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On the Syrian CW report

January 15, 2013

Check out Josh Rogin here and analysis pushing back against the claims from the leaked diplomatic cable from Noah Shachtman at Danger Room. The White House is now pushing back against the leak (due to inconsistency of conclusions with other information), which explicitly challenged the known views and policy of the wider US government.

If it is BZ/Agent 15, as at least some in the US government and their preferred sources apparently claim, then I cannot imagine a better illustration of the folly of having a blanket red line on Syrian chemical weapons use. BZ is an incapacitating agent. It is a chemical weapon under the CWC but in terms of its function, it shares the same class as riot agents (also CWC-banned in combat) such as C-Series gases, e.g. tear gas. These agents are nasty, but to call BZ a Weapon of Mass Destruction is absurd. BZ’s lethality is ancillary, its primary purpose is to incapacitate and function as a hallucinogen. This is not to say it isn’t awful, but is it a groundbreaking escalation in lethality? Does it somehow signal an intent to wipe out cities?

Nothing about the account suggests so. BZ, in terms of tactical employment, would look more like the Moscow Theater Siege than Halabja. It does not have wide effect. It is not lethal and there are much more efficacious ways of dispensing more death and misery over a wider area. Incapacitating agents function to supplement, for the most part, conventional modes of killing. If Syria is using incapacitating agents, this looks much more like the (currently CWC-banned) practice of using C-series gases to support conventional operations, something much more widely practiced with these less controversial substances in the Great War and Vietnam.

Going to war over an incapacitating agent would be beyond rash – but what if, as the medical and scientific information suggests, it wasn’t an incapacitating agent?

The symptoms reported in the open source seem relatively consistent with tabun (nerve agent effects, including constricted pupils, but with an odor and lower lethal dose uncharacteristic of sarin). Many reports prior to the civil war mention Syrian tabun manufacturing, none that I’m aware of mention BZ or Agent 15 (usually paired with Iraq).

Nerve gases are unquestionably more dangerous than incapacitating agents. Were Syria to use them widely, and especially if Syria were to use its more lethal ones such as sarin and VX, this would be lethal. The question is, was this incident evidence of planned escalation as the government source implies?

The basis is unclear. We do not know at what level this attack was authorized, or what protocols must be followed before Syrian gas release. Given that the reports mention relatively chemical limited shelling from Syrian ground troops, any junior officer with access to the weapons could conduct such an attack for tactical benefit. A larger campaign plan involving combined arms to dispense CW and conduct supplementing attacks, such as those the Iraqis used against Iranian ground forces and Halabja, would presumably indicate senior officer and by extension regime policy-level CW use. That’s not what happened, though, and this is all complicated by a lack of information about how and at what rung of command Syria distributes CW to ground troops. We have reports that Syria previously requested sarin use in Homs, but we know not how it might be employed.

It’s unsound to extrapolate Syrian wide scale nerve gas use from employment of BZ, and more credible to do so if this was, at least, a nerve gas itself. Even then, given the enormous complexity of doing anything meaningful to intercept, let alone secure, Syrian CW and CW’s grossly inflated role in decision-making policy, clamoring for immediate action and abandoning what has at least once in the past worked (vague deterrent threats not triggered by limited CW use).

All we’ve really learned is that some people in the US government think some Syrians are right about a limited use of CW in Homs, although nobody appears to agree on what was used, and how and why Syrian forces might have come to use it. Red lines aside and cries of “credibility!” aside, new decisions recommend a temperament closer to Spotty Lincoln’s rather than Leeroy Jenkins’s.

Thanks to the folks with medical and biochem knowledge in my feed for their past, present, and future assistance on the scientific matters here.

One Comment leave one →
  1. TrT permalink
    January 19, 2013 12:35 pm

    Regarding Agent 15
    Wasnt there rather a lot of chatter about Iraqs chemical weapons being evacuated to Syria pre invasion?

    It would make a great deal of sense for Syria to use chemical weapons it doesnt technically possess.

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