Thursday, November 24, 2016

Scientific Flight from Syria to Lebanon

Recently, I met a long time scientific colleague at a defense conference who happened to mention one of his Syrian colleagues had decamped to Lebanon. While this casual observation may be nothing more than names dropped into a conversation, it does beg the question of the consequences of 'scientific flight,' not only from the SSRC in Syria, but other, what I will call, "labs of concern" scattered throughout the Middle East and Asia. Moreover, should we, as Europeans, be worried about the potential risk of scientists from countries under sanction by Europe and the US, coming to work in our most sensitive pharmaceutical sectors or perhaps the transfer of their weapon knowledge via recruitment by Daesh?

One can recall the deep concern, after the fall of the Soviet Union, of scientists with biological, nuclear and chemical weapon expertise fleeing to states which offered lucrative contracts and the threat reduction programs developed to inhibit and keep track of a handful of these folks e.g. ISTC. As US threat reduction programs, over the past few years, have disintegrated are we safer now? Has the threat diminished? Common sense would seem to dictate that not only has the threat not diminished, it likely has increased as scientific communities are displaced throughout unstable regions wracked by war. One benefit of a strong Russia is the reduction of scientific flight from former Soviet military laboratories, however without restoration of the status quo in the Middle East in site, offensive weapon programs and the proliferation threat this poses, could well replace the former Soviet threat tenfold.

As my colleagues' colleague takes up residence in Lebanon any potential knowledge of offensive programs, run out of the SSRC which is currently sanctioned by the US Treasury Dept., could well pose a risk of knowledge transfer to forces hostile to the US, Europe and certainly Israel. According to a report by IHS Jane's Military and Security Intelligence Centre:

"Despite the existing range of sanctions against the organisation (see Box 4), the SSRC remains largely intact. Even if the current international effort to dismantle Syria's chemical agent development and storage activities are completed effectively, the SSRC has accrued and established a sizeable knowledge base and technical expertise. Aided by its enduring external support network, this capability could easily be resurrected some time in the future. The most recent co-operative international opportunity to curtail the SSRC's activities were measures adopted by the EU on 29 November 2012 (Designation 1117/2012). However, these focus not on the SSRC's proliferation activities or breach of international, US, and European law in pursuit Jane’s Page 5 of 6 of materiel or technologies to support its proliferation ambitions, but on human rights violations, namely providing "support to the Syrian army for the acquisition of equipment used directly for the surveillance and repression of demonstrators". Undeterred by the existing international sanctions and aided by concerted procurement activities, the SSRC's missile and rocket development has been secured and consolidated, and its proliferation momentum continues unabated.
The SSRC and entities operating on its behalf have appeared on the US list of Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs) since 2005 under Presidential Executive Order 13382, 'Blocking Property of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferators and their Supporters', which prohibited US citizens and residents from doing business with the SSRC. In 2007 the US Treasury banned trade with three subsidiaries of the SSRC: the Higher Institute of Applied Science and Technology (HIAST), the Electronics Institute, and the National Standards and Calibration Laboratory (NSCL)."

For a detailed description of proliferation issues with the SSRC see Jane's:

NATO Member States would surely benefit from a more defined common approach to this threat and a clear policy on countering proliferation of scientific flight from Syria to other states. As the perception of Russia as a Cold War enemy recedes, perhaps its time to assess the more realistic and long term threats posed by proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In order to secure Europe we will need to develop a more rigorous shift in our perception and resources to define a non-proliferation approach which emphasizes non-state parties; one which considers a new paradigm for dealing with Daesh recruitment of scientific experts. Maintaining command and control of scientific institutions within states of concern should be our raison d'etre.

Sanctions on the SSRC in Damascus