Science, Lies, War Gases and Similar Agents

Most people will have noticed the news of the recent attack on Syria regarding an alleged chemical attack by Assad on Douma. Forty people were alleged to have been killed. If true, that is terrible, but is it true? In war, truth is seldom clear. The evidence so far has been allegations by the “white helmets”, a group that is essentially a medical recovery team for ISIS and other Wahabbi groups, and hence hardly unbiased, and there have also been images of people standing around and then being hosed down with water. The chemicals started out as “maybe sarin”, but this melded into on report of a mix of hydrogen cyanide and chlorine, and finally, just chlorine. Neither sarin victims nor chlorine victoims would be just standing around, while had it been hydrogen cyanide and chlorine, these two would react together and cancel each other out. If you are going to spread rumours, a little knowledge of chemistry helps.

There was then a rush to judgment before the OPCW inspectors could get there. I have seen claims the inspectors are irrelevant because Assad would have “cleaned up”. Assad, of course, had won Douma and offered the Wahabbis a free bus ride to Idlib, so while he controlled the area, why would he make such an attack? Most of the Wahabbis has left before the attack was alleged to have occurred, so why then? That makes no sense. Daesh, etc, had a motive: get the US to bomb Assad. So, if there were such an attack, it is still unclear who attacked.

So, what would I expect the inspectors to find? First, if forty people died, there will be relatives to say how. Second, if it were sarin, that sticks around long enough that nobody would be too keen on cleaning up, and evidence of the cleaning would be obvious. The nature of the bodies would be obvious too. If it were chlorine, it would leave characteristic damage to bodies, and also to survivors. If you check the records of WW 1, survivors had characteristic symptoms for months, if not forever. So there will be evidence. There will also be the means of delivery. Yes, in principle that could be removed, but there will be evidence of that.

Finally, if it were chlorine, it could even have been an accident. If Daesh were destroying things rather than giving it to Assad before they left, a small explosion near a gas cylinder might have ruptured it. Also, just because there is chlorine somewhere does not mean it is there as a war gas. Chlorine is an excellent agent for removing pathogens from water. Denying Syria chlorine would effectively condemn them to outbreaks of things like cholera.

So, what about the strike? At the time of writing this, truth is in very short supply. The US says no missiles were intercepted, Syria say about 2/3 were. However, the target seemed to be three fairly large buildings, two of which are supposed to be places where chemical weapons are stored, and one was allegedly a centre for chemical weapons research. That raises the question, if the US was so certain they contained chemical weapons, why blow them up? The threat was the chemicals would be released onto the local population, which seems to me to be irresponsible. If they knew there were chemical weapons there, why not insist on inspectors going in long before this sequence started? Note that these places had been inspected five months previously, and no sign of chemical weapons had been found.

The New York Times somehow obtained a video of what was left of the research centre within hours of the strike. Obviously the claim it was struck and effectively destroyed is true. There is rubble everywhere. But standing on the rubble was someone waving something in the air. To me, that does not seem as if there were a lot of chemical weapons there because if sarin, say, was broken open near him, he would be dead.

One of the things that really puzzled me was this. I am a professional chemist, and have spent a certain amount of my time doing organic synthesis, so I know what such a laboratory should look like. None of what I would expect was able to be seen in these pictures. Thus a laboratory to make chemicals for such weapons would need fairly substantial objects to do the syntheses on (minimum – benches), very substantial objects to enclose such sites so as to protect the workers, very large fans etc to remove fumes, large equipment to capture such fumes and neutralize them, various bits of equipment, lots of pipes to move air and water, and as far as water goes, a laboratory that big would need at a minimum a two inch water supply pipe, and when bombs wrecked the building, I would expect the pipes to rupture, so I would expect water flooding out. I would also expect the remains of fires, from the chemicals used. None of that is in the pictures. Now the rubble will bury some of the equipment (but not hide leaky pipes) and assuming the water supply comes from the road, the rubble would bury the only means to turn of that water. The only “contents” of the building I could see was a lot of what looked like office waste. Finally, another surprise: there were no casualties. That, of course, is good and I am not bloodthirsty, but if these buildings were storing chemical weapons, wouldn’t you expect some security guards? Surely Assad would not leave barrels of sarin lying around waiting for someone to steal them? So if there were no casualties, presumably nobody was in the building, and that makes storing chemical weapons more unlikely.

Accordingly, I think it is important to find out what that building really did. I get rather suspicious of claims they “know” that chemical weapons are being made in a building. I recall one such building in Iraq that turned out not to be making chemical weapons, but rather it was reconstituting baby formula. Everybody who makes these mistakes just shrugs their shoulders and moves on. The victims of the attack cannot do that.

A final comment. Assad once had and used chemical weapons, but before the West howls at what an animal he is, recall he was supplied with these chemicals from the West. If you sell him this sort of thing, what do you expect him to do with them? Put them in a museum? The supplier of the weaponry is effectively an accessory to the subsequent crime, in my opinion.

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Sergei Skripal, Novichoks, and Accusations

One of the more depressing pieces of news this week was the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia by what appears to be a Novichok agent. There is a large family of these, which were developed in the old Soviet Union as chemical weapons. Their structure involves a phosphoramidate or a phosphonate, either of which is often fluorinated. These can be made simply by mixing two chemicals: a substituted phosphoryl compound with at least one halogen on it, and if there happen to be two fluoride substituents, displacing one of these leaves the other fluoride as part of what is desired. The other compound appears to usually involve an amine or an oxime, and phosgene oxime (a chemical weapon in its own right called CX) appears to form particularly active Novichoks. A major advantage of these as war chemicals is that they can be made by mixing the chemicals at the point of use, which makes them safer to handle up to use, especially if they can be mixed remotely. The Novichoks are extremely dangerous, as can be seen in that when the Skripals collapsed after being poisoned elsewhere, a policeman who came to help was himself struck down by residue seemingly adhering to the Skripals.

As might be expected, everyone has jumped up and down blaming the Russians, and of course, they may well be to blame. The Russian case for innocence is not helped by the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko some time ago with 210-polonium, which in some ways was quite clever in that after administering, it takes several days before any symptoms appear, so the villain would have left the country before a crime was even recognized. While we do not know who did that, the actual use of such an isotope meant that the perpetrator had to have access to extremely dangerous isotopes, and that strongly suggests a nation such as Russia. You can’t make such isotopes in a shed, even with an unlimited budget.

However, Novichoks are not particularly difficult to make for a skilled chemist. The synthesis would involve some sophisticated equipment and quite a bit of patience to make them from chemicals you could often purchase if you were in the chemical business, but they are not impossible for someone with the necessary skill. It would be very difficult to make them on a large scale, but a gram of each precursor would not be that difficult. There are other sources. They were developed in the old Soviet Union, and not just in Russia. Uzbekistan was one of the places, and I would suspect other parts also had some of the necessary chemicals. Of course Russia would be a good source.

Teresa May delivered some sort of ultimatum to the Russian government: either account for all your Novichok agents within about 36 hours, or “face the consequences”. With the best will in the world, I doubt a country as large as Russia could account for its entire chemical stock in that short a time. Probably much less than a gram of each precursor would have been used, and I doubt any country could account for that degree of accuracy in a chemical stock in that time, if ever. However, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, did make a response: he asked for a sample of the Novichok. Given there were could be many of them, and the different ones could well have originated from different places, wanting to know the structure is a reasonable request. Maybe a sample of the agent is too much to ask, but at the least a mass spectrum would be helpful because that should define which Novichok was used, assuming it was one.

As it happens, Russia did not respond to May’s demands. Now what? The problem with delivering an ultimatum is that if the other side declines to give in, you have to deliver, and Britain’s position is too weak to worry Russia.

So, who else could be responsible? What we have to realize is that Skripal, as a double agent, managed to hand over a GRU list of agents in the West, most of whom were promptly arrested. Now suppose, many years later, some were released? Or one of their associates who managed to avoid detection found out where the Skripals were? Anyone want to bet they would not have a motive? The man they trusted, a senior officer in their own organization, handed them over to the West, and they, whose lives had been ruined, don’t want payback? And why a Novichok? The real problem with them is there is a good chance the damage is permanent. The victim may recover, but only partially, and some nerve damage will be permanent. That would be revenge.

So how do we find out? My guess is good old police work. It is known when it happened, where it happened, it was a public place so someone must know something. Britain has a large number of surveillance sites, and with any luck, images of the perpetrators will be available. Let us wait and see what the investigations produce before jumping on the bandwagon. Evidence is what we need. Facts. Not wild accusations. Maybe it was the Russian government, but not necessarily. If the perpetrator can be identified, at least an arrest warrant can be issued. In the meantime, being a KGB defector does not look like being a good position to have.

Chemicals over Syria

The news over the past week was dominated by a “chemical attack” in Syria, and the US response. However, there was then a flurry of various theories as to what had happened, the most usual one being that Assad was at it again, using sarin on his own population. So, what do we know, and what theories are consistent with what we know? In my scientific books, I have maintained that for any subset of facts, the smaller that subset the more likely there is that there will be at least one other theory consistent with the facts. What one then does is design experiments to s falsify some of them, so that eventually you end up with just one, and that is most likely to be correct. With human activities that is a little harder to do, and we have to relax somewhat the Royal Society’s motto Nullius in verba, which loosely translated means, take nobody’s word. With something like Syria, you cannot check everything rigorously, but you can look for self-consistency and reliability.

So what do we know? First, a number of people, including children, died in Khan Sheikhun some time on the morning of Tuesday 4th April. Some survivors were taken to hospitals elsewhere. According to US surveillance, one SU 22 took off from Shayrat air base and dropped objects on Khan Sheikhun. That is about all we know. What is most likely to be true? First, the symptoms of the survivors were argued to be consistent with their having experienced sarin, although one of the hospitals reported the symptoms were consistent with sarin, but the clothing showed signs of chlorine, which implies there were two gases present. Strictly speaking, sarin does not give unique symptoms, and a number of other organophosphorus compounds would also give these symptoms, although not so acutely. One such compound might be methylphosphonyl difluoride, the precursor to sarin.

There are also video clips of white helmets as first responders helping the victims. They had no protection. Sarin is a liquid, and it is absorbed thorough skin. Had this been sarin, we would expect those first responders to die. There is a further problem with white helmets; there are also statements on the web that the white helmets, operating only in al Qaeda controlled territory, give preference to militants, and have staged scenes on behalf of al Qaeda. That does not mean they did so here, but it also raises questions as to the reliability of their statements.

Whether there were one or two agents is also important, and this point is not entirely clear. Two agents is more consistent with a dump having been hit. More confusion comes from one report that the town was struck by one rocket. Further, the town is a stronghold of al Qaeda affiliates, who are not necessarily going to tell the truth. Apparently, UN inspectors are trying to piece together what really happened, and in principle, these uncertainties should be clarified. The US intelligence statement states that at least one of the items dropped from the SU 22 was a canister of sarin, but how would they know that? There are also clips showing a shed that has no bomb damage and hence what came in must have been a gas canister. However, there is no evidence anything came in. The makers of such clips refuse to show holes in the roof, and while there is a clip of what looks like an undamaged munition being tested, from the way it is laying, either it was irrelevant or it had been moved.

There are at least three theories circulating for what happened. The first is the most popular: Assad’s air force dropped bombs with chemical weapons. The second is the Russian version: Assad’s air force dropped bombs on a dump of chemical weapons, or material for chemical weapons. The third is that ISIS/al Qaeda did it deliberately to get US involvement. A fourth might be that ISIS/al Qaeda did it accidentally. At this point it is important to determine whether the delivery was by one rocket. If so, the Syrian air force is off the hook, although the Syrian army could have fired it.

One argument against Assad having done it is that it makes no sense for him to have done so. He is gradually winning the war, and President Trump has indicated the US did not want to get involved with Syria. He would know that the US would be really irritated if he did, so why would he? To do so would be just plain stupid, but unfortunately this argument has a flaw: there appears to be no shortage of stupidity in the world.

Another argument against it is he handed over his chemical weapons. The problem then is, how truthful is this? On the other hand, if he had complied, the likes of al Qaeda definitely did not. They, and ISIS, control so much of Syria it is almost certain they would have had control over some such dumps.

Very shortly after, the US navy fired 59 cruise missiles at Shayrat air base. The US says all fifty-nine reached their target; some reports indicate that only 23 struck it. What happened to the others? Here is an example of the fundamental problem: some people are asserting statements that are not true. However, we have not heard anything of where rogue ones struck, so either Assad missed a trick, or the US story is true. Assad also missed another trick here. The US in some reports claims there were chemical weapons at Shayrat. If so, why did they fire weapons that would liberate sarin when it would almost certainly go to the local residential area? They would be doing what Russia asserts Assad did. So what is the outcome?

For me, the most obvious one is we cannot trust any report on this matter so far. Too many politics are involved. On a lesser scale, President Trump showed that he was not going to wait for evidence from the UN inspectors. He was an action man. What did he achieve by doing this? Apparently he damaged at least six Syrian aircraft, although five of them, from the photographs, look not hopelessly damaged but they also look obsolete. Relations with Russia have taken a dive. For me, there are two consequences I fear. The first is, if ISIS has any chemical weapons, now is the time to use them on innocent civilians. That will bring the US in demolishing Assad’s forces. One of the more bizarre aspects of this incident is that the US has entered a civil war (always a bad idea) and is actively supporting both sides. The second is that President Trump has also threatened North Korea. Bombing Assad’s forces is superficially consequence-free (in the long term it is anything but) but bombing North Korea would reset the Korean war. I only hope some real thinking goes on soon.

From whence international law?

One of the more curious aspects of the recent Syrian issue is the question of whether Syria broke international law. The curious part arises from the issue, what is international law?

As far as I can make out, prior to 1940 there was no international law. The reason is simple. One of the fundamental principles of law (e.g., read the Magna Carta) is that a sovereign authority can write law that informs those subject to it what they are not permitted to do. That implies that there is a sovereign authority, and prior to 1940, each nation was its own sovereign authority. However, by 1945, the sight of the German concentration camps was so horrifying that it seems everyone thought that something had to be done. The Russians would probably have simply taken away the leading Germans and killed them, but the Americans decided to put them on trial. The problem was, the Germans had technically not broken any law, because the Reich was not technically subject to any law. Never mind! The Nazis were tried for what should have been law, and duly executed, and because what they were accused of was so vile, nobody objected (and nor do I object. I think one of their own concentration camps would be just about right). But let us take a deeper look at what followed.

First, for some reason the Japanese got off more lightly, and ex-Nazis that were useful got a sort of immunity. Subsequently, in the Balkans, the West has complained about ethnic cleansing, but at the end of WWII, millions of Germans were ethnically cleansed. The German army of von Paulus surrendered, and the great majority of those soldiers died in captivity, but that, apparently, was not a crime. At a somewhat lower level, the family of my son-in-law were Poles, and the Russians simply took their land and sent the family to Siberia. They eventually managed to get to New Zealand, but there was never recompense for their lands. Justice at this level is hardly blind!

This brings me to the current US complaint that Russia is vetoing action against Syria in the UN. Accordingly, the US wants to let fly with cruise missiles to “teach Assad a lesson”. The first thing we can say about that is that previous such lessons have never ended well, and nobody, least of all the US government, seems to have learned anything. The second thing is that Iraq went ahead without UN authorization, so in many ways that was unlawful, unless international law is reduced to, he who has the most sophisticated forces is right. Then there is the argument, what has Syria done that is illegal in international law? Here the problem is, there is no international law, but even by treaty, as far as I know, Syria has not signed any treaty that bans the use of chemical weapons. Killing its subjects cannot be good, but by some estimate there have been about 100,000 deaths so far, and nobody got too worked up about that. Of course the US claims that its cruise missiles will be surgical and will not kill anybody. Yeah, right!

The question now is, do you believe two wrongs do not make a right? If you do, why is sending cruise missiles into another country and blowing stuff up right? Why is it even legal, apart from the fact there is no real international law? I think there should be international law, but I also think it has to be put in place by an entity that is given the right to enforce such law. In my ebook trilogy “First Contact” I wrote in a federation of nations with Federation armed forces, even though most countries also had their own, and generally did their own policing. I shall enlarge on this federation is subsequent posts.

All of which leads to the question, what should be done in the near future about Syria? As far as I can see, the only way that is likely to end the killing is to partition Syria and permit and assist significant ethnic movement. It is not a great solution, but can anyone think of anything better that has a realistic chance of success?

Syria

One of the themes of my trilogy First Contact was that advanced aliens with a sense of morality would not wish to contact us. Yes, I know, there was some law to that effect in Star Trek, but in First Contact it is not so much that they are forbidden per se from becoming involved, but rather, if they do, they must take full responsibility for the outcome. Accordingly, they prefer not to get involved. This raises the question, should leaders of powerful nations adopt a similar philosophy? While no action can be guaranteed to succeed, should such leaders at least enunciate their end goal and a plan on how they will get there before intervening? At least give everyone an indication that they have a planned end position, and it is worth the risk.

This is where my views on Syria are probably different from many of the Western leaders. Let us consider the logic of the situation. Suppose we assert

The use of chemical weapons to kill innocent civilians is a crime.

I think we could all agree on that. Now, how about

Any act that leads to the killing of innocent civilians is a crime.

Agree? If not, why not? If so, why? These are not so simple questions, because the politician will assert that the cruise missile is a “surgical” instrument, and any deaths are unfortunate collateral damage. Perhaps, but what do you think the relations of the dead think?

What is going on in Syria is a continuation of what was effectively started in Iraq, although the seeds were sown when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The resultant carve-up into countries based on someone using a pen and ruler on a map was not one of the Western leaders’ better moments. However, whatever you will say, the countries of the mid-east were fairly stable and relatively pleasant to live in until Saddam Hussein elected to go to war with Iran. We do not know the cause of this, but we do know the western nations did not exactly over-exert themselves to stop it, until it became obvious that it was not going anywhere. Nevertheless, leaving aside this war, Iraq was a tolerable place for Iraqis to live in, provided you were not considered to be a dissident. Now, the western leaders and our press did not like Saddam Hussein’s way of dealing with dissidents, nor for that matter, others’, nevertheless provided you were not a dissident, life was reasonably good in similar countries. Yes, some people who were favoured got richer than others, but name a country where this does not happen to some extent?

Eventually, the West decided to invade Iraq and get rid of Saddam, nominally to get rid of weapons of mass destruction. You may recall the assertions that such weapons were there: there was “undeniable evidence”, even though UN weapons inspectors could not find any. This hardly provides confidence in the current assertions regarding Syria. Of course, once the invasion was completed, there were no such weapons. Also, tens of thousands of otherwise innocent Iraqis were killed. So, what happened next? The army of occupation was too small, and the occupiers for some reason seemed to think that the Iraqis would be so pleased to have foreigners tramping all over their territory, but unfortunately they were not. Even worse, the US disbanded the Iraqi security police, and in the resultant chaos, there was unprecedented sectarian violence. Even now we still have dozens of innocents being killed per month. The West intervened, it had no idea what to do, and it walked away, taking no responsibility for the mess it made.

Having learned nothing, the West then bombed Libya. How many people really think that Libya is a success? Yes, Gaddafi has gone, but are the Libyan people better off? Now, there is the urge to bomb Syria. Exactly what will that achieve? If a quick burst would really prevent further uses of chemical weapons, then perhaps that is an achievement. Whatever else, however, it is fairly clear that it will not stop the overall killing. Worse, this sectarian violence is really simply yet another consequence of the Iraqi intervention, and once again, everyone will walk away if and when the dust settles. What is the West’s long-term goal in Syria? Getting rid of Assad may seem an achievement, but what will replace him? The most likely are the fundamentalist jihadis, or what we could loosely term Al Qaeda. Now, that would be an achievement for the West.

One last question. If you lived there, and had to give up one of the following, which would you give up? The right to elect your leader, or the right to always end up alive after walking down the street? What moral right do outsiders have to intervene if what follows is worse than what is there now?