Daniel Kaszeta is a Wikistrat Senior Analyst and an independent security and antiterrorism consultant currently located in London. He is a former US Army Chemical Corps officer as well as a former member of various US government agencies, including the US Secret Service. Mr. Kaszeta has 22 years of experience in numerous aspects of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defense. He is an occasional contributor to CBRNe World magazine as well as several other publications. His book “CBRN and Hazmat Incidents at Major Public Events: Planning and Response” was published in November 2012.
Graham O’Brien: I was wondering what your opinion would be on the idea of introducing an active counter-proliferation plan in Syria.
Answer: Generally, I would take the term “active counterproliferation” to mean use of dynamic means and active measures, such as armed force, to control, capture, or eliminate Syria’s presumed chemical (and possibly biological) arsenal. My opinion is that successful “active counterproliferation” will be very difficult to achieve in the current situation in Syria, for a variety of reasons. I have the following specific concerns:
- Attribution: Before acting, I’d want to be pretty certain I was acting against the correct party. Who did what to whom with chemical weapons? We must remember that the use of chemical weapons has been portrayed as a red line in this conflict, and one party to the conflict will have much to gain by successfully convincing the world that the other party used a prohibited weapon. Indeed, the tactical advantages of chemical weapons in this kind of environment may be marginal, so one could argue that there’s more to gain from framing the opponent than from using it one’s self.
- Intelligence: Where are the weapons? In an arsenal? In a secured laboratory? Dispersed among the troops already? Excellent intelligence on the location of the weapons is required. Pretty good information on local weather conditions will be needed to avoid some pretty horrific collateral damage. Good intelligence on how the weapons are protected will be needed.
- Dispersal: If chemical ordnance has been used, then at least some subset of the chemical weapons inventory has been dispersed from depots/arsenals down to military units who are using the weapons or have them ready for use. Targeting a handful of depots based on satellite imagery is a relatively simple task. Targeting every single field artillery battery in the Syrian Army may be too hard to do. In such a case, “active counterproliferation” is probably impossible.
- Targeting: Knowing in general terms where special weapons may be stored is one thing; having enough data to allow for precise targeting is another thing indeed.
- Collateral Damage: There’s a great deal of uncertainty as to how much collateral damage may happen from a strike on a depot. Contrary to some wishful thinking I’ve seen online, large conventional explosions don’t necessarily burn up chemical or biological weapons. A strike has every possibility of causing injury or death in a downwind hazard zone. Even under optimum conditions with very good modern precision ordnance, there is no way to rule out collateral damage from such a strike. Innocent people may be harmed.
- Getting drawn into the ground war: The use of airmobile or airborne forces to attempt to seize chemical/biological weapons would require rather a lot of forces and would amount to an entry into the ground war.
- Unintended Proliferation: Would an active counterproliferation measure, like a raid or an airstrike have the unintended consequence of proliferation? As one example, an airstrike may only destroy part of the inventory of chemical weapons in a particular depot, yet completely obliterate the security measures at the site, leaving the undestroyed inventory open to theft by insurgents.
- Legal Ramifications: If the US, Israel, NATO, etc. were to conduct some sort of strike on a chemical weapons storage site and civilians were killed or injured downwind of the site, is this, in effect, the same under international law, as a chemical attack? If civilians are killed by a nerve agent that was released only because of US bombing, is that then a war a crime?
For all of these reasons, I think that “active counterproliferation measures” are troublesome and don’t really work in Syria as an option, other than as part of a full military intervention. They might even make things worse.
Natasha Tereshchenko: What, if anything, do you recommend external players, such as the US, do about the alleged chemical weapons use in Syria?
Answer: The problem can be distilled into three components: verification, attribution, and reaction.
Verification: The West must verify what has actually happened. Have chemical weapons actually been used? The existing evidence to date is interesting but not exactly compelling. Available evidence seems to be misguiding, tainted, questionable, and/or vague. I will not attempt to repeat the excellent analysis done by the “Brown Moses” blog or my colleague Steve Johnson at CBRNe World magazine (see page 16 here).
There seems to be a lack of “smoking gun” evidence so far. Or if it does exist, it is still locked away in the depths of the world’s intelligence agencies. To simplify an entire field of chemical warfare forensics… we haven’t seen evidence that would ever hold up in court. If someone has died from nerve, blood, blister, or choking agents, a proper autopsy, conducted forensically, can tell us what happened. Nerve agents will leave an imbalance of acetylcholine and acetylcholinesterase, enzymes that enables the function of the nervous system and the mechanism by which nerve agents kill their victims. Someone killed by blister agents (mustard or lewisite) will have serious and obvious damage to their respiratory tract. Blood agents (cyanides) may be a bit more discrete, but competent toxicology will determine the presence of cyanides in a dead body. Choking agents (phosgene) will kill by pulmonary edema, which can be determined by autopsy. Granted, Islam calls for rapid burial of the dead, so not every corpse would be available for analysis. But if people have been killed by chemical warfare agents, where are the bodies?
Many chemical weapons are non-persistent (sarin and the cyanides), but many others are persistent and will last a long time in the environment. Where is the residue? If chemical weapons have been used, somebody somewhere should come up with a sample of liquid, vapor, contaminated soil, or a swab from human skin. Where is the sample? Likewise, chemical warfare requires the means of dissemination. Bombs, bomblets, artillery shells, spray tanks, rockets, missile warheads, mines, and similar devices have been historically used for dissemination of chemical weapons. There are some videos and photos of possible devices (some certainly flawed if you look at the article and blog cited above). But does someone somewhere have a device we can look at? A fragment of a device? Chemical munitions leave residue, almost by definition. If you use enough explosive bursting agent to completely destroy the munition into uncollectable fragments, it is not the optimum means of dispersal. Believe me, I’m a former Chemical Corps officer. Chemical shells “pop” rather than “bang”. Where are the shell fragments and empty bomblets?
Attribution: There is a serious issue of who is doing what to whom. The fog of war is very thick in Syria. It is no longer a simple matter of uniformed regulars versus improvised insurgents. Many uniformed combatants from the Syrian army have defected, and the Assad regime is using a variety of irregulars that could appear very much like the insurgents they are combating. Because the use of CBRN weapons carries great moral opprobrium and has been declared a “red line” by the West, there may be great strategic gains to be made by smearing the other side with accusations. Indeed, the strategic value of getting world opinion on your side may be much higher than the tactical value of using chemical weapons in battle. Getting someone to foam from the mouth on video is a cheap Hollywood parlor trick, but if it convinces the world’s media that nerve agents have been used by your enemy, it might be worth it to one side or the other.
Reaction: As far as what to actually do in Syria? First of all, many of the issues involved in this complex problem are alluded to in the answer to the previous question. I think that active intervention measures, such as airstrikes or attempts to seize control by means of special operations forces, are fraught with liabilities. I think that, perhaps, the best intervention is passive defense. We should provide the insurgents with protective masks, gloves, suits, boots, and nerve agent antidotes. We should provide chemical defense training, possible in camps in Turkey or Jordan. Most importantly, we need to provide a lot of plastic bags (and correct procedures) to take samples. We need people to bring us the soil samples and shell fragments.
Jesse Parent: What are the major challenges for non-proliferation of CBRN faced by the world today?
Answer: CBRN non-proliferation is a difficult field and a full survey of the challenges would fill a lengthy book, so I will focus my answer on what I think the most difficult challenges are. From my perspective, the biggest challenges are in the area of chemical and biological non-proliferation. Specifically, my biggest concerns are ease of entry and detection.
Ease of Entry: If a country wants to develop nuclear weapons technology, the barriers to entry are high. Not only is there a requirement for fissile material, the infrastructure and labor needed to develop a nuclear weapon, let alone one useful in a warhead, is vast. It takes billions of dollars, large facilities (which are distinctive and hard to hide), specialty equipment (procurement of which may be hard to camouflage), and hundreds or even thousands of scientists and engineers (some of whom will be targeted by intelligence services of other countries).
The problem with biological and chemical weapons is that the level of effort is lower. It takes fewer people with expertise, less exotic ingredients, generic facilities, and more mundane equipment (and equipment that is either ubiquitous or easily manufactured). We should not forget that chlorine gas and phosgene are technologies that are over a hundred years old and are widespread in modern industry. Mustard gas and Lewisite date from the end of the First World War. Nerve agents are the cutting edge of 1930s technology. Strategic-level mass production of anthrax dates from the late 1940s.
Detection: Because of the lower barriers to entry in the chemical and biological arena, detection is much more difficult. Many available intelligence collection techniques simply cannot see through walls, into a petri dish, or into the distillation column of an otherwise mundane-looking laboratory or factory. There are simply fewer tools at the disposal of the intelligence and diplomatic agencies to figure out if someone is hiding CW or BW development.