For the second time in barely two years, Iran and Syria have suffered a serious accident in their joint WMD development program.
A report from Japan's Kyodo news agency--re-printed by the Jerusalem Post--indicates at least 20 Syrians died (and 60 more were wounded) during the failed test of a Scud missile in May. Intelligence sources tell the agency the missile was one of two fired from a launch site in southern Syria during the test. One of the missiles apparently veered off course and landed in a village near the Turkish border. All of the victims were Syrian civilians.
Details of the mishap remain vague. At this point, it's unclear if chemical or biological weapons caused the casualties, or the victims died as a result of the missile's impact in a local market. Residents were reportedly told that a gas leak had the explosion; the area was quickly sealed off by Syrian military personnel.
This latest accident comes only 25 months after a similar disaster involving Syrian missile forces. In July 2007, a short-range missile (probably a SCUD derivative) exploded during a warhead mating exercise. Israeli intelligence sources reported that 15 Syrian officers died in the blast, along with "dozens" of Iranian scientists and engineers. The test reportedly involved the mating of a Sarin nerve gas warhead to a missile that was already fueled.
Accounts of the disaster affirmed WMD cooperation between Tehran and Damascus, months before Israeli jets bombed a suspected nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert. Discovery of that complex--built by North Korea and reportedly funded by Iran--highlighted the growing partnership between the three countries, aimed at propagating Pyongyang's WMD technology in the Middle East.
To this day, the full extent of that relationship remains unknown. Obviously, Syria has received extensive assistance with its chemical and nuclear programs in recent years, as evidenced by that North Korean reactor that was flattened by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), and periodic test failures that manage to kill not only Syrians, but Iranians and--possibly--North Koreans as well. These ties have persisted despite program setbacks, including those highly-publicized failures.
Still, it is possible to over-state the relationship between the three countries, and its impact on Syria's WMD efforts. As we noted a couple of years ago, reports about the previous SCUD failure didn't quite ring true. Despite years of experience with liquid-fueled systems, the Syrian-Iranian team in 2007 tried to mount a warhead on fully-fueled missile. Given the volatility of liquid missile fuel, it was an invitation to disaster. Many western experts say the Syrians and Iranians got the process backwards; in most cases, missile fueling could come only after the warhead and been installed.
The number of personnel associated with the 2007 operation (more that 30 is excessive), considering the long experience of Syria and Iran in SCUD operations. The reported death toll is also surprising when you consider that operational protocols mandate that personnel involved in warhead mating and missile fueling wear required protective gear, including CBR (chemical, biological, or radiological) suits. Employment of that gear would--at least in theory--decrease the number of casualties caused by a leaking chemical or biological warhead.
However, one thing is clear: efforts by Tehran, Damascus and Pyongyang to produce and develop WMD are continuing apace, despite recent "engagement" efforts by the United States. And that is hardly surprising. North Korea and its partners have correctly sized their adversary, dating back to the final years of the Bush Administration. With Washington putting all hopes into diplomacy, our enemies are quite willing to talk (when it suits their fancy), while accelerating efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction and the required delivery systems.
That recent accident in the Syrian desert was clearly a disaster, but hardly a show-stopper. When the U.S. suffered a series of deadly crashes involving the tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft in the 1990s, the program was nearly cancelled. Recent accidents in Syria have killed far more personnel than the V-22, but Damascus views the casualties as nothing more than a cost of doing business. Bashir Assad--like his counterparts in Tehran and Pyongyang--will gladly sacrifice more scientists, engineers and technicians for the cause of a potent WMD capability. It's a deadly goal, but regrettably we're doing very little to deter it.