Thursday, December 08, 2011

8-Dec-11: So do the Syrians have poison gas?

Hama, Syria: aftermath of the 1982 massacre
[Image Source]
The comment below, referring to our earlier blog entry on US concerns about Syria's stocks of poison gas, comes from J. E. Dyer, a retired US Naval intelligence officer who served around the world, afloat and ashore, from 1983 to 2004. Her last operations in the Navy were Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in 2003. Her articles appear in a number of well-read sites and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

In our blog entry, we wondered at the statement by Rachel Oswald that Syria is not known to have ever used poison gas, and that it developed and stored it "as a deterrent to outside attack, namely from Israel, and not for use against the Syrian people".
"If Oswald was going only on information from US intelligence sources, that might explain not mentioning Hama 1982.  That is not because US intelligence has certain knowledge that no toxic chemical was used at Hama -- rather, it would be that US intel is keeping tabs on what it perceives to be the weapons stock. The gas used at Hama was reportedly hydrogen cyanide, a major component of Zyklon B.  Hydrogen cyanide is very difficult to weaponize -- i.e., use as a toxin in warheads -- and can't be deployed effectively over large areas with an aerial platform.  It disperses and becomes ineffective too quickly.  No one was very successful at using it in weaponized form in WWII.

If US intel is seeking to keep track of chemicals married up with missiles, rockets, artillery, helicopters, or fixed-wing aircraft, hydrogen cyanide won't be among them.  Hydrogen cyanide is basically deployed using forced-air generators in the immediate vicinity of the target victims.  A quick web search reveals that the eyewitness reports from the Hama massacre indicate exactly that:  regime authorities used generators to flood buildings with hydrogen cyanide in order to ensure everyone was killed.

Of course, hydrogen cyanide is considered a WMD component, but today that's mainly because terrorists can find ways to use it.  Aum Shinrikyo [Wikipedia entry here - AR] tried to use it in a Japanese subway in the 1990s, and there's plenty of intel that al Qaeda has experimented with it using dogs as the victims.  If Syria uses it, however, it won't be deployed via a conventional "weapons" platform.  It will be done more as a police or infantry action, in ways detectable only to bystanders.

I think the preparation and use of hydrogen cyanide would basically be undetectable to an intel collection plan that was focused on the chemical manufacturing facilities and the weapons handling facilities.  Hydrogen cyanide can be generated on-site or transported in small trucks or vans, and is deployed using small, portable equipment.  It doesn't have the deployment "footprint" of something like ricin, VX, or mustard gas, which can be delivered by rocket warhead or artillery shell or dispersed from aircraft. From an intel detection perspective, I think the only reliable way to know hydrogen cyanide was being used would be to hear someone talking about it explicitly, on a phone or radio (or by reading official emails, perhaps)."

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