Monday, March 17, 2014

Are Biological Weapons next on Assad's Agenda? Israel Hayom

http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_opinion.php?id=5517

Are biological weapons next on Assad's agenda?


As the U.S. Navy amasses warships armed with cruise missiles in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, reports fromMedecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) have confirmed possible nerve gas attacks affecting more then 3,500 people in Syria.
According to the organization's website: "Three hospitals inDamascus governorate supported by MSF reported that they received approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on Aug. 21, 2013. Of those patients 355 died. 'MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack,' said Dr. Janssens. 'However, the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events -- characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first-aid workers -- strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.'"
The Assad regime's likely use of chemical warfare agents, possibly phosgene or sarin, constitutes a serious breach of humanitarian law. If these reports are independently corroborated and analysis of the chemical agent used is scientifically established, this chemical weapons attack would be the worst since 1988. Saddam Hussein used sarin, mustard gas and tabun against Kurdish communities in northern Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. More than 5,000 Kurds were killed as a result of his use of chemical weapons. Between 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds were killed in the Anfal campaign during the Iran-Iraq War.
One location of the Assad-regime attack was Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, once a holy site revered by Syrian Jews, now displaced to Israel and the diaspora in the West.
Syria's chemical weapons program has one of the largest stockpiles in the Middle East. Aside from Israel, theinternational community has until now consistently turned a blind eye giving the benefit of the doubt to President Bashar Assad's Syria. The international community had adopted an ostrich-like pose to the Syrian chemical weapons threat. Syria started its chemical and biological weapons programs over 20 years ago in violation of international accords prohibiting the use of such weapons.
If this latest alleged chemical weapons attack is confirmed by independent forensic analysis, the international community should develop a nuanced coordinated response. Given Syria's vast arsenal of VX and sarin, among other deadly chemical warfare agents, military options such as possible cruise missile attacks on chemical weapons caches in Syria may be problematic and could cause collateral casualties among adjacent civilian populations.
Should the cruise missiles be designated for use against command and control infrastructure, Hezbollah quite possibly may initiate unconventional attacks in Lebanon or into Israel using drones mounted with biological weapons, in swarming strategies. Both their biological warfare capability and small drones could pose a dangerous escalation. Not only is this a direct threat to Israel, but such a strike would only create greater instability by emboldening the Assad regime, its ally Iran and proxy Hezbollah to undertake retaliatory actions.
Given the probable use of chemical weapons by Assad's forces in Jobar, we should be equally concerned about Syria's biological weapon programs, which have the capacity to cause global epidemics. With the exception of Israel, the international community and media seem heedless that Assad would actually release biological warfare agents.
Assad views chemical and biological weapons as two components of his conventional arsenal. Syria has designated and trained military units in the use and deployment of both chemical and biological weapons. Like the late Saddam Hussein, Assad has demonstrated that he will use these unconventional weapons against his own citizens. The international community must now begin to plan for the use of biological warfare Category A agents (anthrax, botulinum toxin, smallpox, plague, tularemia, and viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola), given the significant global impact of such an attack.
Assad's chemical and biological weapons programs are long-term and strategic in nature. The reality of chemical and biological weapons programs is that these are clandestine and Syria's most valued weapon class. The Assad regime has for years designated targets for its chemical weapons. It has also made statements, most recently in July 2012, acknowledging its chemical and biological weapons programs. In 2006, it considered chemical and biological weapons part of its conventional arsenal.
Assad's use of chemical weapons should serve as a wake-up call on his ability to use highly portable and devastating biological warfare agents. National security echelons in Washington should view this as an important message.
Given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's remarks this past weekend, Israel knows that use of both chemical and biological weapons by the Assad regime represents a clear and present danger. If Assad is capable of using chemical weapons near Damascus, he is equally as capable of launching biological weapons, which pose a global pandemic threat. After increasing evidence of a mass-casualty chemical weapons attack in Syria, the international community no longer has the luxury of standing by and see what is next on Assad's weapons-of-mass-destructionagenda.
Dr. Jill Bellamy van Aalst is an international expert and former consultant to NATO on biological warfare and threat reduction.
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