Syria: A Strategic Assessment

By Sean Osborne, Associate Director, Military Affairs
and Aharon Etengoff of WeaponSurvey.com

14 April 2008: An observer of recent articles emanating from or about the strategic situation in the Middle East might come away with the impression that the Islamic Republic of Iran poses the most immediate and formidable regional threat to peace, or that HAMAS in Gaza and the West Bank and Hezbollah in Lebanon, acting as proxy forces of Iranian designs, might constitute another facet of this same threat. That impression is correct to a certain degree. However, the current center of gravity for the prospect of an imminent eruption of regional warfare lies in Syria.

A brief of Syrian strategic WMD programs, weapons and delivery systems follows to illustrate the immediate threat, as well as in support of the conclusion of this assessment.

Nuclear:

Syria maintains a small 30kW neutron research reactor at Dayr Al Hajar, (under IAEA safeguards), and operates a uranium recovery micro-pilot plant at Homs. Syria has also begun construction of a radioactive waste processing facility to manage waste resulting from the production and application of radioisotopes.

In July 1998, Syria and Russia signed a memorandum regarding the construction of a 25-MW light water nuclear research center. In January 2000, Moscow approved a draft program with Damascus that included cooperation on civil nuclear power. In May 2001, Russian and Syrian officials discussed construction of a $500 million tri-superphosphate factory near the city of Palmyra – which would be part of an overall agreement to develop a nitric fertilizer production facility in Deyr ez-Zor and a phosphate fertilizer plant in Homs. In January 2003, Russia and Syria reportedly began negotiations over the construction of a $2 billion nuclear facility that would include a nuclear power plant as well as a nuclear desalination plant. However, the Russian Foreign Ministry denied that such discussions had occurred.

Phosphatic Rock & Uranium:

Syria has an abundance of phosphatic deposits and produces approximately one-fifth of the phosphate rock mined throughout the entire Middle East. Indeed, the Homs uranium recovery plant was designed as a precursor to a pilot and industrial scale plant. Potential operations included refining, conversion, enrichment, and fuel fabrication. However, industrial-scale uranium extraction was deemed financially unfeasible. Nevertheless, Damascus signed a tripartite contract with the IAEA and an unknown entity in 1996 to ameliorate the recovery of uranium from triple superphosphate .

In January 2005, Israeli Mossad Chief Meir Dagan noted that “there must always be an intelligence effort to check the recent information on the start of nuclear programs in Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”

Missiles:

Arsenal

The current Syrian missile arsenal includes hundreds of liquid-fueled Scud-type missiles, as well as solid-fueled SS-21 and FROG missiles. Syria has also begun indigenous production of Scud-type missiles, but is still dependent on foreign assistance for the production of solid-propellant and liquid-propellant rocket motors.

Missile Development

Syria continues to work toward achieving a solid-propellant rocket motor development and production capability. Syria is also developing a liquid-propellant missile program with Russian and North Korean aid. In addition, Syria has attempted to assemble liquid-fueled Scud C missiles, and is developing longer-range missile programs such as the Scud D as well as other variants, also with assistance from Moscow and Pyongyang. Media reports indicate that Syria has discussed procurement of the No-Dong intermediate-range missile with North Korea.

SSRC & Procurement

Damascus has established an intricate network of agencies, headed by the Ministry of National Defense and coordinated via its Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), to advance its missile program. In addition, the Higher Institute for Applied Sciences and Technology (HIAST) has been linked by Japan and the UK to Syrian missile, chemical and biological weapons programs. It should be noted that HISAT participates in scientific cooperation and exchanges with the European Community, United Nations organizations, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Russian Academy of Sciences, as well as British, Canadian, and German universities.

Iskander-E missile

In January 2005, media reports indicated that Syria was attempting to negotiate the purchase of Russia’s Iskander-E missile (range of 280 km and a 480 kg-payload). Negotiations were ultimately unsuccessful; however, the Iskander-E would have provided Syria with an accurate projectile.

Syrian Scud Test Flight

In May 2005, Israeli officials reported a Syrian test launch of one Scud-B and two Scud-D missiles, the latter capable of a 435 mile range. One of the missiles apparently disintegrated over Turkish territory. According to Israeli officials, the missiles utilized North Korean technology and were designed to deliver air-burst chemical weapons.

Other Methods of Delivery

Syria maintains 10 squadrons of fighter-ground attack aircraft (Su-24, Su-22 and MiG-23 BN), 16 squadrons of fighter aircraft (MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-25 and MiG-29A, and Su-27).

Chemical & Biological Weapons:

Syria currently possesses a stockpile of 100- 200 Scud missiles fitted with sarin warheads. A number of these missiles may be fitted with V-agent warheads. In addition, Syria is believed to have stockpiled several hundred tons of sarin and mustard agents loaded onto artillery shells and air-dropped munitions.

In December 2001, the U.S. National Intelligence Council reported that Syria “has developed CW warheads for its Scuds and has an offensive BW program.” During an interview published in 2004, Syrian President Bashar Assad admitted that Damascus had developed chemical and biological weapons as a last resort defense against Israel.

Conclusion:

The regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus lies between Iraq and a very hard place – nuclear-armed Israel. From the recent renewed forward deployment of Russian naval power once again being based at the Syrian port of Tartus, to multiple political assassinations in Lebanon linked to Syria, to the July 2007 explosion of a VX chemical warhead mounted on a ballistic missile at a secret weapons plant near Aleppo, to the highly secretive September 2007 Israeli ground/air assault on what was identified as an under-construction North Korean nuclear weapons facility in northern Syria, to the intermittent threats of war over the Golan Heights, to the assassination of master terrorist Imad Fayez Mughniyeh in Damascus (directly under the noses of Syrian al-Mukhabarat) last February, and the promised retaliatory strike, to the most recent reports concerning the status of Syrian military intelligence chief Assef Shawqat all serve to underscore that the regime in Damascus has many forces tearing at it from multiple axes.

The potential threat of the Syrian regime to lash out against Israel, in concert with the aforementioned terrorist proxies and consistent with the agenda of its Iranian ally, cannot be understated nor underestimated. A massive Syrian preemptive missile-borne chemical warfare assault against Israel is the most significant near-term impetus for a regional war. This would clearly be a war of unimaginable consequences. Such a scenario was the apparent driving force behind the probability versus risk assessment which subsequently determined the urgency for the Israeli government to complete the recent “Turning Point 2” exercise.

Link to this assessment in .pdf