Unpacking the Latest Chemical Attack in Syria

The chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017 has aroused a slew of hyperbole of political rhetoric, and it's all predictable.  Each side blames the other.

So far, the latest is a replay of the chemical attack on Gouhta in 2013.  There was never a consensus on whether chemical weapons were used by Syrian forces or by warring factions within the rebel camp – or if the entire incident was manufactured within rebel forces to acquire foreign assistance.  No consensus between Russia and America, at least.  

After the Gouhta attack, Syria's President Assad relinquished his chemical stockpile, to the satisfaction of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  Syrian opposition insists that stocks were withheld.  Do they know something, or was this just an ace up the sleeve?

All state parties are aware of the political ramifications of using chemical weapons, which mitigate any military gains.  Deploying chemical weapons did make sense in the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988.  Here, Western and Soviet powers supported Iraq, for reasons of their own, along with Saddam Hussein's profligate use of chemical weapons against Iran as a decisive weapon.  Sporadic, tactical use, on the other hand, is a losing deal unless there's a ground follow-up for some particularly valuable terrain that just can't be taken any other way.  This did not occur in Gouhta or Khan Sheikoun.  (Sarin is non-persistent and sometimes regarded as an "offensive chemical weapon.")

For this reason, state powers fastidiously control the use of whatever chemical weapons they possess.  Authority to use them comes from the political top.  Civil wars are more chaotic than most, but all the more reason for the 2013 Syrian agent disposal to have been thorough.

Chemical munitions require troops specially trained to handle them and respond to leaks or other unique liabilities.  Improvising is more the insurgent tactic.  However, there are lots of government-trained troops fighting on the rebel side.  According to the Russians, al-Qaeda runs agent munitions manufacturing facilities at Kahn Sheikhoun.  The sarin released was their own.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) attempts to ban or closely monitor precursors used in manufacturing chemical agents.  However, precursors also have precursors.  Sarin used in the 1995 Tokyo subway attack and 1994 Matsumoto attack was apparently the real thing, and home-brewed.

Chlorine is still regarded as a "classic agent" because it was used as such in the First World War.  Any industrial gas can be used for military purposes if it's heavier than air.  It displaces air.  It's an asphyxiating agent, and if it's readily available, as many are, it'll do.  This, however, is again improvising.  A state power can deliver far more effective agents far more easily but with no more  political cost.  Strangely enough, an OPCW-UN panel finds Syria using chlorine and the Islamic State using mustard agent, which has only military application.

It's difficult to believe much of any of it or figure it out.

In general, military operations are conducted according to a plan conceived on intelligence.  Intelligence must be timely and adequate.  By the time one learns everything there is to know for sure, the enemy will have moved.  If the operation succeeds, then the execution, plan, and intelligence were good enough.  Things can always go better, but at least the operation didn't fail.  If the operation does fail, then the blame goes around among intelligence, planning, and execution.  Many inquiries accurately conclude that the enemy always has his say.

Not to say that armies don't hide things, but journalists and politicians looking for a scoop are accustomed to a much more orderly world than a battlefield.  But military operations are not a guessing game, either.  They are based upon an analysis of risk versus gain that has to be made before the premises disappear altogether.

So what is the risk-versus-gain analysis on the Khan Sheikhoun attack?

For Assad, dumb.  Not to say that people don't do dumb things, war itself being one of them.

For the rebels, it's not so dumb.

Syrian opposition member Basma Kodmani insists, "This is a direct consequence of American statements about Assad not being a priority and giving him time and allowing him to stay in power,"  amounting to "a blank check for Assad."

Guess we'd better get right over there and "play al-Qaeda's air force" again.

We don't know all the facts, but there are a few that we do know.

We've been fighting "terror" for over a decade and still haven't gotten it right.  If anything, we're worse at it than when we started.

We don't need Russia as another belligerent, because Russia is already committed to Syria and actually seems to have gotten the game down better than we have.  Assad is winning.  Iraq isn't.

Our intelligence agencies are better at spying on other politicians than they are terrorists – never mind that the latter post their intentions on Facebook.   

Democrats think Republicans are more the enemy than terrorists.

We're broke.  The debt is pushing $20 trillion by some estimates and more by others.  That amounted to about $167,000 per taxpayer last I looked.  Whenever you're ready!

Hamas has placed rocket launchers in civilian areas to discourage Israeli counter-battery fire.  Nice guys!  How could anyone think they would gas their own for a strategic advantage?

I hope "America First" wasn't just a campaign promise.  Yes, we have interests in the Middle East, but the trick to that is to have as few of them as possible.

As for sarin, chemical warfare has aroused sentiments like that since the days of poison arrows, long before anyone knew if he'd really been poisoned or just picked up an infection in the wound.  The politics and propaganda in it proved a lot more useful than the chemical weapon ever was.

With every new weapon comes the hand-wringing until the other side adopts it and then finds himself doing everything he ever accused his enemy of doing – pikes, gunpowder, armor, aircraft, submarines, and chemical warfare agents.

We're in for long haul against radical Islam, and it's going to get nasty, because it already is nasty.

Leaders puff and posture.  It's not always what it seems.  No doubt, repugnance for President Trump is a good first response.

But I hope "America First" isn't just a slogan, because it's the only America that we've got, and the rest of the world just plain isn't.

The chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017 has aroused a slew of hyperbole of political rhetoric, and it's all predictable.  Each side blames the other.

So far, the latest is a replay of the chemical attack on Gouhta in 2013.  There was never a consensus on whether chemical weapons were used by Syrian forces or by warring factions within the rebel camp – or if the entire incident was manufactured within rebel forces to acquire foreign assistance.  No consensus between Russia and America, at least.  

After the Gouhta attack, Syria's President Assad relinquished his chemical stockpile, to the satisfaction of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  Syrian opposition insists that stocks were withheld.  Do they know something, or was this just an ace up the sleeve?

All state parties are aware of the political ramifications of using chemical weapons, which mitigate any military gains.  Deploying chemical weapons did make sense in the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988.  Here, Western and Soviet powers supported Iraq, for reasons of their own, along with Saddam Hussein's profligate use of chemical weapons against Iran as a decisive weapon.  Sporadic, tactical use, on the other hand, is a losing deal unless there's a ground follow-up for some particularly valuable terrain that just can't be taken any other way.  This did not occur in Gouhta or Khan Sheikoun.  (Sarin is non-persistent and sometimes regarded as an "offensive chemical weapon.")

For this reason, state powers fastidiously control the use of whatever chemical weapons they possess.  Authority to use them comes from the political top.  Civil wars are more chaotic than most, but all the more reason for the 2013 Syrian agent disposal to have been thorough.

Chemical munitions require troops specially trained to handle them and respond to leaks or other unique liabilities.  Improvising is more the insurgent tactic.  However, there are lots of government-trained troops fighting on the rebel side.  According to the Russians, al-Qaeda runs agent munitions manufacturing facilities at Kahn Sheikhoun.  The sarin released was their own.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) attempts to ban or closely monitor precursors used in manufacturing chemical agents.  However, precursors also have precursors.  Sarin used in the 1995 Tokyo subway attack and 1994 Matsumoto attack was apparently the real thing, and home-brewed.

Chlorine is still regarded as a "classic agent" because it was used as such in the First World War.  Any industrial gas can be used for military purposes if it's heavier than air.  It displaces air.  It's an asphyxiating agent, and if it's readily available, as many are, it'll do.  This, however, is again improvising.  A state power can deliver far more effective agents far more easily but with no more  political cost.  Strangely enough, an OPCW-UN panel finds Syria using chlorine and the Islamic State using mustard agent, which has only military application.

It's difficult to believe much of any of it or figure it out.

In general, military operations are conducted according to a plan conceived on intelligence.  Intelligence must be timely and adequate.  By the time one learns everything there is to know for sure, the enemy will have moved.  If the operation succeeds, then the execution, plan, and intelligence were good enough.  Things can always go better, but at least the operation didn't fail.  If the operation does fail, then the blame goes around among intelligence, planning, and execution.  Many inquiries accurately conclude that the enemy always has his say.

Not to say that armies don't hide things, but journalists and politicians looking for a scoop are accustomed to a much more orderly world than a battlefield.  But military operations are not a guessing game, either.  They are based upon an analysis of risk versus gain that has to be made before the premises disappear altogether.

So what is the risk-versus-gain analysis on the Khan Sheikhoun attack?

For Assad, dumb.  Not to say that people don't do dumb things, war itself being one of them.

For the rebels, it's not so dumb.

Syrian opposition member Basma Kodmani insists, "This is a direct consequence of American statements about Assad not being a priority and giving him time and allowing him to stay in power,"  amounting to "a blank check for Assad."

Guess we'd better get right over there and "play al-Qaeda's air force" again.

We don't know all the facts, but there are a few that we do know.

We've been fighting "terror" for over a decade and still haven't gotten it right.  If anything, we're worse at it than when we started.

We don't need Russia as another belligerent, because Russia is already committed to Syria and actually seems to have gotten the game down better than we have.  Assad is winning.  Iraq isn't.

Our intelligence agencies are better at spying on other politicians than they are terrorists – never mind that the latter post their intentions on Facebook.   

Democrats think Republicans are more the enemy than terrorists.

We're broke.  The debt is pushing $20 trillion by some estimates and more by others.  That amounted to about $167,000 per taxpayer last I looked.  Whenever you're ready!

Hamas has placed rocket launchers in civilian areas to discourage Israeli counter-battery fire.  Nice guys!  How could anyone think they would gas their own for a strategic advantage?

I hope "America First" wasn't just a campaign promise.  Yes, we have interests in the Middle East, but the trick to that is to have as few of them as possible.

As for sarin, chemical warfare has aroused sentiments like that since the days of poison arrows, long before anyone knew if he'd really been poisoned or just picked up an infection in the wound.  The politics and propaganda in it proved a lot more useful than the chemical weapon ever was.

With every new weapon comes the hand-wringing until the other side adopts it and then finds himself doing everything he ever accused his enemy of doing – pikes, gunpowder, armor, aircraft, submarines, and chemical warfare agents.

We're in for long haul against radical Islam, and it's going to get nasty, because it already is nasty.

Leaders puff and posture.  It's not always what it seems.  No doubt, repugnance for President Trump is a good first response.

But I hope "America First" isn't just a slogan, because it's the only America that we've got, and the rest of the world just plain isn't.