What to read on Syrian chemical weapons


1. The Times (£):

An investigation by The Times inside Syria into the April attack in Aleppo, including interviews with survivors and doctors who treated the casualties, along with an examination of video footage shot in the immediate aftermath, suggests that nerve gas is being used in Syria’s war. [note: see Borger piece below]

2. The Financial Times (£):

According to a senior western diplomat, the evidence of the use of sarin is based on two separate samples taken from victims of the attacks. One sample has been analysed by the US authorities, while the second has been examined by Britain’s Defence Science Technology Laboratory.

According to this diplomat, both the US and UK samples were taken from victims at separate locations and on separate dates in the conflict.

A senior British official said: “When you put everything together, both in terms of the hard evidence we have and the circumstantial evidence, then it is increasingly likely that sarin was used by the Assad regime.”

However the official added: “What the evidence does not tell us is things like the scale of use, the precise location and whether the sarin was weaponised. We do not yet have that hard information which allows us to make a categorical statement that would be unchallengeable in the court of international public opinion.”

3. Wired:

The blood samples were taken by Syrian opposition groups from alleged victims of that strike. But American analysts can’t be entirely sure where the blood came from or when the precisely exposure took place.

“This is more than one organization representing that they have more than one sample from more than one attack,” the source tells Danger Room. “But we can’t confirm anything because no is really sure what’s going on in country.”

What’s clear is that the samples are authentic, and that the weapons were almost certainly employed by the Assad regime, which began mixing up quantities of sarin’s chemical precursors months ago for an potential attack, as Danger Room first reported.

4. McClatchy:

Another person familiar with the issue, who asked not to be further identified because of its sensitivity, said that only a minuscule trace of a “byproduct”– a toxic residue left behind after use of a nerve agent, and which he did not identify – had been found in a soil sample.

“They found trace amounts of a byproduct in soil, but there are also fertilizers that give out the same byproduct,” the person said. “It’s far from conclusive.”

5. The New York Times:

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who is chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the [intelligence] agencies actually expressed more certainty about the use of these weapons than the White House indicated in its letter. She said Thursday that they voiced medium to high confidence in their assessment […] While several officials said the intelligence agencies expressed medium to high confidence about its overall assessment, two intelligence officials noted that there were components of the assessment about which the agencies were less certain. They did not offer details.

6. The Wall Street Journal:

“If the evidence is really fragmentary, then it is hard to say what you do militarily,” said Steve Simon, who served as a White House adviser on Syria in 2011 and 2012. “If you don’t know which units were responsible for the deployment of the weapons, you don’t really know who to hit, if you were inclined to hit anyone.” […] More likely, he said, is a diplomatic response through the U.N., possibly by asking for Mr. Assad to allow international inspectors into the country to investigate what happened more fully. “A military approach to the chemical-weapons problem is not anyone’s favorite option. It’s highly dangerous, so people are not going to want to go down that road, at least now.”

7. Arms Control Wonk:

One can immediately see the problem: The samples show sarin exposure, but they are not linked to specific, credible events […] Suddenly the constant references to the “small scale” use becomes more clear — we don’t have multiple victims in a single use, as might be expected if the Syrians gassed a military unit or a local community.  At most, we have two events in which only one person was exposed.

For all we know, these two poor souls stumbled into sarin canisters while ransacking a liberated Syrian military sites.  I don’t say that to be callous, but rather because strange things happen on the battlefield.  Remember, in 1991, US troops detonated a pit of munitions at Khamisiyah in Iraq only to discover that the munitions contained Sarin. The image atop the post is one of a series showing US forces detonating the munitions at Khamisiyah, exposing thousands of US service personnel to low-levels of sarin.  This was the worst event, but not the only potential exposure of US forces in 1991 to nerve agents. There are many ways that FSA fighters might find themselves exposed to Sarin.  I still think caution is important.

8. Nuclear Diner:

Chain of custody means assurance that the samples are what they are said to be. The sample is taken and sealed in a tamper-proof manner. The sample-taker signs off on a paper that accompanies the sample. Each person to whom the sample is transferred signs off on that paper. The reason is that samples can be faked from the start or adulterated somewhere along the line. Given the chaos in Syria, however, I doubt that a credible chain of custody can be produced, even if a piece of paper with signatures exists. You have to be able to believe all the people who signed off.

A quick Google search suggests that gas chromatography is the method of choice for analyzing sarin in blood. There seem to be at least two methods, both fairly involved. The more direct method is affected by the amount of time between exposure and analysis. We don’t know what that was in this case. I find the writeup of the other method confusing, but the paper lays out exactly how a sample could be faked. All that would be needed would be a very small amount of sarin, which might be, say, stolen from a laboratory, and someone’s (anyone’s) blood. Was the blood tested to show it was human?

9. Peter Beaumont in The Guardian:

The history of the allegations made about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction requires that proof is offered on public forums that can be adequately cross-examined. In this case, if it is true that the UK and French governments have soil samples that show sarin has been used, they should not only be shared with UN investigators but the chain of evidence showing how they came to have the samples must made public.

Until then, the caution of Chuck Hagel is the only appropriate response. He said last week that Washington will not be rushed into intervention by foreign intelligence reports, even those from allies. “Suspicions are one thing;” he declared, “evidence is another”. Given the history of British officials’ behaviour in the run up to war in Iraq, they should either do the right thing – disclose what evidence they have – or let the UN investigating team reach its own conclusion.

10. Arms Control Now:

Now, the international community must unite in efforts to achieve a full investigation of the evidence. In particular, the UN Security Council should meet to outline a course of action to prevent any further use of chemical weapons, including ensuring that the Syrian Government permits and facilitates access by the OPCW team the UN Secretary General has called on to conduct the investigation.

Despite having requested that UN investigate a possible chemical weapons attack that took place on March 19, Syria is currently refusing to allow inspectors to enter the country, unless the UN agrees to confine its investigations to that single incident.

All states, particularly Syrian allies such as Russia and Iran, should urge Syrian strongman Bashir al Assad to allow the UN investigation into the past use of chemical weapons to go forward unhindered and reiterate that the use of chemical weapons by any party in the Syrian conflict is unacceptable and individuals involved will be held accountable.  Iran, as a victim of massive Iraqi chemical attacks in the past, has a particular responsibility to condemn chemical weapons use.

11. Julian Borger in the Guardian:

Some of the videos in circulation online show alleged victims foaming at the mouth, but that is not listed as a sarin symptom on the website of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Richard Guthrie, a British chemical weapons expert and former head of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said: “That [foaming at the mouth] would not be indicative of use of nerve agents but is more likely to be a sign of a choking agent such as phosgene being used, if anything were used. Phosgene is a widely used industrial chemical as well as being a first world war-era chemical weapon.”

Jean-Pascal Zanders, an expert at the EU Institute for Strategic Studies, said: “It’s not possible that what is being shown to the public is a chemical weapons attack. The video from Aleppo showing foaming at the mouth does not look like a nerve agent. I’m wholly unconvinced.”

And, on a related note, my  co-authored RUSI paper, Iran: Red Lines and Grey Areas (PDF) on the concept of deterrent red lines, released today:

But any red line that allows for such post-hoc or ad-hoc re-interpretation is unavoidably ambiguous and correspondingly more prone to being tested […] As Scott Sagan notes, ‘risk and deterrence go hand-in-hand as a consequence of commitment: a state cannot get the extra measure of deterrence that comes from making threats without also accepting some extra risk of having to implement that threat if deterrence fails’. Diluting that risk also dilutes deterrence.


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