Tag Archives: chemical weapons Syria

Our Biggest Weakness: Weak Biodefenses + Malicious Viruses

The coronavirus that has killed over 180,000 people worldwide was not created with malice. Analysis of its genome suggests that, like many new pathogens, it originated by natural selection rather than human design. But …“Covid-19 has demonstrated the vulnerability of the US and global economy to biological threats, which exponentially increases the potential impact of an attack,” says Richard Pilch of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. In theory, bioweapons are banned. Most countries in the world are party to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1975, which outlaws making or stockpiling biological agents for anything other than peaceful purposes. But some countries probably make them secretly, or keep the option close at hand. America accuses North Korea of maintaining an offensive biological-weapons programme, and alleges that China, Iran and Russia dabble in dual-use biolgical research (for peaceful and military usage) research. Toxins like ricin have also been bought and sold on shady recesses of the internet known as the dark web.

Germ warfare briefly rose to prominence in September 2001, when letters laced with anthrax spores were mailed to American news organisations and senators, killing five people. That was a wake-up call. Public health became part of national security. BioWatch, a network of aerosol sensors, was installed in more than 30 cities across America. But in recent years threats from chemical weapons, like the sarin dropped by Syria’s air force and the Novichok smeared on door handles by Russian assassins, took priority.

Though the Trump administration published a national biodefence strategy in 2018, it shut down the National Security Council’s relevant directorate and proposed cuts to the laboratories that would test for biological threats. Funding for civilian biosecurity fell 27% between fiscal years 2015 and 2019, down to $1.61bn—less than was spent on buying Black Hawk helicopters.

Yet many pathogens used as weapons tend to differ from respiratory viruses in important ways. Those like anthrax, caused by bacteria which form rugged and sprayable spores, but do not spread from human to human, have the advantage of minimising the risk of rebound to the attacker. With the notable exception of smallpox—a highly contagious and lethal virus that was eradicated in 1979 but preserved by the Soviet Union for use against America (but not Europe), and now exists only in two laboratories, in America and Russia—most biological weapons would therefore have more localised effects than the new coronavirus.

Even so, the slow and stuttering response to the pandemic has exposed great weaknesses in how governments would cope…demonstrating that every part of public-health infrastructure is either broken or stretched to the max. The centrepiece of America’s biosurveillance programme, a network of laboratories designed for rapid testing, failed, says Mr Koblentz, while the national stockpile of face masks had not been substantially replenished in over a decade. Would-be attackers will take note.

In 2016 American intelligence agencies singled out genome editing as a national-security threat for the first time. Two years later a major study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine warned that synthetic biology, a potent set of methods for tinkering with or creating organisms, could, in time, be used to re-create viruses like smallpox or make existing pathogens more dangerous, such as resistant to antibiotics. In 2011 Dutch and Japanese scientists said that they had created a version of bird flu that could be transmitted between mammals by the respiratory route—an announcement that prompted the Netherlands to treat the relevant academic papers as sensitive goods subject to export controls.

In January 2020 Canadian scientists funded by an American biotech company used synthetic DNA from Germany to synthesise a microbe closely related to smallpox, indicating the ease with which it could be done. “If a potential bad actor pursues a weapons capability using sars-cov-2, the virus is now attainable in laboratories all around the world, and blueprints for assembling it from scratch have been published in the scientific literature.”

 The trouble is that biodefence has evolved slowly, says Dan Kaszeta, a former biological weapons adviser to the White House. Compact devices that can detect chemical threats and warn soldiers to don a gas mask have long been available. “That doesn’t exist for anthrax or any of the other aerosol pathogens,” says Mr Kaszeta. “Telling the difference between an anthrax spore and a bit of tree pollen is not something you can do in a couple of seconds.”

Excertps from Biodefence: Spore Wars, Economist, Apr. 25, at 19

How to Stop the Chemical Wars of the Future

Stark illustrations of the dangers from chemical weapons can be seen in attacks using toxic industrial chemicals and sarin against civilians and combatants in Syria and toxic industrial chemicals in Iraq, as well as more targeted assassination operations in Malaysia and the United Kingdom, employing VX and novichok nerve agents, respectively. . With the parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) convening a Review Conference to address such issues beginning 21 November 2018, we highlight important scientific aspects .

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is a multilateral treaty in effect since 1997 that proscribes the development, production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons “under any circumstances” and requires their destruction within a specified time period. The CWC allows the use of toxic chemicals for a range of industrial, agricultural, research, medical, pharmaceutical, or other peaceful purposes, including law enforcement, as long as the “types and quantities” of chemicals employed are “consistent with such purposes.” …The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is the implementing body of the CWC, comprises the 193 State Parties and a Technical Secretariat that provides technical assistance to States, routinely inspects relevant State and commercial industrial facilities, and monitors activities to ensure compliance. It was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for overseeing and facilitating the verified destruction of most of the declared chemical weapons stocks produced in the last century—to date totaling more than 96% (69,750 metric tons) of the declared stockpiles of chemical agents.

Although the CWC includes three schedules of toxic chemicals for the application of verification measures, the scope of the CWC is not constrained to these schedules but by its General Purpose Criterion (GPC), which prohibits misuse of toxic chemicals based on intent rather than on this limited list of chemicals.  [This GPC makes it possible to widen the authority of the OPCW. More, specifically issues to consider include]:

1) Riot control agents (RCAs). The CWC defines RCAs—such as tear gas and pepper spray—as “any chemical not listed” in one of its three schedules that can produce “rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.”…However, a recurring concern documented by the medical community and human rights monitors has been the widespread misuse of RCAs by police and security forces in excessive quantities, including in hospitals, prisons, homes, and automobiles, where targeted individuals cannot disperse. In such situations, serious injury or death can result from toxic properties of chemicals or from asphyxiation… [It is important to clarify] the nature and scope of “law enforcement” activities and develop guidance as to “types and quantities” of RCAs that can legitimately be used in such circumstances

2) Delivery systems… capable of delivering far greater amounts of RCAs (and potentially other toxic chemicals) over wider areas or more extended distances than current standard law enforcement delivery mechanisms, such as handheld sprays, grenades, and single launched projectiles. Such new systems include large-capacity spraying devices, automatic grenade launchers, multibarrel projectile launchers, large-caliber RCA projectiles, and unmanned ground or aerial vehicles capable of carrying spraying devices or projectile launchers. ..

3) Incapacitating chemical agent (ICA) weapons. Although the CWC permits use of appropriate types and quantities of RCAs for law enforcement, certain countries have conducted research into weapons employing other distinct toxic chemicals, so-called ICAs. Not separately defined under the CWC, ICAs can be considered as a range of toxic chemicals—only one of which [3-quinuclidinyl benzilate (BZ) and two of its immediate precursors] is currently scheduled—including anesthetics and other pharmaceutical chemicals that are purportedly intended to act on the body’s core biochemical and physiological systems, notably the central nervous system (CNS), to cause prolonged but nonpermanent disability. Such CNS-acting chemicals can produce unconsciousness, sedation, hallucination, incoherence, disorientation, or paralysis…An aerosolized mixture of two anesthetics—carfentanil and remifentanil—employed by Russian security forces to end the Moscow theatre siege of October 2002 caused the deaths of 125 of the 900 hostages

Other chemical production facilities (OCPFs) are chemical plants that do not currently produce, but are capable of manufacturing, chemical warfare agents or precursors. At present, a small fraction of declared OCPFs are selected for verification by the OPCW; the Review Conference should consider authorizing a substantial increase in OCPF inspections per year. …Biological and biologically mediated processes for production of discrete organic chemicals  Some products and processes used by the biomanufacturing industry are as relevant to the CWC as those used by other OCPF facilities  The OPCW should  build on the considerable progress made toward developing a network of designated laboratories for the analysis of biomedical and biological samples. Advances in other fields could also facilitate more effective evidence collection, for example, exploring the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles to support reconnaissance, detection, and chain of custody.

Excerpts from  Michael Crowley at al., Preventing Chemical Weapons as Sciences Converge, Science, Nov. 16, 2018

Libya’s Chemical Weapons

Announcing a major milestone in the international operation to verifiably eliminate Libya’s remaining chemical weapons stocks, the Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, confirmed that the chemicals have been successfully removed from Libya on 27 August 2016.

The operation — facilitated and coordinated by the OPCW — responds to Libya’s request for assistance in meeting its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention. The request was approved by the OPCW Executive Council and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council in July 2016. Removal of these chemicals is the first stage of an ongoing operation to verifiably eliminate the remnants of Libya’s now-defunct chemical weapon programme….

Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Malta, Spain, United Kingdom and the United States have so far responded to the call for assistance by contributing personnel, technical expertise, equipment, financial and other resources. Notably, Denmark has provided maritime assets to transport the chemicals

Excerpts from Libya’s Remaining Chemical Weapon Precursors Successfully Removed, Press Release of OPCW, Aug. 31,  2016

Destruction of Chemical Weapons: DARPA

Chemical weapons are banned by treaties, though that hasn’t stopped a few countries from maintaining stockpiles. Right now it’s possible to clean up that mess, but it’s a tremendous amount of work, and expensive work too….[DARPA] has in the works the “Agnostic Compact Demilitarization of Chemical Agents” or ACDC. Their goal: a machine that turns chemical-weapon-tainted soil into fertile soil, that can fit roughly in a shipping container, and is a fraction of the cost to process the chemicals today…

After chemical weapons were used in the Syrian civil war, the Syrian government, under international supervision, revealed their stockpile and turned it over to an international team. That team, using the U.S. Navy’s Cape Ray ship, incinerated and neutralized tons of chemical agents over the better part of a year, while at sea. The cost was around $250 million.

[Southwest Research Institute]’s approach combines a commercially available reforming-engine technology that, along with local soil, can convert organic molecules to non-hazardous components. The engine is designed such that, as part of the destruction process, the organic molecules act as a fuel and efficiently generate recoverable energy that can be converted to electricity. The SwRI process is agnostic to the chemical to be degraded, and is a much greener process than either conventional hydrolysis or incineration, both of which are logistically intensive and require subsequent secondary treatment of large amounts of hazardous waste.

The project is only nine months along. Next year, the team is hopeful they’ll have a demonstration of the technology, and then, when the project’s 36 months are up, they are aiming for a chemical cleaning tool just 1 percent as expensive as the Cape Ray mission. The cost of ACDC, if all goes according to plan, is expected to be just $2.6 million.

Excerpt from Kelsey D. Atherton, DARPA WANTS TO TRANSFORM CHEMICAL WAR SITES INTO FERTILE SOIL, Popular Science, May 12, 2016

Chlorine Attacks in Syria

The U.N. Security Council should make sure that the people allegedly responsible for chlorine attacks in Syria are brought to justice, Russia’s U.N. ambassador said on June 3, 2015….The United States has been promoting Security Council action to assess blame for alleged chlorine attacks, which Syrian activists and doctors say have been increasingly used in recent weeks.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the global chemical weapons watchdog based in The Hague, Netherlands, has condemned the use of chlorine in Syria as a breach of international law. But the OPCW does not have a mandate to determine responsibility for the use of chemical weapons.  In its latest report, the OPCW said a fact-finding team would visit Syria to look into recent allegations of attacks using toxic chemicals. Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari told The Associated Press that the team had arrived and would visit areas that the two parties agreed on.

The United States has been pressing for “an accountability mechanism” to attribute blame and has been discussing council action with the Russians and other council members.  A Security Council diplomat… said there is no single view yet on how best to achieve accountability. The diplomat said Russia favors a weaker approach while Western council members are insisting on a resolution that puts accountability under the Security Council, in consultation with the OPCW.

EDITH M. LEDERER , Russia Wants Accountability for Chlorine Attacks in Syria, Associated Press, June 3, 2015

How to Destroy Chemical Weapons – Syria

On April 22, 2014 the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) declared that 86.5% of all chemicals and 88.7% of the most deadly “Priority 1” substances on a revised list, such as sulphur mustard and precursors for sarin, a nerve gas, had been boarded and removed from Syria. Since early April six consignments have been delivered to Latakia (Syria’s port) , a “significant acceleration”, according to the OPCW, after a long gap when very little had happened.

The next destination for the chemicals is a container terminal at Gioia Tauro in southern Italy, from where most of it will transfer to an American ship, the MV Cape Ray, which is equipped with two mobile hydrolysis units for neutralising the stuff. The Cape Ray, now in Spain, will then head for international waters with a ten-country security escort, and begin its work. Rear-Admiral Bob Burke, director of American naval operations in Europe and Africa, says that if the sea is fairly calm it should take about 60 days of round-the-clock processing to neutralise the chemical agents, making it just possible that the June 30th deadline for destroying all Syria’s chemical weapons will be met. Some worries linger, however.

The first is continuing disagreement between Syria and the OPCW over the destruction of production and storage sites. All the weapons-producing equipment inside has been smashed, but the Syrians are arguing only for “destruction by inactivation”, which means just locking some doors. But Michael Luhan of the OPCW says that while there is no definition for destruction of such structures in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), in OPCW “common law” it has come to mean “taken down to the foundations”. A compromise may be possible, but there is a danger of setting a bad precedent.

Second, Dina Esfandiary of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London says that a mechanism for future “challenge” inspections, something OPCW has never previously done, will be needed if Syria is to be certified as entirely free of chemical weapons. It remains possible that the regime has hidden stocks, which on past form it might use—and then blame the rebels for. The status of one chemical-weapons site, in an area the regime claims is too dangerous for removal operations, remains “unresolved”, says Mr Luhan.

Reports earlier this month that helicopters dropped bombs filled with industrial chlorine gas on the rebel-held village of Kfar Zita, injuring and terrifying dozens of civilians, suggest that the regime has not changed its ways. The attack was reported as a rebel atrocity on Syrian TV before it had even happened, says Ms Esfandiary. The use of chlorine gas is hard to prove. It is not banned under the CWC and it does not linger, making the extraction of evidence from soil samples almost impossible. That is one reason why no signatory to the convention has asked the OPCW to investigate. However, if use with intent to maim or kill could be established, it would be a clear breach of the convention. A further requirement of the convention is that signatories give a full history of their chemical-weapons programme, accounting for the scientists who worked on it and other countries that may have assisted it (in Syria’s case, probably Russia and Egypt). But Ms Esfandiary doubts that, with the architect of the programme still in power, the regime would reveal anything that might incriminate it in the killing of more than 1,000 people by sarin gas in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on April 21, 2013, a war crime for which it still denies all responsibility. Eliminating Syria’s

Chemical Weapons,  Getting There, Economist, Apr. 26, 2014, at 45.

Getting Rid of Chemical Weapons: logistics and compromises

Nobody thought it would be easy to transport several hundred tonnes of highly toxic chemical agents on a road that runs through territory fought over by two sides in a civil war. Speaking in Oslo on December 9th, a day before collecting the Nobel peace prize awarded to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ahmet Uzumcu, its head, warned that a December 31st deadline for getting the Syrian government’s most lethal substances out of the country would be “quite difficult” to meet.

Yet much has been achieved. A joint team from the UN and The Hague-based OPCW was sent to Syria two months ago as part of a deal to avert an American missile strike in response to President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons on August 21st. Co-operation from the Syrian government, which has a legal responsibility for implementing the plan, has been all that could have been hoped for, says Sigrid Kaag, a Dutch diplomat who leads the mission. Key milestones for the verification of chemical-weapons stockpiles and the functional destruction of the facilities where they have been produced were met on time (October 27th and November 1st, respectively). Of 23 sites, 22 were visited by inspectors. The one that proved inaccessible because of fighting is believed to have been dismantled and abandoned.

Destruction of unfilled munitions will be completed before the target date of January 31st. At least for now (and assuming there has been no cheating), it is unlikely that Syria has the capacity to make or fill any new weapons. However, by the end of this month, 500 tonnes of nerve agents, such as sarin and mustard gas (known as “priority weapons”), have to be removed for safe destruction. This task is daunting.

First, the weapons must be sealed and packaged in special containers brought across the border from Lebanon by Syrian technicians who have been trained there by OPCW specialists. Then they must be transported by road from multiple sites to Syria’s biggest port, Latakia. Once there, they will be loaded onto ships provided by Norway and Denmark and taken to an American government-owned vessel, the Cape Ray* a 200-metre (650-foot) cargo ship that is part of a reserve fleet used for transporting military hardware. The Cape Ray has been fitted with equipment for breaking down lethal chemical agents into a sludge similar to industrial toxic waste. It will eventually be handled by commercial firms in a number of countries, according to Ms Kaag.

The biggest obstacle is getting the lorries carrying the chemicals through to Latakia, because the highway between Damascus and Homs, which they have to use, remains contested. In recent weeks fighting for control of towns along it, such as Qara, Deir Attiyah and al-Nabak, has been fierce. The first two are in government hands but al-Nabak, some 80km from Damascus, is disputed. A pro-government newspaper, al-Watan, claimed this week that the highway had reopened after 20 days of bloody fighting around al-Nabak, but rebels claimed still to be holding on in parts of the town.

Ms Kaag recently met moderate opposition leaders in Turkey, but despite assurances that they support the safe removal of the regime’s chemical weapons it is questionable whether they have any influence in implementing temporary ceasefires that would ensure safe passage. The OPCW is in the uncomfortable position of relying on the military success of regime forces, supported by local militias led by Hizbullah, the Lebanese party-cum-militia, to meet its timelines. A further 800 tonnes of less lethal industrial chemicals destined for incineration at commercial toxic-waste plants outside Syria must also be transported to Latakia by early February.

Ms Kaag says that although “the situation remains complex and the security situation volatile…we intend to forge ahead.” Mr Uzumcu is equally bullish about meeting the overarching objective of destroying the entire Syrian chemical arsenal by the end of next June. However, the UN’s secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, in a leaked letter to the Security Council last week, expressed his concern both about the “highly dangerous” nature of this stage of the mission and about the vulnerability of the team’s headquarters in Damascus. An alternative base in nearby Cyprus is being considered.

The joint mission has already achieved a lot in a very short time. Ms Kaag describes a week of the current operation as being the equivalent of several months of any other the OPCW has undertaken since its formation in 1997. But there is no guarantee that it can maintain the momentum. The Syrian government has asked the international community to provide armoured vehicles to help it move the chemicals. The request is understandably being treated with suspicion but it might have to be granted if there is no other way of getting the chemicals to Latakia. Russia, an Assad ally, has said it is willing to step in. Working closely with a regime that has done terrible things to its own people has always been morally compromising. It is becoming even more so.

Syria’s war: An inconvenient truth, Economist,  Dec. 14, 2013, at 58

*The 648-foot Cape Ray, built in 1977, is generally used to transport vehicles to war zones from the United States. The ship has been outfitted, by Army civilians, with two portable hydrolysis systems designed to neutralize chemicals weapons in Syria’s arsenal.
Under the United Nations-backed plan, some 700 metric tons of chemicals will be loaded into shipping containers and moved to Latakia, a Syrian city on the Mediterranean Sea, where they will be placed onto cargo ships and eventually transferred to the Cape Ray. Once the chemicals are destroyed aboard the vessel, the waste, some 1.2 million gallons’ worth, will be offloaded at an unspecified commercial treatment facility. See Official Homepage of the United States Army