What to read on Syria and chemical weapons, Part II

Following yesterday’s post, another roundup:


[President Obama:] “That is going to be a game changer. We have to act prudently. We have to make these assessments deliberately. But I think all of us … recognize how we cannot stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations,” he said.


CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency assessments agreed that there was insufficient evidence from tissue and soil samples to conclude concretely that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad had launched sarin against civilians, someone who’s familiar with the issue told McClatchy. “There are these tiny little data points, none of which are conclusive,” said the person, who asked not to be further identified because of the issue’s sensitivity. U.S. intelligence agencies “can’t say anything conclusively about this right now,” he said.

Steve Hynd:

But what about the blood and soil samples supposedly obtained by various intelligence agencies that have tested positive for sarin? Well, in the first place – they probably did not test positive for sarin because such tests don’t usually test for sarin itself, they test for the down-stream products of sarin breaking down in the body or in the environment(PDF). Sarin breaks down very quickly – within minutes – in the body, leaving behind various derivative compounds all of which are variants on methylphosphoric acid. Many of these chemicals are already present in the environment or easily available for accidental exposure – in pesticides, fertilizers, rust removers and in textile- and paper-processing compounds. The presence of such compounds in samples means squat unless there is a clear chain of custody for the samples.

Michael Weiss:

Might the rebels have attacked a regime chemical weapon in transit? (This is what the White House intended in its letter by referring to the indeterminate “chain of custody” of Assad’s chemical arsenal.) An unintentional hit might have happened once, but if it did so repeatedly, then that would strongly suggest that many chemical stockpiles are now in transit throughout Syria, which would also constitute a clear violation of Obama’s “red line.” And if by referring to the movement of “a whole bunch” of WMD, the president made his policy contingent on the proportion of chemical mobilization, at what point does multiple instances of “small scale” attacks become a worrying size-matters problem for his administration?

Could the regime have “accidentally” launched one or more chemical warheads that were wrongly labeled conventional artillery rounds or surface-to-surface rockets or other types of munitions? That seems unlikely, but if the regime is so careless with the cataloging of its own arsenal, then more accidents are bound to happen. As it happens, the Syrian military has had some bad experiences with trying to fill conventional artillery rounds with chemical compounds. In the 1970s, soldiers “experimented” in just this way, only to have the results literally explode in their faces. What if the next time Assad makes a mistake, he accidentally sends a VX warhead to Hezbollah? If the regime has not learned to be more careful since, then should it not be alleviated of the overtaxing burden of having to differentiate between WMD and mere W?

All of this academic speculation ignores obvious intentionality. Wired magazine reported last December that the Syrian military had already outfitted rockets with chemical warheads. “Physically, they’ve gotten to the point where the can load it up on a plane and drop it,” one quoted intelligence official said, and he did not add that these were in any way errors of judgment or categorization.

Joseph Holliday at FP:

This subtle introduction of chemical weapons fits the Assad regime’s established model for military escalation. Over the course of the conflict, each regime escalation has started with military necessity and expanded to brutal punishment of the Syrian population. Assad has established a clear modus operandi for ramping up the battle without triggering international intervention: toe the line, confirm Western inaction, and then ratchet up the violence further. At each step Washington’s hollow “we strongly condemn” rhetoric has validated the approach […] Much like the strategy employed with artillery, air power, and ballistic missiles, Assad’s introduction of weapons of mass destruction intends to pave the way for more lethal and wide-ranging chemical attacks against the Syrian people in the future […] Assad’s approach to the conflict has been the inverse of what Western militaries call population-centric counterinsurgency: rather than clear insurgents out of population centers, Assad has sought to clear populations out of insurgent-held areas.


American and British officials said the initial response would be to use the evidence to put more pressure on Russia, which has prevented action at the UN against the Syrian regime. Officials believe the potential use of chemical weapons could provide a way to break the diplomatic deadlock over the Syrian civil war […] In the near term, the most likely option is increased support for groups of opposition fighters considered moderate, which the US is currently supplying with non-lethal military aid but not weapons. “What we are trying to do is get the sensible moderates among the rebels leading this fight,” said a UK official. “The trouble is that the EU arms embargo ensures that the moderates like Salem Idriss [the leader of moderate rebels] are the only ones that don’t get weapons, while the extremists do get them.” The official added: “We have to help Idriss and show he can supply arms and be a source of weapons in the fight against Assad. That will ensure that Syrians rally around him.”


Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government. Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of […] Although led by an army defector, Gen. Salim Idris, the council has taken in the leaders of many overtly Islamist battalions. One called the Syrian Liberation Front has been integrated nearly wholesale into the council; many of its members coordinate closely with the Syrian Islamic Front, a group that includes the extremist Ahrar al-Sham, according to a recent report by Ms. O’Bagy, of the Institute for the Study of War.


Congressmen briefed by secretary of state John Kerry on Friday in Washington say the most likely option Kerry outlined would involve joining other countries in arming specific rebel groups. The imposition of a no-fly zone is also being considered but is deemed unattractive by the administration because chemical weapons do not require aircraft to be used – and because the high quality of Syrian air defences would put US lives at risk. There was also discussion of special forces use and specially designed ordnance designed to safely incinerate chemical weapons facilities, but there was scepticism that either would address the problem, which is thought to be widely dispersed.

Washington Post:

Despite military gains by the rebels in some parts of Syria, Jordanian intelligence officials see potential for a protracted struggle lasting many more months or even longer, with neither side capable of a decisive victory. Left on its current trajectory, the conflict will result in “a Taliban-style failed state, or a series of small mini-states,” said a senior Jordanian official, insisting on anonymity in discussing intelligence assessments. “We’re looking at the potential for sectarian spillover, threatening the whole region.”


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