Before we bomb Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons, five things you should know

1. Experts on chemical warfare say that footage of the alleged gas attacks is inconsistent with the effects of weapons-grade substances.

Haaretz, 21 August 2013:

Dan Kaszeta, a former officer of the U.S. Army’s Chemical Corps and a leading private consultant, pointed out a number of details absent from the footage so far: “None of the people treating the casualties or photographing them are wearing any sort of chemical-warfare protective gear,” he says, “and despite that, none of them seem to be harmed.” This would seem to rule out most types of military-grade chemical weapons, including the vast majority of nerve gases, since these substances would not evaporate immediately, especially if they were used in sufficient quantities to kill hundreds of people, but rather leave a level of contamination on clothes and bodies which would harm anyone coming in unprotected contact with them in the hours after an attack. In addition, he says that “there are none of the other signs you would expect to see in the aftermath of a chemical attack, such as intermediate levels of casualties, severe visual problems, vomiting and loss of bowel control.”

Steve Johnson, a leading researcher on the effects of hazardous material exposure at England’s Cranfield University who has worked with Britain’s Ministry of Defense on chemical warfare issues, agrees that “from the details we have seen so far, a large number of casualties over a wide area would mean quite a pervasive dispersal. With that level of chemical agent, you would expect to see a lot of contamination on the casualties coming in, and it would affect those treating them who are not properly protected. We are not seeing that here.”

euronews, 21 August 2013:

Stephen Johnson is an expert in weapons and chemical explosives at Cranfield Forensic Institute. He said there were inconsistency among the patients’ symptoms.

“There are, within some of the videos, examples which seem a little hyper-real, and almost as if they’ve been set up. Which is not to say that they are fake but it does cause some concern. Some of the people with foaming, the foam seems to be too white, too pure, and not consistent with the sort of internal injury you might expect to see, which you’d expect to be bloodier or yellower,” Johnson said.

2. There are plausible alternative theories as to what caused the symptoms shown in the footage.
Haaretz, 21 August 2013:

“One alternative is that a large concentration of riot control agents were used here, which could have caused suffocation of large numbers of people who were pressed together in a bunker or underground shelter,” says Gwyn Winfield, a veteran researcher and editor of CBRNe World, a professional journal the effects of chemical, biological and nuclear warfare. While riot-control substances, mainly various types of tear gas, are usually deployed in small quantities using hand-grenades, they can be used in much larger quantities in artillery shells or even dropped in barrels from aircraft as the U.S. Army did in Vietnam, trying to flush the Vietcong out of its underground bunkers. In large concentrations, these substances can cause suffocation, especially in closed spaces where many of the Syrian families would have been hiding from the bombing.

Another possible explanation for the casualties is that a large bomb, or a number of bombs, created a fireball that sucked the air out of the nearby building for a short period of time, causing the asphyxiation of those inside. The Syrians have extensively used fuel-air bombs, which create a large vacuum beneath the blast and could have lead to many such casualties.

3. There have been previous allegations from UN officials that the rebels, not the regime, have used chemical weapons.
Reuters, 5 May 2013:

U.N. human rights investigators have gathered testimony from casualties of Syria’s civil war and medical staff indicating that rebel forces have used the nerve agent sarin, one of the lead investigators said on Sunday. The United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria has not yet seen evidence of government forces having used chemical weapons, which are banned under international law, said commission member Carla Del Ponte.

“Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report of last week which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated,” Del Ponte said in an interview with Swiss-Italian television. “This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities,” she added, speaking in Italian.

4. The US has asserted that possible UN inspections of the site of the alleged gas attack are “too late to be credible.”
LA Times, 25 August 2013:

U.N. officials confirmed that its inspection team, already in Syria to investigate previous allegations of chemical weapons use, would begin “on-site fact-finding activities” Monday. The Syrians have “agreed to provide the necessary cooperation,” including a “cessation of hostilities” in the area, the U.N. statement said.

But a senior administration official, in a written statement given to reporters on condition of anonymity, brushed aside the Syrian offer. “If the Syrian government had nothing to hide and wanted to prove to the world that it had not used chemical weapons in this incident, it would have ceased its attacks on the area and granted immediate access to the U.N. — five days ago,” the official said. By now, the government has had many opportunities to destroy evidence, including by shelling the areas, the official noted. A “belated decision by the regime to grant access to the U.N. team is too late to be credible,” the statement said. U.S. officials are continuing to assess the facts to determine “how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons,” the official said. “The president has not made a decision to take action. But as you’ve seen, we think there is little doubt that these attacks were undertaken by the regime,” the official said.

5. A planned UN inspections of the alleged attack site have been delayed due to insecurity allegedly created by rebel forces.
NY Times, 27 August 2013:

United Nations weapons inspectors in Syria postponed a second visit to suspected attack sites on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, after having failed to secure assurances of their safety, the United Nations and Syrian officials said.
On the ground in Syria, United Nations inspectors, who came under sniper fire on Monday before a visit to one location, had been set “to continue their investigation in a different site” on Tuesday, the United Nations said in a statement. But after the attack on Monday, “a comprehensive assessment determined that the visit should be postponed by one day in order to improve preparedness and safety for the team.” The statement said the inspectors had not received “confirmation of access.”

Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said that the inspectors’ trip had been delayed by one day because of disputes among the rebel groups. The minister said the insurgents could not agree on issues related to guaranteeing the inspectors’ safety. He gave no further details.


One thought on “Before we bomb Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons, five things you should know

  1. Interesting post. I posted something on this topic a while ago; baring in mind what you’ve written you may be interested.

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