The Dangers of Syria’s Bio-Warfare Complex Should Assad Fall: An Interview with Dr. Jill Bellamy van Aalst
by Jerry Gordon with Dr. Jill Bellamy van Aalst (January 2013)
The control of Syria’s unconventional chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction are of vital concern in a troubled Middle East should the Assad regime fall to Sunni supremacist opposition forces. An Algemeiner article on this threat had a comment by former Israeli Mossad director, Danny Yatom:
The conventional wisdom should be that we cannot exclude an un-conventional attack on Israel. We would have to pre-empt in order to prevent it. We need to be prepared to launch even military attacks… and military attacks mean maybe a deterioration to war.
Syria’s bio-weapons are a potential threat to Israel because of Syria’s avowed support of the Lebanese Islamist movement Hezbollah. The fear is that the Syrian government under president Bashar al-Assad has supplied terrorist groups with unconventional chemical and biological weapons that can be used against Israel. Israeli officials are also concerned because of Syria’s political upheaval; a collapse of govenment like that of Libyan dictator Muamar Qaddafi last year could allow Syrian rebels to obtain these unconventional weapons.
In both October and late December 2012, there were mysterious explosions at Hezbolleh arms depots in Baalbeck and South Lebanon. The Kuwaiti website al Jaridi reported that Israel may have bombed the Southern Lebanon site because “Syria had transferred missiles there that were capable of being equipped with chemical warheads. The missiles had been moved into Lebanon from Syria in the last several months.” David Ignatius writing in the Washington Post noted the threat of these unconventional weapons transfers from Syria to Iranian proxy Hezbollah:
What should we make of these reports? First, the Syrian chemical-warfare capability may be even more dangerous than people had thought, because the weapons can be moved to other locations and mixed en route. And, second, there’s a significant risk of proliferation to other groups, such as Hezbollah, which could pose a global terrorist threat.
Reports yield a bleak prognosis that is difficult to strategize against. Syria’s weapons are excessive in number, pervade the entire region, and are heavily defended by the Syrian army which is said to number 100,000 troops. According to a Pentagon study, uprooting Syria’s arsenal would require upwards of 75,000 troops.
The truth is that no one has much of a clue what to do about Syria – it’s too well defended and too full of weapons of mass destruction to mean that there can be any meaningful military intervention.
We had written as early as December 2007 on Syria’s vast bio-warfare establishment and its threat to Israel and the West if these unconventional weapons fell into terrorist hands, especially Hezbollah and Hamas –see “Syria’s Bio-Warfare Threat: an interview with Dr. Jill Dekker [Bellamy van Aalst].” Dr. Bellamy is a former consultant with the NATO Defense Establishment. In August 2011, we also probed the Syrian capability to deliver unconventional weapons in our discussion of “The Iranian Missile Threat.” Jill Bellamy van Aalst is CEO of Warfare Technology Analytics. She advises private business as well as government clients on biological warfare and bio-defense within the EU. In her capacity as CEO, she develops and runs biological and nuclear war-games for EU MoD. She is an SME on the Syrian and Iranian biological weapon complex. Previously she established a number of programs supported by NATO, Brussels.
In our 2007 interview with Dr. Bellamy, we noted the threat to Israel and even the US if Syria’s unconventional weaponry fell into terrorist hands:
Dr. [Bellamy Van-Aalst]’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 could result in mass casualties making it a real and present danger.
A recent report by former CIA agent Reza Kahlili on Iran’s secret production of bio-toxins had this assessment from Clare Lopez, Senior Fellow of the Washington, DC- based Center for Security Policy that could be equally applied to Syria’s WMD:
Lopez . . . said that, “From research published by Dr. Jill Bellamy van Aalst, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Dr. Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and others, we know that Iran, although a signatory to the Biological Weapons Convention, is reported to have weaponized anthrax, mycotoxins and smallpox. Iran possesses a sophisticated technological infrastructure, including university laboratories, within which it conceals its (biological weapons) program.
“The use or even threat of use of biological weapons by Iran – whether a bacterium like anthrax, a virus like Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis or a mycotoxin like yellow rain – would cross a red line, certainly for Israel and for the international community as well,” Lopez said. “Iran must know that even the threatened deployment of such biological weapons would invite an overwhelming military response that could devastate the country.”
Given the possible fall of the Assad regime, the destruction of Syria’s bio-warfare capabilities will be a daunting task. To gain an assessment of those dangers, we asked Dr. Bellamy van Aalst for this timely and important interview. She noted the changes since our NER interview with her published in December 2007:
The major change was the admission by Jihad Makdissi, the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs (MFA) confirming that Syria possesses biological weapons and by default a biological weapon (BW) Complex. Prior to this admission, the Syrian BW programs, although speculated in the public domain for years, had never been confirmed. In one sense we can breathe a sigh of relief that this is now established and acknowledged publicly by the Syrian MFA, however, we must now carefully address issues related to this announcement..
Jerry Gordon: Dr. Bellamy-Van Aalst thank you for consenting to this interview.
Dr. Bellamy van Aalst: Thank you for granting me this reprise.
Gordon: What changes have there been in NATO and SHAPE bio-warfare plans for the Middle East and North Africa in the past five years?
Bellamy van Aalst: Unfortunately, bio-defense is not a main priority of NATO and not that much has been achieved. NATO continues to field The Combined Joint Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Defense Task Force Task (CBRN) with the capability to field a deployable lab within a short time (a few weeks). According to my colleague Guy Roberts, former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for WMD Policy who oversaw the WMD Non-Proliferation Center and the Nuclear Policy Directorate and former DASG at the NATO WMD Center: “The Task Force is available to deploy assuming the US provides the airlift and may be used to respond to an Assad gas or bio attack in Syria. However, it is battalion sized and not nearly as large or as well equipped as it should be.” Unfortunately, at a time when the use of biological and chemical weapons is increasing, NATO is reducing its capabilities in the field of CBRN.
Official NATO policy is:
...NATO will work actively to prevent the proliferation of WMD by State and non-State actors through an active political agenda of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation as well as by developing and harmonizing defense capabilities and, when necessary, by employing these capabilities consistent with political decisions in support of non-proliferation objectives. Both political and defense elements are essential to a secure NATO.
The Alliance will be prepared for recovery efforts should the Alliance suffer a WMD attack or CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear – term for agents which can cause hazards to populations, territory and forces) event, within its competencies and whenever it can bring added value, through a comprehensive political, military and civilian approach.
But despite significant progress, however, major challenges remain.
Although the official line may be theoretically plausible it is highly unlikely NATO could field an actual battalion, due to practical issues such as the fact that this capability is voluntary.
Gordon: Since 2007 has the level of commitment and investment in bio-warfare programs been upgraded significantly by the Syrian military establishment?
Bellamy van Aalst: I think if we look at Syria’s commitment, they are increasingly prioritizing BW, where their chemical arsenal had always been the largest in the Middle East. Bio has gained some ground. An indicator of this is their stated intent to develop an agile BW Complex and to this end we are seeing a structure that reflects this goal. Compartmentalization is a hallmark of nearly all clandestine biological weapon programs. It is also a characteristic which has historically diverted identification of such networks. It should be noted that while most pharmaceutical firms are subordinate to the Ministry of Health or Education, institutions suspected of conducting BW research are often subordinate to the respective Ministries of Defense or state security services. Laboratory scientific teams may also be drawn from sections of military elite as in the case of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The interface between military and civilian institutions, a sophisticated clandestine network covering thousands of facilities and under the oversight of the IRGC or any other military or security service, is highly concerning. In the case of Syria, all of their military designated biological research facilities are overseen by Shu’bat al-Mukhabarat al ‘Askariyya—their military intelligence service. At the facility level there are often, but not always, specific indicators of a possible BW programs. We have seen these indicators with the Syrian programs. While we haven’t seen a spike or major increase in their investment in this, we have seen a steady increase and that is perhaps more concerning.
Gordon: What external resources has the Syrian military establishment drawn upon to develop and expand its bio-warfare capabilities since 2007?
Bellamy van Aalst: The trend we see is an increase in scientific cooperation as well as joint training operations. This applies as well to the Iranian BW Complex, a primary contributor to the Syrian BW Complex along with Russia and the DPRK (North Korea). Of increasing concern is collaboration between the Al-Assad regime and that of Sudan. The Khartoum government back in 2000 was rumored to have allowed some bio-chemical field testing in an open air military installation. This was arranged by Iraqi intelligence officers. This cooperation appears to have not only continued but solidified. It is more visible and the contributions by Iran, specifically their Qods Force to this end, appear to have increased. This is an alarming development for a number of reasons. The ability to train on bio-weapons offers the opportunity to gain more expertise, accuracy, and sophistication in deployment. The Quds association with a number of proxy terrorist organizations and these types of joint agreements and training offered in an African nation increases the risk that Hezbollah or other terrorist organizations will be provided with training and or weapons. The recent bombing of the Yarmouk Industrial Complex in South Khartoum is probably a good indicator of the level of concern Western allies and Israel has regarding Sudan’s continued cooperation with not only Syria but Hezbollah. It is alleged some BW testing has been conducted using a selection of prison populations, Christians and primates.
Another ‘structural shift’ which has occurred across Syria’s BW Complex is the use of companies established to avoid end-user designations. Like Iran, they import dual use technologies perhaps only once or twice and then disappear. The goal is to circumvent export control lists. It is very difficult to prevent this type of proliferation.
Gordon: To your knowledge what pathogens and toxins has the Syrian bio-warfare establishment developed since our last interview and what is their propensity to produce mass casualties?
Bellamy van Aalst: Again, they work on all the major BW agents that one typically associates with a sophisticated BW Complex. It is my view that they have acquired strains of avian flu from an outbreak North Korea suffered a few years ago, which was monitored by several states in a rather creative way. I believe they shared those strains and studies with the SSRC. That is probably the most significant new addition to their program; not the most concerning however. They are consolidating some of their BW sections in the north and have transferred sections from the SSRC. I am still concerned with their camel pox/smallpox program. In terms of probability I believe it would be more likely that they would use a more traditional Category A pathogen. For the main reason that they would have had many more years to field test and I’m not sure they are there yet with their H5N1 (or variant) studies. I think at this stage it is important to distinguish between the uses of BW against terrorists or civilians inside Syria versus its use against Israel. One would select different pathogens for different targets. You would have a higher probability of anthrax use in country, even for theater denial versus using it against Israel which would be far less effective. The reason for this distinction is that while anthrax is one of their primary BW, Israel has antibiotics in its strategic national stockpile which would moot the use of anthrax. If they use a highly modified strain this might change the targets, however, I think their current anthrax program would still be susceptible to counter-measures. Inside the country however, Assad could deny medical counter measures (antibiotics) to the population, thereby making anthrax far more effective domestically. Then there is also the issue that anthrax is endemic in Syria so Assad could make the argument that this was a natural occurrence. It would complicate a response. Chemical weapons are probably going to be more effective for external use. However, BW is weaponized to be highly infective and transmissible so an indirect epidemic should not be ruled out. Chemical weapons are probably going to be more effective for external use.
Other pathogens in their toxin and parasitic programs include cryptosporidium. These are in my view more useful as tactical weapons. I would still consider smallpox or Variola Major to be a possibility. That is for most Western societies ‘unthinkable’ even for some intelligence communities they would dismiss this out of hand, particularly several NATO states. We need to get over this concept that bio-weapons are unthinkable and invest in bio-defense and protect personnel and our forces in the region as well as our civilian populations.
Gordon: To your knowledge have Syrian bio-warfare programs continued to be supplied by Russian, West German and even American research and technical processing entities?
Bellamy van Aalst: West German, American or other Western signatories to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) have not traded in listed pathogens with Syria, since they respectively ratified the Convention. However, it appears Russia, Iran and the DPRK continue to trade in pathogens, technology and conduct joint scientific studies with the Centre D’Etude et Recherche Scientifique (CERS), in English: Scientific Studies Research Centre SSRC and a facility at Cerin. By studies I mean clinical trials and field testing. Russia has continued to provide technical support and a few years ago helped Syrian scientists install anthrax in missile warheads.
I think the emerging concern is the role that Africa is and will play in the future not only in terms of Syria but Iran, Russia and the DPRK. The Yarmouk Industrial Complex was substantial, but it was primarily a chemical weapons complex. Primary biological research and development is still conducted at the SSRC with indications that Khartoum offers field testing of developed, weaponized agents. Another institute of concern is the Higher Institute for Applied Sciences and Technology which western intelligence services have tied to Syria’s biological weapon program. This particular institute has fairly strong research associations with UN and EU research institutions, as well as the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Gordon: What if any sanctions has the US and EU developed against trade in bio-pathogens research and processing technology with Syria?
Bellamy van Aalst: For a number of years the US and EU have imposed various sanctions to inhibit Syria’s proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Various sanctions are aimed to prevent proliferation to terrorist organizations which Syria supports, as well as sanctions designed to prevent dual-use technology sales. In addition there are a number of international export control regimes which prohibit export of dual use. These ‘treaties’ are irrelevant to terrorist proxies as well as their state sponsors. The majority of academics and diplomats involved in debating the BTWC are relating to an obsolete world view and certainly an obsolete vision of how BW programs are being developed in certain states. I think this highly theoretical concept of non-proliferation is out dated. I think we also need to be careful of clinging to the concept that BW is some special type of weapon morally repugnant in the West, and therefore must be perceived this way by states like Iran or Syria. This is not the case. Syria incorporated BW into its conventional arsenal some years ago and, although abhorrent, BW is just another kind of weapon a terrorist or state can use. Both the US and EU have increased sanctions over the past year on a number of individuals as well as several officials of the Mukhabarat. What is new in the equation is the focus now on the Sudan. Included is Syrian use of front firms to acquire technology such as advanced fermenters, bio-reactors and other types of technology associated with benign vaccine and pharmaceutical production. This type of dual use is extremely difficult to control. Ambassador John Bolton was instrumental in pushing for sanctions against Syria and the proliferation of WMD and continues to draw attention to the threat Syrian BW poses.
In addition to sanctions, the US and EU have run a number of threat reduction initiatives with inconsistent results over the long term. These types of threat reduction programs were essentially designed to counter a Cold War threat where you had stockpiles and laboratories that you could gain access to assess a BW program. This type of threat reduction in my view is totally obsolete. This became very clear during the Iraq inspections. In discussions I’ve had over the years with former inspectors, they found a biological weapon complex. From a scientific view point, inspectors found a substantial biological weapon complex in Iraq. The media and the public were led to believe that biological weapons are mounted in missiles or stored in canisters - not found on a petri dish in a refrigerator. Current BW programs are very elegant in design. In my work with Warfare Technology Analytics we have been working to develop a new threat reduction paradigm to deal specifically with Middle East proliferation of biological weapons. I view proliferation within the Middle East as significantly different from Cold War threat reduction programs applied to Russia. The primary difference between previous threat reduction programs that concentrated on Eastern Europe and Russia is the proliferation of these weapons to state-sponsored Jihadi terrorist groups. This emerging equation requires a far more comprehensive approach and one that is applicable in a relatively standoff environment; where we have no direct access to laboratories, facilities or institutes.
Middle East threat reduction requires a far more aggressive and comprehensive approach to deter the proliferation of biological weapons. In my view, any new threat reduction paradigm must have a component wherein ultimately we take out those scientific teams. BW is heavily underpinned by knowledge transfer and we need to be prepared right now to target and take out their scientific teams as has been done in Iran with several of their nuclear scientists. This must be a component of a total threat reduction plan. We need to prepare to systematically take out sites in Damascus, Cerin, Tal Snan, Sjinsjar, Latakia, Palmyra, and many others, should the regime of Bashar Al Assad fall. I believe we will have an opportunity to do so as state structures collapse. It is imperative that we don’t let that opportunity slip by as we could immediately face an array of bio-chem armed terrorist organizations. Should the Assad regime fall next month, we need to level those sites.
Gordon: How has the Syrian military control over its bio-warfare program deteriorated since 2007?
Bellamy van Aalst: I don’t believe it has deteriorated at all. I still believe the Syrian MoD under Fahd Jassem al Freij is fully in control of Syria’s Biological Weapon Complex. What we may see is the seizure of sections of the programs running in Aleppo, Homs, Cerin and Damascus, if the Assad regime were to collapse. We should be concerned if they lose command and control. That may increase the risk of accidental release and or deliberate attacks by terrorist groups. I think without hesitation, we (the United States and our NATO allies), should provide Israel and France with unconditional support in terms of technology, intelligence, offensive or defense capabilities, whatever they require. Although I know this will not happen. Changes in Iran will have a direct impact on Hezbollah and their ability to field biological weapons. Obviously as the security situation inside Syria deteriorates, Qods forces, already in country would have a clear advantage in their ability to target and seize these programs. This would present a realistic worst case scenario for Israel that must be very fully assessed. I am quite confident it is being assessed.
Syria’s BW Complex should be viewed as a military investment for Iran so it would be unlikely that they are going to allow their contributions to be taken over by allied or NATO forces should that time come. I would speculate that they have taken preventative measures to ensure they don’t lose those programs if the Assad regime collapses.
Gordon: What new means of delivery does Syria have now for its bio weapons?
Bellamy van Aalst: I’m concerned about Syria developing means to deploy BW using MPADS (man-portable air defense systems). I think this would be a very effective tactical use of some BW agents and very useful to Hezbollah if that technology were available. It could be more tightly targeted on certain populations without it being associated with a BW attack. It would have the appearance of just being a small ordinance. Due to lengthy incubation periods it may be difficult to trace it back to this type of deployment platform. I’m not suggesting that they have this in any kind of operational form, but it would be interesting to see. Certainly with anthrax this would be an interesting area to consider due to its hardiness and spore encapsulation. Additionally, Syria has anthrax which was genetically modified in Russia and manufactured to withstand detonation.
Gordon: How much of a threat is the Syrian bio-warfare capability to Israel and US forces in the Middle East, e.g., the Persian Gulf region?
Bellamy nan Aalst: I think it is a very real threat. However, I think that threat will substantially increase if we can’t secure those programs and if they fall into the hands of Hezbollah, Al Qaeda or the Qods Force. I actually believe transfers have already occurred. If so, then we are really in serious trouble. Unlike chemical weapons where you have a stockpile and missiles that you can track you just don’t have biological weapon caches that you can watch in real time 24/7. I would say that back in 2007 during our interview I cautioned that we needed to increase our HUMINT and access to scientific teams in order to maintain any kind of surveillance of those programs. The media is focused on Assad’s chemical weapons because those are relatively easy to understand and count. Assad’s BW Complex is not. It’s multi-layered, compartmentalized, and very difficult to assess in actual quality which is the hallmark of biological weapons not the quantity as is the case with his chemical arsenal.
Gordon: What does the US intelligence community (IC) know about the extent of the Syrian bio-warfare threat and location of complexes?
Bellamy van Aalst: We need to remember that back in 2003, when coalition forces entered Iraq several of their top biological weapon scientists fled to Syria. These scientists, notably Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash and Rihab Taha would have had extensive knowledge of very advanced technologies which the SSRC stood to benefit from. In addition sections of Saddam’s program were physically moved to Syria. General Sada, a former Iraqi general, detailed some of these operational transfers. Taha had previously headed up the massive BW programs at Salman Pak facility and Al Hakum. I believe that back in 2003 US intelligence made efforts to gain visibility on several sites but these efforts then waned.
Since 2007, I believe with the help of other services they have made some gains and more visibility than was possible previously. One of the issues back in 2007 is that this just was not a priority for the US IC. I think there were several involved who shared the frustration of recognizing the danger of the emerging Syrian BW program posed and the US IC did not respond in a very concerted way. Ambassador Bolton continued to define the Syrian BW programs as a growing threat to national security but it was low priority. It was not a popular topic of interest at the time. Now we are at the point where that lack of interest, lack of will, has cost us dearly. The US is still dependant, in my view, on Israel and other intelligence services. One could question the wisdom of allowing second hand intelligence. At this point, having not invested in this particular area of WMD intelligence, after dismissing it back in 2006-7, their dependence is probably no longer optional.
Gordon: In your opinion, has the US developed any effective counter measures to contend with the Syrian bio-warfare threat?
Bellamy van Aalst: I don’t think until this up-rising which started over a year ago, was of primary concern. It is difficult to develop ‘effective’ counter measures within a year. My view would be that they probably are not prepared for a full scale BW attack against US targets or military instillations including embassies and/or missions. I think there is a reluctance to believe that BW could ever be used, that should Assad lose command and control these weapons would be transferred to Hezbollah (if that hasn’t already occurred). If this were perceived as a real threat we would be conducting more exercises, training and preparing our people, vaccinating them, procuring more specialized types of equipment. We are not doing this at the level that would either interdict or pre-empt such an attack. Given Syria’s advanced genomic studies within their BW programs and specifically their continued acquisition of genetically modified pathogens from the DPRK, there are real concerns regarding particularly their smallpox program. I would draw the conclusion that again BW is complex and chemical is just easier to cope with, so the focus is on chemical. Even talking with former UN inspectors they have expressed to me sheer frustration at the lack of understanding and interest in these types of programs.
Gordon: Could Syrian bio-weapons be used as WMD producing significant mass casualties in Israel, the EU and here in America?
Bellamy van Aalst: Yes. In the current situation terrorist organizations are very active and within proximity to a number of these sites and facilities. Should one of these organizations acquire even some of the basic programs they could be transferred very easily to Hezbollah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), or any number of other highly sophisticated terrorist groups. Yes, they will use them against pre-designated targets which they have had for several years. This is not some random type of attack which they could initiate. Moreover, I would caution that specifically with Hezbollah, if they use biological weapons, and they deploy it say in Argentina or Brussels against Jewish or western targets, even NATO, this should be viewed not as a bio terrorist attack but as a biological warfare attack. That distinction is critical. It is crucial to defining a response against a State sponsor.
I view Hezbollah as a standing military. They have excellent counter-intelligence sections; they are highly trained by the Qods Force, Iran’s elite IRGC Special Forces. Hezbollah is not comparable to other terrorist organizations because they are so well established and advanced technologically. If, for example, Hezbollah were to use biological weapons against Israeli soft targets or even targeting Jewish population centers abroad, their status would exponentially rise among global Jihadi terrorist groups. We must fully appreciate that their use of biological weapons would be directed by a State not as an independent operation. In contrast to this, if a state were to use BW, even Syria, the status of that state would be put in immediate jeopardy and international condemnation; if not immediate military retribution would occur. This is something even Assad realizes. He is a rational actor. Of huge significance and I really can’t over state this, is that while Syria’s chemical weapon facilities can be monitored 24/7 this is not the case with their BW programs. This is because the BW programs are compartmentalized, clandestine, use embedded programs where half the research is legitimate and the other is covert. This is very difficult to monitor what essentially is an industrial complex and highly clandestine weapons development. This includes: vaccine facilities, veterinary facilities, agricultural manufactures, universities, medical research facilities, firms dealing in pre-cursor material import, advanced technology import, the list goes on. Now there are ways to monitor a laboratory in a standoff environment and that may be useful to an extent when you are evaluating say a vaccine laboratory. However Assad and the Ministry of Defense have sought over the last few years to have a highly agile BW Complex and it is quite elegant in design. I would anticipate that Qods Force will most likely take control of Assad’s BW Complex. So one can draw conclusions as to how they may choose to use it against the US, EU and Israel. In a wider context, we need to be careful not to ‘package’ the EU into one entity per non-proliferation efforts and expertise. The UK has for example foreign policies which serve to undermine Israeli security, so we must be careful when certain states involve themselves in the Middle East. France, on the other hand, has extensive experience in Syria and possibly the tightest counter-terrorism and counter proliferation laws of any European state. Moreover, French services have the resources and capability to intervene should Assad lose command and control and to secure these sites.
Gordon: Given reports of IDF Sayeret (Commando) tracking of CBW caches, what means does the IDF have at its disposal to intercept and destroy them?
Bellamy van Aalst: I think at this point, given the sensitivity of the on-going situation it is probably an area which should not be detailed or discussed. I’m fairly confident Israel has the capability to cope with any loss of command and control per the Assad regime’s BW Complex.
Gordon: Have Syrian Opposition Militias or Hezbollah secured access to bio-warfare facilities?
Bellamy van Aalst: In my opinion, no, in the sense that they haven’t over-run the facilities. But I would consider that Hezbollah has already been provided BW and that both Hezbollah and Qods Force have had strong associations with people inside these facilities for many years. Certainly they have had direct access to the Syrian Ministry of Defense and Mukhabarat. I would suggest that Qods Force is probably guarding some of the main institutes and installations. Again, this needs to be viewed as an investment for Iran; they are not going to risk other disenfranchised groups stealing their property.
Gordon: Given the presence of the IRGC Qods Force in Syria, has it asserted control and the means to distribute bio-warfare technology to terrorist proxies, Hezbollah, PIJ and Hamas?
Bellamy van Aalst: Regardless of Syria’s BW Complex, Qods Force already has this capability and has trained Hezbollah on the use of biological weapons. It appears that Qods Force also have arranged some training for Hezbollah inside Sudan. This has been on-going for several years now. It would be very naive to think that they haven’t provided Hezbollah with both chemical and biological munitions since they have provided them with every other type.
Gordon: In your opinion what additional steps should America, Israel and NATO take to combat the Syrian Bio-warfare threat and its proliferation to terrorist groups?
Bellamy van Aalst: At this point it’s very difficult to counter this threat. Aside from bio-defense planning within the US and NATO it is going to be a challenge. It is interesting because we are facing a problem we had the opportunity to prepare for back in 2003 when Ambassador Bolton warned about these very threats. Very little in concrete terms was achieved with regard to threat reduction per Syria. Now we have Qods Force inside facilities where Assad maintains his BW complex and you look back in dismay at all the time that was wasted and lost. Israel is perhaps a quite different story as they have certainly maintained an interest and have the capabilities required to pursue these interests regarding the Syrian BW Complex. I would expect that they have undertaken an invasive approach. Israel regularly runs war games which include their civilian populations in preparation for such attacks. In addition to being attacked routinely by Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist organizations, I think for Israel, I won’t say this is ‘manageable’ but it is not ‘unthinkable.’ For the US, EU and NATO nations it is still ‘unthinkable.’ Having that mindset inhibits efforts to pre-empt and even prepare for mass casualty events with biological weapons released by Hezbollah. Again, I make the distinction with Hezbollah because there could well be criticism that other terrorist organizations might also release biological weapons and this may be true. However, I believe Hezbollah stands alone in their resolve to wipe out Israel as well as the extensive training they have under-gone in Iran on BW. A state backed terrorist organization will have almost unlimited resources at the military advisory and technological levels to mount a massive BW attack. Very different than say a cult or non-state backed terrorist organization. I believe there is a very high probability they currently possess a number of BW agents.
Gordon: Dr. Bellamy van Aalst many thanks for this highly informative interview.
Bellamy van Aalst: Thank you for inviting me.
Also see Jerry Gordon's collection of interviews, The West Speaks.
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