A number of theories exist to explain how chemical weapons have been used in Syria. Proving which one is right however is likely to remain difficult. 

In Homeric legend Odysseus was forced to chosen between two apparently equally unpalatable ways of making the journey through the Strait of Messina. On one side a six-headed sea monster called Scylla laid in wait. On the other a whirlpool called Charybdis offered certain destruction to him, his vessel and his crew. The choice he had to make was unenviable.

As the world waits for the samples taken by the United Nations from a site of an alleged chemical attack in Syria on 21 August the United States has released graphic imagery of those thought to have been affected by the attack. The scenes of children dying are particularly horrifying.

Images such as these are bound to stir emotions. As a result objectivity suffers. This is not helped when political leaders make less than convincing cases for some form of military response. Those opposed to any form of action use a variety of techniques to create inertia in the decision making process. They cite questions that need to be answered rather than looking at the simple moral case for the international community to act. The result is international paralysis when an important international convention on the use of chemical weapons has been deliberately flouted. The simple question however is by whom?

No one doubts least of all those that actively oppose military action that an event occurred in Syria that involved chemical weapons. The issue is who used them and why? In the run up to the event on 21 August several smaller scale incidents were recorded and publicised through a variety of social media outlets across the world. These produced inconclusive imagery of the aftermath of what were alleged to be uses of chemical weapons. The overall numbers of casualties were low, nothing on the scale of the atrocity at Halabja in Iraq on 16 March 1988.

Some commentators went so far as to suggest the attacks were deliberately kept at this scale to ensure it did not trigger an international response. The problem with that theory is that the military benefits of low level use of chemical weapons in this kind of urban environment are marginal at best. What possible military purpose was there in using chemical weapons on such a high number of occasions?

There is an alternative viewpoint. In the days leading up to the attack on 21 August Iraqi Counter Terrorism teams had disrupted two sarin gas production facilities they discovered in Baghdad. This facility was operated by Al Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq. Days later in Turkey sarin was discovered when an operation was mounted by Turkish counter-terrorism teams in a town not far away from the border with Syria.

These two reports coupled with the knowledge of the pipelines used between Iraq and Syria to smuggle fighters linked to Al Qaeda into the country and it is quite possible that sarin was moved into Syria from Iraq. These relatively small amounts could easily have been used to create the kind of attacks witnessed in the run up to the main event of 21 August. The evidence chain surrounding samples already brought out of Syria from these preliminary events is also somewhat dubious.

Moreover some of the symptoms visible in the videos could well had arisen from exposure to any one of a number of ad-hoc lethal cocktails that could have been created by mixing a variety of readily available chemicals together. Unless sufficient quantities of isopropyl methylphosphonic acid can be detected at the locations were the attacks are alleged to have taken place can be detected even being certain that sarin was the agent used may be extremely difficult. This is the one compound that gets left behind when sarin degrades that provides a positive indication of the use of the chemical.

on 16 March 1988.

Some commentators went so far as to suggest the attacks were deliberately kept at this scale to ensure it did not trigger an international response. The problem with that theory is that the military benefits of low level use of chemical weapons in this kind of urban environment are marginal at best. What possible military purpose was there in using chemical weapons on such a high number of occasions?

There is an alternative viewpoint. In the days leading up to the attack on 21 August Iraqi Counter Terrorism teams had disrupted two sarin gas production facilities they discovered in Baghdad. This facility was operated by Al Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq. Days later in Turkey sarin was discovered when an operation was mounted by Turkish counter-terrorism teams in a town not far away from the border with Syria.

These two reports coupled with the knowledge of the pipelines used between Iraq and Syria to smuggle fighters linked to Al Qaeda into the country and it is quite possible that sarin was moved into Syria from Iraq. These relatively small amounts could easily have been used to create the kind of attacks witnessed in the run up to the main event of 21 August. The evidence chain surrounding samples already brought out of Syria from these preliminary events is also somewhat dubious.

Moreover some of the symptoms visible in the videos could well had arisen from exposure to any one of a number of ad-hoc lethal cocktails that could have been created by mixing a variety of readily available chemicals together. Unless sufficient quantities of isopropyl methylphosphonic acid can be detected at the locations were the attacks are alleged to have taken place can be detected even being certain that sarin was the agent used may be extremely difficult. This is the one compound that gets left behind when sarin degrades that provides a positive indication of the use of the chemical.

If this is the case they were carried out for one simple reason. This was to dupe America and its allies into believing that the red line created by President Obama had been crossed.  Obama’s hesitant reaction to these initial cases spoke volumes for his concerns he was being hoodwinked. The lessons of Iraq still hang over Washington like a dark and brooding thundercloud ready to unleash a terrible storm at an instant. The failed intelligence on Iraq has quite literally poisoned the atmosphere and tainted public opinion. In such a febrile environment it is understandable that political leaders are struggling to find a consensus on how to react.

The problem with all of this is that everyone is seeking certainty over what happened on 21 August. American intelligence assessments have pointed an accusing finger at the Asad regime claiming that they have intercepted phone calls that implicate the regime in the attack. The launch locations of rockets carrying the munitions have also been registered and are, the Americans claim, clearly sourced to areas of Damascus held by the regime. The sheer scale of the attack and the numbers that died is clearly markedly different from what had gone before. This was not the kind of event that could be stage managed by Al Qaeda in an attempt to coax America into yet another bloody Middle Eastern conflict.

One highly plausible explanation is that a leading member of the Assad regime did indeed authorise the widespread use of chemical weapons to try and break a military stalemate that existed in Damascus. Although why that would happen when the regime had just agreed to allow United Nations inspectors into the country is perplexing. Perhaps, as has been suggested in some parts of the media, this was the result of internal divisions within the regime over the approach to be taken to the United Nations. It may be some time before that becomes clear.

In the midst of such uncertainty any objective assessment of what has happened can only rationally conclude that chemical weapons have been used and that it is highly plausible that they have been used by both sides, with quite different outcomes in mind. Choosing the right response in this situation is very difficult. As President Obama mulls his limited options he finds himself quite literally between Scylla and Charybdis whatever he decides has consequences. The challenge, like that faced by Odysseus, is to find the one that achieves the overall goal whilst having the best outcome for the international community.

SHARE
Previous articleBioMérieux makes a significant acquisition in molecular biology in the U.S.
Next articleU.S. Army awards C-AT new contracts
Dr Dave Sloggett has over 40 years of experience in the security arena in a variety of roles. He has been a frequent visitor to operational theatres of war and has on the ground experience in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan and more recently in West Africa. In the course of his career, Dr Sloggett has written widely on the subject of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) threats and actively publishes both in the United Kingdom and the United States.