Saturday, September 14, 2013

Morning Links -- September 14

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These last three Tweets are pretty cynical but accurate. What is not mentioned is that in the case of Syria there are no clear "sides." The "regime" is Assad (which includes his brother Maher and a cadre of other field commanders who may or may not be willing to take any and ALL orders from Assad) and the "opposition" which started with a high-minded group we might call Syrian democrats, but who were joined and co-opted by a large number of Syrian extremists with ulterior motives. The number of "opposition" groups swelled by jihadists from other parts of the Arab world. The usual number is 1200.

For both the US and Russia there is no desirable winning side. In the aftermath of an Assad defeat Syria becomes a chaotic quagmire of diverse groups, each of which is so stiff in their positions that they cannot even agree to cooperate enough to overcome Assad. There is no reason to imagine that sans that powerful reason they would agree to any meaningful political arrangement. Protracted stalemate has become the default position for the US, Russia and the rest of the larger players.

al-Qaeda groups are allied with Assad's forces, fighting against the the rebels. Get the picture?

Here is a Twitter exchange between two card-carrying experts on chemical weapons.and how they are controlled (or not). Click on both to discover impressive CVs.  It's not easy to see a bright side in their line of work, but they have learned to look for any opening for progress. This exchange is as close as it gets to optimism.

Most people haven't any idea about the magnitude of the project being discussed. This is not like coming in with a convoy of trucks and toting away a few tons of explosives. Chemical agents are more dangerous, for different reasons, than nitroglycerine. This piece from WSJ provides a snapshot.

I am more interested than many because I was born in Richmond, Kentucky, the closest town to the Bluegrass Army Depot, and my family knew many people who had civilian jobs there. We knew it was an important place for the Army, but most people had no idea what was there.

Lessons From Destruction of U.S. Chemical Weapons
Process Has Proven to Be Complicated, Lengthy

By Ben Kesling
Even if the international community is able to take control of Syria's chemical weapons, the U.S. experience in destroying its own stockpiles suggests eliminating those from Damascus could be a complicated, lengthy and even risky endeavor. 
The U.S. has been systemically destroying its chemical weapons since the 1970s, but the job of eliminating nerve gas and other agents will take another decade because of the hazards of the disposal process, U.S. officials and weapons experts said. 
"Safety is over engineered into these things and that takes time," said Greg Mahall of the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Activity, which has oversight over U.S. stores of chemical weapons and for the majority of the destruction of chemical weapons. 
The U.S. used chemical weapons against German forces during World War I, and made the Chemical Warfare Service a permanent part of the Army in 1920. 
The Army ramped up production of chemical weapons in the ensuing decades to use for retaliation in case of use by Axis forces in World War II or the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but never deployed them, according to the Army Historical Foundation.

Before President Richard Nixon renounced the use of chemical weapons in 1969 and the Army developed proven destruction techniques, old chemical weapons were often burned in open pits or even dumped into the ocean, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 
In 1985, Congress ordered a systemic approach to destruction of chemical-warfare agents, which had grown to some 40,000 tons at their peak. In 1997, when the U.S. signed on to a United Nations treaty and agreed to destroy its entire stockpile, the military had a documented 31,500 tons of chemical agents packed into millions of munitions, containers and sprayers, according to Army officials. 
Most munitions are artillery rounds, mortar shells, rockets and land mines made to aerosolize liquid agents when detonated. 
To dispose of most of them, officials turned to incineration at temperatures of up to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit, using separate furnaces for chemical agents, high explosive and the metal casings. Leftover ash, residue or slag was disposed of as secondary, hazardous waste. 
The newest destruction facilities use neutralization, in which the chemical agent is diluted and processed until it is made safe, then treated further, officials said. 
To destroy mustard gas, specialists dilute it with hot water, then add microorganisms to consume and digest the remaining elements. Nerve agents like sarin are often diluted at high pressure until active agents break down into component parts, which are then filtered out, officials said.

Chemical compounds are commonly stored in bulk as separate, noxious but not immediately lethal, compounds, and then mixed to form things like sarin just before being put into weapons. Component substances, not lethal on their own, can be more easily treated to render them useless for chemical weapons 
Syrian government storage facilities probably prefer this storage technique, which could lead to speedier treatment, said James Lewis, a spokesman for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. 
Much of the American stockpile had been weaponized, or taken from storage tanks, mixed, and put into munitions, which makes an error during destruction much riskier and requires more time and more advanced facilities. 
As of January 2012, 89.75% of U.S. stockpiles had been destroyed and only two locations still stored weapons—Bluegrass Army Depot in Kentucky and Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado, the Army said. 
Bluegrass Army Depot isn't slated to finish destruction of its weapons until 2023. As of the last estimate, the total cost of the U.S. disposal efforts will total $35 billion, officials said.

One major reason for slow and careful progress in the U.S. is local concern for safety. "Local communities have the ability to reach out to their representatives in Congress," said Mr. Lewis.

The agreement in Geneva between the US and Russia on disarming Syria's chemical stockpile looks impressive on paper. It sets out a firm time frame for compliance. Syria must report what chemical stocks it holds within a week, far faster than the month President Bashar al-Assad requested. UN inspectors must be on the ground by November, and the stockpiles destroyed by the middle of next year.

Failure to comply, as both the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, agreed, would result in a reference to the UN security council under chapter 7 of the UN charter – "Action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression". Optimistically the compliance process is being tied to the Geneva 2 peace conference.

The reality however is that the devil will be in the detail. Even as the two men spoke it was clear, from comments by Barack Obama and other officials that the red lines on all sides remain where they were at the beginning of this week.

~~~~Yadda, yadda, yadda...~~~~

In other words, for all the apparent progress, the can of the Syrian war has been kicked down the road by the imposition of various conditions, many of which surround the key issues. There may be no more chemical attacks but for the foreseeable future the war and the humanitarian catastrope will continue.

...and here's how the "opposition" reacts...

~~~§  Enough for one morning. Time for a new post.  §~~~~

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