Viewpoint: Syria’s chemical and biological weapons capability

Professor Christine Gosden from the Department of Molecular and Clinical Cancer Medicine in the Institute of Translational Medicine said: “Syria is thought to have the most formidable chemical and biological (CBRN) capabilities of any Arab state, accumulated largely in response to the nuclear arsenal of Israel, Syria’s immediate neighbour.

“The rising instability and unrest in Syria coupled with calls for President Assad to leave power, are leading to escalating concerns about the control and dangers from Syria’s CBRN arsenal.  Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty or the Biological Weapons Convention which has put Syria beyond the inspection procedures of international organisations.  

“Reports suggest Syria’s CBRN stockpiles consist of hundreds of tons of chemical weapons including nerve agents Sarin, Tabun, VX and mustard agents and possibly the bioweapons anthrax and cholera.  Large stocks are apparently already weaponised into militarized form ready for use, in artillery shells, aerial bombs, cluster munitions and SCUD missile warheads.

“There are two major concerns. The first is of terrorists groups getting hold of these weapons, necessitating increased intelligence and homeland security.  The second is the possibility of civil war or internal conflict involving the use of this formidable array of CBRN against unprotected civilians.  

“Over the past 13 years we have undertaken medical research and treatment programmes into the medical effects of CBRN on unprotected civilians in partnership with the people and doctors in Northern Iraq to help victims and provide aid and learn how to protect the vulnerable.  

“The CBRN attack carried out by Saddam Hussein against Halabja in Northern Iraq, led to 5,000 immediate deaths and thousands of victims who today have major medical disorders, cancers and birth defects. The key lessons from the Halabja and other CBRN attacks in Northern Iraq include the need for rapid protection, help and decontamination.  These are essential to improve survival and prevent long-term health effects, but difficult in the middle of theatres of conflict with limited resources.  Saddam added to the suffering of his victims by denying the atrocities, refusing access to UN inspectors and preventing victims’ access to aid.

“Have we learned lessons from the world’s largest CBRN attack carried out 23 years ago by a powerful dictator armed with extensive stocks of CBRN in the adjacent politically unstable country?  The surviving victims of the Iraqi attacks demonstrate the catastrophic long term effects when CBRN  are used by the ruthless and fanatical.  Hopefully the key lessons of how to protect vulnerable civilians from CBRN have been learned before another catastrophe occurs.”

  • Recognising the need for a wide range of research expertise to understand the use and impact of CBRN weapons, the University of Liverpool is now supporting an interdisciplinary research network in CBRN weapons, within the University’s priority research theme of Security and Conflict.  Our experience in Northern Iraq has provided us with a unique knowledge base that, with additional expertise in decision making, conflict resolution and human rights, should contribute to international efforts to limit the impact of CBRN weapons in conflict regions.


  • Professor Christine Gosden has for the past 12 years been involved in a collaborative consortium ‘The Halabja Medical Institute’ undertaking a medical study in Northern Iraq of the effects of the chemical, biological and radiological weapons used by Saddam Hussein’s former Government of Iraq in more than 120 separate CBRN attacks on towns and villages in Northern Iraq in the Anfal genocidal campaign.  Professor Gosden has given testimony to the US Senate Judiciary Committee on Bioterrorism, given evidence to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, written OpEd articles for the Washington Post and written articles for leading medical journals on this subject including the BMJ and the ABC of Conflict and Disaster.  In addition she has published many articles in leading journals on Human Cancers and Fetal Medicine. She was awarded the US Congressional Human Rights Award in 2001.

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