Thursday, August 29, 2013

About Those "Syrian Nerve Agents"

This post was first published April 26.
I am reposting today it since the subject of Syria's use of chemical weapons is once again in the news.
Josh inspired me to post this.
Andrea Mitchell made an obvious point.

 Then Steve underscored the point with this:

==►  Syrian Chemical Weapons – Whatever Is Being Used, It Probably Isn’t Sarin

by Steve Hynd at Not the Singularity

We’ve been inundated with media reports over the past couple of days saying that samples taken after chemical attacks in Syria have tested positive for sarin, a.k.a. GB, a deadly nerve gas. Yesterday, Cheryl Rofer explained why she’s somewhat cautious about the claims, which have been catapulted by Israel, France and Britain – all more hawkish on Syria – until the Obama administration was forced to respond. Today, though, even more reasons are emerging for the strongest level of skepticism about these claims.

Firstly, sarin is a deadly nerve agent even in minuscule dosages. The U.S. National Response Team (NRT) is an organization of 15 Federal departments and agencies responsible for coordinating emergency preparedness and response to oil and hazardous substance pollution incidents. Sarin was used in terrorist attacks in Japan and is so deadly the NRT prepared a factsheet on the agent (PDF). The factsheet explains that sarin can persist on surfaces for up to 24 hours (more on absorbent surfaces like clothing), is easily taken up by skin contact, and that medics should treat victims wearing “NIOSH-certified Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA), Air Purifying Respirators (APR) or Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR), full-face masks, & protective clothing.” Yet we’ve been shown videos of medics treating victims wearing only breathing masks and surgical gloves – utterly inadequate protection. If Syrian rebel medics are working with recently-exposed sarin victims without protective suits – how come the medics haven’t died or at least shown symptoms of exposure?

Next, Sarin is a weapon of mass destruction – it is designed to devastate entire battlefields. As John Hudson at FP magazine writes: “the question no one has been able to answer is this: Why would Bashar al-Assad have used chemical weapons on a small scale after repeated warnings from Barack Obama that any use of chemical weapons would be a “game-changer” for the United States?”
It’s a puzzle that baffled Ralf Trapp, a consultant and renowned expert on chemical weapons, who spoke with Foreign Policy over the phone from Geneva. “From a military perspective, it doesn’t make sense to use chemical weapons bit by bit,” he said. “Why would the regime just put it on a grenade here or a rocket launcher there? It’s just not the way you’d expect a military force to act.” 
But that’s precisely the scale at which the United States says Assad is using chemical weapons.
You know what it would make sense to deploy in non-battlefield amounts? Crowd control agents of the CS/CN family, also collectively known as “tear gas”. According to the Association of Forensic Physicians in the UK (PDF) these agents induce all the symptoms seen in the Syrian victims, including foaming at the mouth, difficulty breathing, skin blotching and death if the dosage is high enough. Oddly, foaming at the mouth is not one of the symptoms commonly associated with sarin exposure.

More and more chemical weapons experts are urging caution, if not being outright unbelieving of the media hype.
Chemical weapons experts have mostly reacted with caution over the claims. Referring to video footage purported to show victims foaming at the mouth, Richard Guthrie, a British chemical weapons expert and former head of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), said: “That 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.” 
Jean-Pascal Zanders, another 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.”
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.
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Assertions of chemical weapon use in Syria by Western and Israeli officials citing photos, sporadic shelling and traces of toxins do not meet the standard of proof needed for a U.N. team of experts waiting to gather their own field evidence.
Weapons inspectors will only determine whether banned chemical agents were used in the two-year-old conflict if they are able to access sites and take soil, blood, urine or tissue samples and examine them in certified laboratories. 
That type of evidence, needed to show definitively if banned chemicals were found, has not been presented by governments and intelligence agencies accusing Syria of using chemical weapons against insurgents. 
“This is the only basis on which the OPCW would provide a formal assessment of whether chemical weapons have been used,” Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said. 
…Ralf Trapp, an independent consultant on chemical and biological weapons control, said “there is a limit to what you can extract from photograph evidence alone. What you really need is to get information from on the ground, to gather physical evidence and to talk to witnesses as well as medical staff who treated victims.”
The Independent’s report by Kim Sengupta today summarizes all this neatly.
The picture which is emerging from accounts given by Western and Middle Eastern officials and members of the Syrian opposition is this: the test so far have not yielded conclusive results; they have been based on blood, hair and soil samples as well as photographs and video footage; the samples have not been collected independently by Western investigators inside Syria but handed over by the rebels or, at least on one occasion, by Turkish intelligence; some of the footage may have been faked; the tests had been carried out at the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratories ( DSTL) and multiple locations in America: conclusions on them vary within US intelligence agencies and the experience of ‘Iraq and WMD’ is a very present source of caution among officials in Washington and London. 
Dr Sally Leivesley, a chemical and biological analyst, a former scientific advisor to the Home Office who has worked for a number of western governments, said “There are things here which do not add up. A chemical attack using Sarin as a battlefield weapons would leave mass fatalities and very few people alive. From what one hears about the symptoms it’s possible that a harassing agent rather than a nerve agent was used”. 
Dr Leivesley, who had seen some of the photographs and videos, continued: ” the latest ones show people with eye disorder which is obviously worrying but does not mean that chemical or Sarin was involved. Some of the earlier photos we had seen were quite odd, people in masks and gloves, who were supposedly doctors, touching the victims, something which will not happen. The symptoms which we have seen could be caused by other elements, such as chlorine.
We could do with more of that kind of reporting, as neo-con U.S. senators and pundits take lurid media reports as a causus belli for what would be a disastrous intervention.


Okay. So I stole Steve's whole damn post. But he put it together so well just taking a snip here and there would be like breaking the head off a statue. Steve Hynd may be THE sharpest knife in the drawer. What he sez you can take to the bank. 

Go next to tomorrow's collection (April 27) and check out this:

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