We may never get to the bottom of what happened Aug. 21 in Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. The report by United Nations inspectors concluded that rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used against civilians, including children, as well as combatants on a relatively large scale. Circumstantial evidence suggests Syrian government troops fired them, but the lack of proof has given the regime, and its backers in Russia, room to blame rebel forces.
For those of us who have long grappled with chemical weapons, the uncertainties present a familiar frustration. To this day, the world doesn’t know the full story of what happened in Halabja, Iraq, where the Saddam Hussein regime in 1988 killed uncounted thousands of Iraqi Kurds using unknown chemical weapons, or in Srebrenica, where allegations arose in 1995 that Bosniak survivors fleeing the city came under a chemical attack by Bosnian Serb forces.
There are lessons to learn from these ambiguities, ways civilized countries can make the use of chemical weapons more transparent so as to better deter would-be transgressors and hold guilty parties accountable.
First, we need to develop the capacity for “standoff” detection of chemical weapons. The world today has no tools to accurately recognize the dispersal of chemical warfare agents from a distance. The most useful detectors have to be present at the site of the attack, rather than on a drone or a satellite.
The intelligence agencies of the major powers need to be able to look at vapor clouds from a distance, perhaps shine a laser on them and be able to tell if sarin or VX, for example, had been used. Some great ideas and even a few embryonic technologies are out there; They need to be pushed from concept to laboratory to product.
Second, we need to do a better job of video analytics. In the immediate aftermath of the Ghouta attack, the world was reduced to examining amateur video recordings to determine what did or did not happen. There are many limitations to this evidence, but even intelligence agencies, it seems, were relying on YouTube clips. Intelligence officials and other arbiters of truth, such as journalists, need to figure out better ways of gleaning time, place and medical details from video footage.
Third, we need to improve sample collection. In any conflict that affects as many interests as Syria’s civil war, there are multitudes of spies. Agents working for Western parties should be trained, in the event of a chemical attack, to quickly collect solid, liquid, gas and blood samples that can be usefully analyzed.
Equipped with a sterile glass jar, an air-sampling bag and a thermal desorption tube -- standard gear for hazmat technicians and environmental crimes detectives -- spies could provide material more useful than 100 YouTube clips. Just one sample of the actual substance used on Aug. 21, collected at the time, would have saved weeks of speculation and mystery. Plus, there’s no guarantee that next time UN inspectors will gain access to a suspected chemical-attack site, especially given the consequences for Syria of the Ghouta massacre.
Better forensic evidence, produced more quickly, might have made a more powerful case that troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad were responsible for the attack. Although prosecution for war crimes is unimaginable with Russia protecting the regime, definitive proof might have humbled Assad, thereby discouraging Syria from violating a U.S.-Russian timeline for the destruction of its chemical-weapons program.
Even if the regime eagerly cooperates, it will be difficult to complete the plan by its deadline, the middle of next year. Syria is thought to possess more than 1,000 metric tons of chemical warfare agents and precursor chemicals. These materials can be safely destroyed only in specially constructed facilities, which don’t exist in Syria. Transporting weapons for destruction poses the risk of horrific chemical accidents and diversion by terrorists.
In this respect, Syria’s example offers another lesson: We need to investigate the value of building a large, mobile chemical-weapons demilitarization plant. Small mobile systems exist, but none that could rapidly destroy Syria’s arsenal.
The plant could be ship-based, like the two emergency hospitals the U.S. Navy dispatches to disaster zones around the world. Better yet would be a system that could go anywhere, including land-locked areas. Its components could be flown in 40-foot cargo containers to where it is needed and assembled on the spot, just like field hospitals and forensic laboratories.
It would be naive to think that once Syria’s chemical arms are cleaned up, there will be no need for such a facility. In the event of civil war or regime collapse in North Korea, we may face an urgent situation there; the U.S. thinks the country has significant chemical-weapons stores. Sometimes stockpiles turn up with no warning. Albania unveiled in 2005 that it had discovered 16 tons of sulfur mustard hidden away by its Marxist dictatorship in the 1970s.
The world will almost certainly be shocked by chemical weapons again. The least we can do is a better job preparing for it.
(Dan Kaszeta is a former officer in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps and former member of the U.S. Secret Service now working as an independent consultant. He has 22 years experience in the field of chemical defense.)
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