gains from the Soviets and more recently the Russians and the DPRK. The Syrians also acquired some of their dual-use technologies completely legally when companies such as Baxter and other bio-pharma concerns were developing factories in Damascus. The majority of their bio-programs stocks have come from Russia, Iran and the DPRK.

Gordon:  We heard that some of the late Saddam Hussein’s Bio-warfare research and pathogens may have been transferred to Syria during Operation Enduring Freedom.  Is that accurate to your knowledge, and who facilitated the transfer? What types of bio-warfare agents and materials might have been transferred?

DekkerYes. It is important to remember that the Iraqi programs were far more advanced at the time than what the Syrians had, and were developing.  The delivery of certain pathogens in a ‘weaponized’ form taught the Syrians new techniques they previously had not mastered. This is very problematic. I am less concerned about the types of pathogens or specific pathogens as these were available to Syria from other sources.  What Hussein’s transfer taught the Syrians was more sophisticated ways of weaponization and dispersal. I believe Russian special ops- their Spetsnaz teams - transported sections of the programs. Remember these are not MIRVed ICBM’s we are talking about - you don’t need to stockpile biological weapons. It is the quality of the pathogen and ‘weaponization’ or aerosolization, milling processes that count, not the quantity.  I don’t believe they moved some biological arsenals into the Baqaa Valley in Lebanon, perhaps sections of their chemical and nuclear weapons, but not the biological programs.  Those are much too sensitive to dump in the desert. They must be carefully maintained in a defense laboratory. If you take something like Bot - I gram of crystalline Botulinium is estimated to kill about a million people if it were evenly dispersed - you don't want to bury it out in the desert.

Gordon: To your knowledge what pathogens and toxins are the Syrian bio-warfare establishment developing and what is their propensity to produce mass casualties?

DekkerSyria posesses Category A, B, and C pathogens and toxins. To my knowledge the most problematic program, I believe was transferred, was the Iraqi camelpox program - the fact that Iraq had this program in the first place is a problem. That it was one of their major programs, which UNMOVIC had detailed the first time around, is a big problem. It’s a problem because camelpox research and other types of orthopox research can and have been used as a safe substitute for conducting smallpox research. A particular issue I have with smallpox research conducted in rogue states is that these programs most likely are not based on vaccine preventable strains. So the US national strategic stockpile of smallpox vaccine, which has cost the US tax payers billions of dollars to stockpile, may be totally non-efficacious against a battle strain developed in Syria, Iran or the DPRK. There were reports a few years back, that something like the India 1 strain, which is considered exceptionally virulent, can be prevented with modern attenuated vaccine.  However, this is first of all not an absolute and secondly India 1 which is associated with the 1971 Smallpox outbreak in Aralsk, Kazahkstan which came from Vozrozhdenie Island may not resemble genetically modified strains.  It creates a false sense of security to think that out of 128 strains, only four (the most prevalent previously naturally occurring strains) are the ones rogue states would choose to reintroduce smallpox.  It is naive to think that states developing weapons of mass destruction are going to select a strain we can prevent. The Soviets ramped up their work on smallpox once they knew the WHO had declared it eradicated and that the United States had ceased vaccination against it. The US national stockpile is based primarily on the Ankara strain (Modified Vaccinia Ankara). Syria also has high capacity samplers now that are exceptionally useful in field testing biological weapons, again, another possible acquisition from Iraq. They have recently mastered different types of dispersal methods which may have come from the Iraqi programs. As I previously mentioned, Syria works ‘offensively’ on most Category A bio-warfare pathogens as do a number of other states.

Gordon: To your knowledge have Syrian Bio-warfare programs been supplied by Russian, West German and even American research and technical processing entities?

DekkerYes, several West European nations (Germany, the UK, Holland, France), the US and Russia were trading partners of Syria and supplied technologies which could and were used for offensive programs. At that time it was not illegal - the only firm I know specifically which seems to have caught the attention of the US Dept. of Justice was Baxter Pharmaceutical. At the moment the main bio-pharma trading partners are the DPRK and Russia. The Iranians have supplied scientific teams which will advance their weapons knowledge. The Syrians have also been somewhat successful at third party bidding through countries in Africa.

Gordon: How extensive has the Syrian Bio-warfare program become and who in their military and defense establishment is directing and controlling its development?

Dekker:  The Syrian biological warfare programs are administratively run under the SSRC in Damascus.  They have one of the most highly developed pharmaceutical industries in the Mid East.  It is overseen by the Ministry of Defense under General Talas and their intelligence services. This is rather unusual as most western pharmaceutical firms are overseen by a Ministry of Public Health. There is also Saydalaya which is their foreign procurement board for all chemical and biological imports. I would say the Syrian bio-pharma sector is highly interfaced with the defense establishment. They also have a number of veterinary institutes – again oversight is from the Ministry of Defense.

Gordon: What means of delivery does Syria have available for its bio weapons?

Dekker: Well they’ve mastered micro-encapsulation which is necessary for aerosol dispersal. They have experimented with parachute dispersal techniques for orthopox based on Soviet methods.  They are also developing micro aerosol dispersal technologies which have no military application.  This is probably the most alarming as it is designed for terrorist use. They are also looking at amplifying virulence. Syria wants to develop a very high quality arsenal and a very agile one, hence their crash programs. They do of course have a sophisticated chemical weapons program for which missile delivery is far more complementary. Remember, if you are preparing to do a covert release of a biological agent you don’t necessarily want to use something as traceable as a crop sprayer.  The Syrians are perfecting advanced dispersal technologies that will be for use against civilians but far more sophisticated than the use of a crop duster.

Gordon: How much of a threat is the Syrian Bio-warfare capability to Israel and US forces in the Middle East, e.g. Iraq?

DekkerSyria poses an immediate and imminent threat to the United States and Israel. The most likely use of their biological weapons arsenal against Israel would be to reduce IDF fighting forces prior to an attack on the Golan. It’s conceivable they could incapacitate the IDF for a few days even with a non-lethal pathogen or repetitively weaken civilians in Lebanon, where the water supplies are unprotected. This could be an optimum use of their bio-arsenal. That might not be as catastrophic as some fear, but it would be very effective. Obviously, there are more serious scenarios one can imagine in terms of deniability, if they have produced vaccines to protect their military and maybe their civilians against more lethal strains of virus such as smallpox. The immediate threat is their ability to reduce fighting forces. They have a strain of pneumonia that is probably very effective and they had a crash program on cryptosporidium prior to last year’s war in Lebanon. If you look at regions in Lebanon with known concentrations of anti-Syrian civilians, it may be possible for Syria to contaminate water distribution systems with a pathogen like Crypto which is impervious to chlorine and will pass through most filtration systems. Such a contamination could infect significant sections of a population. Even in the United States, there have been natural outbreaks. There is no treatment available, so it could have quite an impact. There are other concerns such as the use of pre-deployed biological agents in the event that Iran is attacked by the United States. Again, here we should pay close attention to how the Soviets planned for Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). They planned their smallpox program specifically in the event of MAD so that smallpox would wipe out whoever was left. It’s not beyond reason to consider that the Syrians and Iranians have engaged in such contingency planning

Gordon: Does the Syrian Bio-warfare establishment have co-operative weaponization programs on-going with Iran, Sudan and other terrorist sponsoring states?

DekkerSimilar to Iran’s collaboration on their nuclear testing with the DPRK, Syria has joint efforts for field testing their biological agents. It appears they have done some field testing with the cooperation of Khartoum. There is also evidence to suggest they have conducted tests on sections of their prison populations. Iranian scientific teams are known to work within the SSRC system on bio-warfare programs and certainly they have high level exchanges on their chemical and nuclear programs. Russia has sent scientists recently to work within their bio-chem programs.

Gordon:  We noted Israeli and some mainstream media reports about an alleged chemical warfare accident in July 2007 that took place in Syria and killed ‘dozens of Iranian and Syrians technicians and officials.’  Are you able to confirm that through your sources? Have there been equivalent technical accidents in the Syrian Bio-warfare programs?

DekkerThere have been a number of accidents with their biological weapons programs that have killed civilians in the past in cities like Homs and Aleppo. The July 2007 accident was a far more serious and immediate one.  As is the case with chemical munitions, the types of previous accidents took time to develop and tended to produce chronic symptoms. Some of those programs were ended and it appears that casualties from former bio-programs were related to ventilation problems. This latest accident appears to have occurred while they were mounting a warhead. Syria is known to have a stockpile of chemical weapons and accidents happen. It is interesting to note that Iranian scientists were involved in that activity.

Gordon: How much does the US Bio-warfare establishment and intelligence community know about the Syrian Bio-warfare threat?

DekkerIt is similar to the US negligent underestimation and denial that the Soviets had a massive biological weapons program.  The US Intelligence Community negligently underestimates and denies the sophistication of the Syrian biological weapons programs which is very unfortunate. I think it has been very difficult for the US Intelligence Community to procure knowledgeable sources due to internal institutional problems. Former US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton has tried since 2001 to warn the US about the threat the Syrian biological weapons programs poses. His warnings have fallen on deaf ears. I hope Israel is helping the United States because it would appear the US is really not up to this challenge. The US public should demand that our military is first and foremost protected. Every soldier should carry Factor Seven and should be vaccinated against smallpox, have botulinium anti-toxin available and anthrax vaccine. This should be standard protection for our military personnel operating in the Middle East. Obviously in other areas we need counter medical measures to prevent VHF's (Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers). The US public needs to be informed that the intelligence community is falling far short here in protecting them. Other US allies are not, they are up to speed. Again as an American citizen it is unbelievable to see such negligence in the US intelligence community.  Having lived in Europe for 20 years and working as a defense consultant on Category A warfare agents, this is not the standard approach of other NATO nations. There is something deeply disturbing with the US approach. Time will tell as unfortunately it did with 9/11.

Gordon: In your opinion, what has prevented the US from recognizing the significance of the Syrian bio-warfare threat and developing effective counter measures?

Dekker:  I believe there is a specific mind-set within the US intelligence community which makes it difficult for them to procure sources in the Middle East and of course the lack of language ability is a problem for them as well. I’ve lived outside the US for nearly 20 years now and what I’ve seen in their approach is not reassuring. Most of their experienced officers are gone. The US State Dept. moves their staff about every three years which is not compatible with building long-term relationships. They appear not to have the Human Intelligence (HUMINT) resources required for long term assessment of WMD programs. Because they have not taken appropriate defensive measures in view of the potential consequences of a WMD attack, they have left the US exposed. It’s also problematic that the US relies heavily on technology and has done so for a number of years. Biological weapons cannot be assessed by satellites anymore. Perhaps during the old Soviet era but now science has moved beyond this. I believe the US incompetence in this field and its arrogance could eventually lead to a successful strike on the US by a rogue nation-possibly in the very near future.

Another problem for the United States as a result of their inability to assess Syrian programs accurately is their failure to inform the US public on the real threat they face. The smallpox program is a case in point. The US may not be able to protect its citizens with its ‘treasured’ national strategic stockpile of smallpox vaccine. Who wants to be the one to come out and announce that to the US public? Who wants to say they have no idea how advanced the Syrian Botulinium or Plague programs are because they don’t have any access? It would be very unpopular if the US public knew they were potentially defenseless and that the people charged with protecting them had dropped the ball again. What is disconcerting is they don’t seem to be able to recognize, acknowledge and correct their prior mistakes, such as the denial of the Soviet Biopreparat programs. If they don’t start taking Mid-East biological weapons programs more seriously the U.S. is likely to suffer far worse attacks than 9/11.  The US intelligence community is inadequately equipped to deal with this threat.

Gordon: Could Bio-weapons developed by the Syrian military establishment be used as WMD producing significant mass casualties in Israel, the EU and here in America?

Dekker:  Yes, Syria is very good at conducting covert operations.  They have a number of technologies available which they could provide to either Special Forces or terrorists who could release them in airports, other transportation hubs, airplane ventilation systems and that would cause mass casualties. I certainly believe they have very advanced biological weapons capabilities and we are at a point where there really aren’t any technological obstacles for them to overcome in dispersal or deployment. This is why intelligence is so vital in this area. It is probably the last line of defense, so to neglect it, or deny that one should allocate resources for prevention, is odd. Some biological weapons use pathogens which don’t need to be ‘weaponized’. This requires specialized intelligence techniques not used for tracking chemical or nuclear weapons. Of all the countries Israel is by far the most prepared to handle the release of biological weapons. The nations of Western Europe are unevenly prepared and the United States is probably not prepared. In such an attack, the country would probably suffer major mass casualties. I think the Syrians are much more sophisticated than the US intelligence community realizes. This puts American lives at immediate risk. The American public should demand that the US intelligence community close the gap in their intelligence on the Syrian biological weapons programs. Additionally, they have underestimated the Syrian nuclear programs for several years as well.

Gordon: In your opinion what should America, Israel and NATO do to combat the Syrian Bio-warfare threat and its proliferation to terrorist groups?

DekkerThe US intelligence community could start by acknowledging that Syria has an advanced, well developed program and take things a bit more seriously. It would be helpful if they stopped tasking resources to intimidate US scientists abroad who are informed on Syrian biological weapons. The US Intelligence Community seems particularly risk averse. It’s almost as if Syria couldn’t possibly have such a program because their scientific community isn’t advanced enough. Syria’s scientific community is exceptionally advanced and sophisticated. They work closely with Iran, Russia and the DPRK.  They have vast expertise to draw upon. Their conventional weapons programs may fall far behind Israel and the US but they have leveled the playing field considerably with their unconventional weapons arsenal. It has been their goal to do so.  If you deny something exists and seek to intimidate those who say it does, then any preventive measures to protect your citizens are lacking.  Other NATO nations are preparing for deliberate disease outbreaks and acknowledge that Syrian biological weapons programs are a threat. These efforts may now be accelerated given concerns over Syria’s nuclear program that caught many off guard.

Israel on the other hand is well prepared. Its citizens have experience with Scud attacks and Israel is poised to interdict WMD attacks because their intelligence services are so competent.

Biological weapons and terrorist use of them require excellence in intelligence not incompetence and denial.

Gordon: Thank you Dr. Dekker for this most informative and I’m sorry to say, frightening discussion of the Syrian bio-warfare threat and why America has not done enough to recognize and combat it.

Dr. Dekker suggests that for more information you consult “Biological Terrorism: The Threat of the 21st Century” by Marie Sultan for the types of technological advancements which might be a concern.


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