Friday, May 9, 2014

Crossing the Red Line: Assad's Chemical Weapons and Biological Warfare

“I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation.  But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical.  That’s an issue that doesn't just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel.  It concerns us.  We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people." “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.  That would change my calculus.  That would change my equation.” U.S. President Obama See: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/wp/2013/09/06/president-obama-and-the-red-line-on-syrias-chemical-weapons/
What many perceive as morally reprehensible and enshrined in international Treaties prohibiting the use of chemical warfare agents, by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which prohibits the use of chemical weapons in war and or against civilians was ignored by Syria. Assad's use  on numerous occasions of chemical agents (sarin), on the heals of statements made by Dr. Jihad Makdissi professing a stance against their use, is highly concerning with regard to Assad's biological weapon programs and intent. On the 23rd of July, 2012, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi stated that Syria would never use "any chemical and biological weapons....inside Syria," that the Syrian army was storing "all stocks of these weapons" securely, and that such weapons would only be used in the event of "external aggression."(19). In subsequent Twitter exchanges, he tried to walk back the apparent acknowledgement of Syria's possession of chemical and biological weapons, something Syria had previously denied.(20) See: http://www.nti.org/country-profiles/syria/biological/
Makdissi's  statement removed decades of 'speculation' over weather Syria even had a biological weapon program.  Lights flashed within government services over this revelation but perhaps for reasons other than the acknowledgement, which Western IC had been aware of since the early 1990's. Although Syria is a signatory to the Geneva Protocol and the Biological and Toxin Weapon Convention (BTWC), no inspection regime exists to verify Syria's biological weapon complex. This is serious cause for concern. Essentially, this means while Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapon Convention (CWC) in 2013 and is therefore accountable under the CWC which allowed UN (OPCW) weapon inspectors to assess Assad's chemical weapon stockpiles, there is no inspection regime for biological weapons, nor has Syria ratified the BTWC.  Western governments can't begin to discuss Assad's biological warfare programs because ultimately nothing can be done to prevent their use or even inspect for such weapons programs. 
cryptosporidium parvum photo: microbewiki.kenyon.edu
The use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians on at least 14 separate occasions (see:http://www.un.org/disarmament/content/slideshow/Secretary_General_Report_of_CW_Investigation.pdf), and lack of repercussions does not bode well for Assad's potential use of biological weapons. In fact if we use his use of chemical weapons as the test ground, there is no reason for him not to use biological warfare agents, particularly in force reduction scenarios. Not all biological warfare agents kill and it could be plausible to select an agent which would be highly infectious and give government forces the upper hand for a slated time frame. If forces and or civilians were too ill to fight, the regime could gain an advantage. Shallow shelf water supplies are extremely vulnerable, particularly during conflict. 

"When the Tunisian jihadi, Abassi, referred to placing bacteria sufficient to kill 100,000 in a municipal system that was a stretch. More likely using Crypto parasites, e.coli or other waterborne pathogens could be planted by terrorists in sources and reservoirs for municipal water systems.  Waterborne pathogens are more cost effective. Note this comparison: One study maintains that four tons of the nerve agent VX would be required to cause several hundred thousand deaths if released in aerosol form in a crowded urban area, compared to only 50 kg of anthrax spores (Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 17)." See: http://www.newenglishreview.org/blog_direct_link.cfm/blog_id/49094/
Cryptosporidium parvum in particular is resistant to chlorination and can appear even in highly filtrated water supplies. It is relatively easy to acquire. Al Qaeda and Hezbollah scientists certainly know how --as do scientific teams associated with the IRGC and the Quds Force. Again, deniability is the key. Parasites and spores, even anthrax in some geographic locations are naturally occurring and thus pose a challenge in terms of identification and response. As the world held it's collective breath following the crossing of the 'red-line' on so many occasions, the use of biological agents as a force reducer may be just around the corner. It may in have already happened. It is difficult to identify naturally occurring outbreaks of disease, even cholera which is now endemic in Syria. While combating natural outbreaks of disease is a challenge during conflict and war, the deliberate use could actually be to the Syrian regimes advantage. "Outbreaks of hepatitis, typhoid,  cholera or dysentery are "inevitable" in Syria and its neighbours this summer, while cases of measles and other infections are already growing because of the country's broken health system and increasing numbers of displaced people, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned." See: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/04/syrian-disease-outbreaks-inevitable-who Unfortunately, while Western government are reluctant to confront this threat, it is indeed something the  public health community must now train and prepare for as a viable scenario. Certainly it is something which should be monitored closely within bio-defence communities.

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