Syria Missile Update – 2005

Since the Risk Report last looked at Syria’s missiles in 2000, Syria has continued to expand its arsenal, which now consists of many hundred liquid-fueled Scud-type missiles, as well as solid-fueled SS-21 and FROG missiles. Syria’s most notable recent achievements have been to start producing Scud-type missiles at home, and to begin equipping them with chemical warheads. Nevertheless, Syria still depends on outside help to make both solid-propellant and liquid-propellant rocket motors.

Making missiles at home

In December 2001, the U.S. National Intelligence Council reported that “with considerable foreign assistance, Syria progressed to Scud production using primarily locally manufactured parts.” It also reported that “Syria has developed CW warheads for its Scuds and has an offensive BW program.” In July 2003, an Israeli official claimed that Syria had equipped its missiles with VX nerve agent. In September of the same year, then-U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, John Bolton, testified that Syria had a “stockpile of the nerve agent sarin that can be delivered by aircraft or ballistic missiles, and has engaged in the research and development of more toxic and persistent nerve agents such as VX.” In the future, Syria will undoubtedly press for longer-range, more accurate missiles, many of which will be equipped with increasingly potent chemical warheads. Its immediate goals are to improve missile accuracy, master warhead separation, and acquire radar-absorbing materials.

To advance its missile program, Syria has built up a network of agencies, headed by its Ministry of National Defense and coordinated through its Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC). Another important node of Syrian missile development is the Higher Institute for Applied Sciences and Technology (HIAST). In addition to its work on missiles, HIAST has been linked by both the Japanese and British governments to Syrian chemical and biological weapon programs. Notwithstanding its ties to weaponry, the institute claims that it owes much of its success to French universities, and that it 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.

Testing Scuds

Syria has not kept its missile progress secret. In May 2005, Israeli officials reported that Syria had test-fired one Scud-B and two Scud-D missiles, the latter having a range estimated at 435 miles. In a mishap, one of the missiles disintegrated over Turkish territory, resulting in questions to Syria from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs-and then a Syrian apology. Israeli officials who spoke about the test contended that the missiles used North Korean technology and were designed to deliver air-burst chemical weapons. The officials also pointed out that the event marked the first time Syria had tested a missile over a neighboring country, in particular a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Russia’s Iskander-E

To supplement what it gets through civilian channels, Syria has tried to open military pathways. In January 2005, the media reported that Syria was negotiating the purchase of Russia’s formidable Iskander-E missile, which would have a 280 km-range and a 480 kg-payload. The proposed sale of the Iskander-E with its reported electro-optical terminal guidance system, boost and terminal phase maneuvering, and low radar signature would have offered Syria some of the accuracy, maneuverability, and missile defense countermeasures that its present missiles lack. The Iskander-E negotiation eventually foundered. Nonetheless, the negotiations reflect the possible future direction of Syria’s missile arsenal and the acquisition route it may take.

Imports and exports

Despite its progress at home, Syria still depends on foreign help. North Korea continues to provide essential assistance in liquid-fueled rocketry, while Chinese, Russian and Iranian entities are aiding in solid-fueled rocketry. In January 2005, press reports indicated that Russia agreed to forgive more than 70 percent of Syria’s $13 billion debt to the Soviet Union, cited by the CIA as a major factor impeding Syria’s military purchases from Russia. In the future, Syria is expected to shop in particular for machine tools, flow-forming equipment, components for producing solid rocket propellant, measurement and control systems, and autoclaves. The main procurement destination for missile-related imports is the Scientific Studies and Research Center. The Army Supply Bureau and the Higher Institute for Applied Sciences and Technology have also played a role.

Syria is also emerging as a retransfer point. According to the Iraq Survey Group, which studied Iraq’s mass destruction weapon effort for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Mr. Firas Tlas, director of the Syrian company MAS Economic Group and son of Syria’s former defense minister, offered in 2001 to sell or provide assistance to Iraq in producing the Iskander-E. The Syrian offer was made, according to the former minister of Iraq’s Military Industrialization Commission, because Russia was unwilling to sell Iraq weaponry without an end-user certificate. To avoid this problem, Syria was to become the transit point. The Survey group also reported that in order to assist Iraq’s illicit procurements from North Korea, the Syrian company SES International Corporation served as an intermediary. These events show that in the future, Syria must also be viewed as a missile supplier.

The U.S. reaction

In May 2004, the Bush administration issued an Executive Order announcing that it would punish Syria under the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003. The Executive Order declared that Syria possessed “one of the most advanced Arab state chemical weapons capabilities,” which included “a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin,” and was “believed to have chemical warheads available for a portion of its Scud missile force.” The Executive Order forbade the U.S. export to Syria of any item appearing on the U.S. munitions list, the export of any other product from the United States other than food and medicine, and the landing or take-off from the United States of any aircraft owned by the Syrian government. In June 2005, the United States also targeted Syrian entities by freezing the assets of the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) and, at the same time, by adding SSRC, SES International Corporation, and Asif and Zuhayr Shalish to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list. These actions send a strong message of condemnation, but only have effect in U.S.-held institutions and territories.