Monday, December 24, 2012

24-Dec-12: Peace on earth, chemical weapons and red lines

Spiegel Online's July 2012 analysis of Syria's vast investment
in chemical weapons [Source]
Sunday, bloody Syrian Sunday.

Al Arabiya reports that "At least 300 killed in regime airstrike near Syrian bakery" though considerably smaller numbers are being reported elsewhere. Times of Israel adds that the Syrian government forces strike on Halfaya
"left scattered bodies and debris up and down a street, and more than a dozen dead and wounded were trapped in tangled heap of dirt and rubble. The attack appeared to be the government response to a newly announced rebel offensive seeking to drive the Syrian army from a constellation of towns and village north of the central city of Hama. Halfaya was the first of the area’s towns to be “liberated” by rebel fighters, and activists saw Sunday’s attack as payback."
Back to Al Arabiya which provides some context: 
"During the summer, rights groups accused government forces of committing war crimes by dropping bombs and using artillery on or near several bakeries in the northern province of Aleppo... [A witness said] “We hadn’t received flour in around three days so everyone was going to the bakery today, and lots of them were women and children...”
There are conflicting claims about who is using chemical weapons in the Syrian bloodbath. One source says the government. A second says it couldn't possibly be the government. A third says the opposition. None of the news is good, no matter which interpretation is right:

'Sarin-like gas' kills 7 in Homs
Source: Ynet quoting Al-JazeeraSeven people were killed in Homs' rebel-held neighborhood of al-Bayyada when they inhaled a poisonous gas sprayed by Syrian Army forces, opposition activists told Al-Jazeera early Monday. According to the activists, scores of others suffered from side effects, including nausea, relaxed muscles, blurred vision, and breathing difficulties. Residents said they did not know the nature of the gas sprayed. "The situation is very difficult. We do not have enough facemasks. We don't know what this gas is but medics are saying it's something similar to Sarin gas," Raji Rahmet Rabbou, an activist in Homs, told Al Jazeera. In a video posted online a man who inhaled the gas said, "I felt something within a few seconds. I felt my throat block up as I tried to breathe. I couldn't see; I was blinded. I felt that my muscles were relaxed. I was paralyzed. People had to carry me here."
Syria Unlikely to Use Chemical Weapons
Source: RIA Novosti      Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that Syrian authorities are unlikely to use chemical weapons as it would be a "political suicide" for them. "I don’t believe Syria would use chemical weapons. It would be a political suicide for the government if it does," he said in an interview with the RT television network.
Syria militants use chemical weapons against Syrian forces
Source: One of the pro-Assad Iranian government's mouthpiece media outletsMilitants fighting against the Syrian government have used chemical weapons against the army in Daraya near the capital, Damascus, military sources say. According to a commander of the Syrian Presidential Guard, at least seven Syrian soldiers were killed on Saturday after they were attacked by a chemical weapon which produced a toxic yellow gas. The soldiers were reportedly killed within an hour after inhaling the gas. Foreign-backed militants have repeatedly threatened to use chemical weapons against the army and pro-government civilians in recent days. They have also threatened to contaminate Syria's drinking water supply in a bid to kill all Alawite Shias and the supporters of President Bashar al-Assad... The Syrian government has repeatedly said that the chaos is being orchestrated from outside the country, and that a very large number of the militants operating in the country are foreign nationals. 
As the Syrian bloodbath speeds past the 40,000-dead mark, keep in mind what the US government has said about chemical warfare in Syria. In August 2012, President Obama said [NY Times]:
“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people... 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.”
At the beginning of December [source
"Today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching," he said on Monday. "The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable and if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons there will be consequences and you will be held accountable."
Very familiar with consequences, Israel officially believes (it appears) there is no immediate threat from the al-Assad regime. But is remaining watchful.

From Reuters:
Syria's chemical weapons are still secure despite the fact that President Bashar al-Assad has lost control of parts of the country, a senior Israeli defense official said on Sunday. Amos Gilad told Army Radio that the civil war between Assad and opposition forces fighting to topple him had become deadlocked, but that the Syrian leader showed no signs of heeding international calls to step down. 
But the doomsday possibility is not being ignored [Times of Israel]:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said Israel was carefully watching developments in Syria, and especially the regime’s sizable stockpile of chemical weapons, which Israeli officials are afraid could be turned against the Jewish state. “We’re taking steps in order to prepare for the far-reaching changes that are commencing there,” Netanyahu said at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting, alluding to recent assessments that President Bashar Assad’s days in power were numbered. “There are dramatic developments in Syria on an almost daily basis... We’re taking the necessary steps to prepare ourselves...”
The best background analysis we have seen, far too long and detailed to reproduce here but filled with revelations, appeared on the website of the German news-magazine, Spiegel, this past July. Entitled "Israel's Red Line: Fate of Syrian Chemical Weapons May Trigger War", it is sufficiently dry and factual to totally ruin your day:
Syria probably started producing chemical weapons in the 1980s... They initially consisted of bombs that were filled with sarin gas and designed to be dropped by aircraft. Warheads for Scud missiles were also subsequently developed, and it's now believed that Syria has roughly 700 of these weapons. According to Israeli intelligence sources, most of the expertise came from the Soviet Union and the former Czechoslovakia, but private companies from Japan and Western Europe also reportedly aided the Syrians... In the mid-1990s, Syria reportedly managed to manufacture VX -- the most toxic nerve agent of all... The chemical-weapons depots are among the best-secured locations in all of Syria. Assad's army controls checkpoints on the access roads already kilometers before the gates, and the depots themselves are shielded by two ironclad rings of protective fences and guards. The troops who are responsible for guarding these facilities rank among the regime's loyalest supporters. One of the facilities lies northeast of Damascus, another near Homs, and a third -- where the nerve agents VX, sarin and tabun are allegedly manufactured -- is located near Hama... According to Jane's Intelligence Review, a British magazine focusing on global security issues, Iran has helped the Syrians with a number of these facilities. The production and storage facilities are operated by the Scientific Studies and Research Center, which employs over 10,000 people. Reports on the extent of the chemical arsenal vary widely, but conservative estimates obtained by the German government put it at roughly 1,000 metric tons.
Located in a valley some 20 kilometers southeast of Aleppo, the al-Safir complex is said to be the largest and most important chemical-weapons facility in all of Syria. A total of three production plants operate in an area that covers five square kilometers (two square miles). Sprinkler installations, a cooling system and two large underground tanks suggest that al-Safir is no ordinary military base. In its northeastern and northwestern corners, the grounds are protected by Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles, which are supposed to offer comprehensive protection against airstrikes. 
The legal position is pretty clear, by the way. Under customary international humanitarian law (binding on all States and on all parties to an armed conflict), the use of chemical weapons (and biological too) is prohibited. The prohibition is based [source]
on the ancient taboo against the use in war of "plague and poison" which has been passed down for generations in diverse cultures. It was most recently codified in the 1925 Geneva Protocol and subsequently in the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and in the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.
Under the Convention, thirteen states declared that they have chemical weapons production facilities. Unfortunately Syria is not one of them.

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