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.