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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The Syrian quagmire ending?

Probably the most newsworthy item at present again involves Syria, with the collapse of the rebel forces in Aleppo, and the associated reduction of that part of the city to rubble. We are starting to get images from the region, and it is clear that an enormous amount of money will be required to rebuild that part of the city. An effort has been made to offer the insurgents transport to insurgent held villages elsewhere, and what we see is a lit of civilians are going as well. To my mind, this indicates that the reason the rebels held Eastern Aleppo is because the civilians were sympathetic. In turn, that strongly suggests the rebellion is now down to religion: Sunnis attempting to get rid of the Shias. With Hezbollah and Iran involved, that is not going to happen.

One of the biggest disasters there is undoubtedly the high number of civilian casualties, and a number of commentators in the West have called for war crimes trials on certain Russians. At the same time, the West has been strangely quiet relating to casualties in Mosul, where the US is bombing, and, strangely enough, the attack is being managed by the Shias. This bombing and the inevitable casualties has raised the issue of justice and international law, and I am afraid from my point of view, many of those in the West are merely arm-waving and arguing that “they are war criminals”. Nobody denies that killing of civilians is bad, but what could Assad and the Russians do? The objective is to remove the rebels, and to be quite clear, the rebels included factions that wished to impose the strictest form of Islamic law. Women should be kept at home and do nothing but housework and breed. As for nobility amongst the rebels, I saw a TV clip from an observer who had been in eastern Aleppo, and saw a family “home invaded” by rebels looking for food. They took everything, and when the mother complained about feeding the children, they shot her through the jaw to stop her complaints. So much for the noble rebels. There is no way those involved in something like the al Nusra front can be expected to change their ways and be persuaded to become peaceful citizens, so Assad either has to defeat them, or let Syria be run by them and ISIS in full Wahabbi extremism.

Let us look at “International Law”. Who is the sovereign entity? Who imposes the law? As far as I can make out, it is at a very similar state to that of ancient Rome, except that there is no clear law-making entity. In ancient Rome, prosecutions were made by citizens, and the results tended to be resolved by the eloquence of the lawyer, or the standing of the participants. Thus during the late Republic, Clodius could organize a gang to beat up a politician he did not like, or even burn down someone’s house. Nothing would stop him. So-called international justice is a bit like that now: victor’s justice.

At the end of WW II, a lot of Nazis were tried for war crimes, not that there were such recognized crimes, although many were guilty of crimes under the German criminal code. Most people are not particularly concerned about the doubtful legality of the process because those found guilty were mainly really very bad people. But there were double standards. Any German who could be of any further use to one of the occupying powers was immediately granted immunity.

Then, if we consider killing innocent civilians to be a war crime, was the fire bombing of Hamburg a war crime? Of Tokyo? Were Hiroshima and Nagasaki war crimes? If not, why not? For me, the fire bombing of Dresden had to be a crime, because the war was clearly essentially over, Dresden had no military value then, and 35,000 civilians were killed for no good purpose. Why is that not a war crime? Hopefully, not because it was us that did it, not them. In more recent times, the invasion of Iraq has led to some unknown number of deaths, but certainly in the hundred thousand range.

My view is Syria will be better off with the Wahabbi extremists defeated. If so, and given a somewhat lacking of alternatives, I believe that the Russian bombing of Aleppo was a valid means of pursuing the war. Yes, innocent people were killed, but at least we now see the possibility of an end to the carnage. The question we must ask is, what was the alternative? Just leaving the rebels alone to rearm and reorganize? Prolong the misery indefinitely?

So what happens now? If there is going to be peace, how do you arrange that? Negotiate with ISIS and the al Qaeda derivatives? Separate the country and give them their Caliphate? Or have a secular government, and force the citizens to behave? That would be essentially a return to what Syria was before all this started. If you think you could do this without Assad, then nominate who will be the new government, and outline why will it work. How do you impose order? And most importantly, how do you get the economy of a country bombed to bits back running again? It took Germany many years after WW II, and the US put a lot of money in to get restoration going. Further, there was a well-established industry in Germany. Syria seems to have none of those advantages.

This will be my last post for 2016, but I shall be back mid January. In the meantime, I wish you all a Merry Christmas, and all the best for a successful and healthy 2017.

Syria, Iraq and Ukraine: Is Secession right?

Those who have followed this blog for a while will recall a number of posts on some of the issues involved in these countries. What is common to these countries is that all have armed uprisings to achieve either overthrow of the government, or secession. We might also note that many in Scotland want to secede, BUT they are going about it by having the Scots vote on it. Further, my guess is that if Scotland secedes, there will still be a substantial fraction of the Scots who do not wish to. If we think of Ukraine, the question of secession by the East may well be answered differently if only the east votes, or if all Ukraine votes. Majority have to win a vote, but the majority of whom? If there is an armed uprising, for the uprising to end, there has to be a good reason to lay down the arms. So to end the uprising, either concessions have to be made, or the rebels have to be removed from the field, either by arrest or by killing. Now, not everybody can get their way, so why do they want secession? Alternatively, why does Union work?

The most obvious example of where union works is the US. There we have fifty states, many of which would qualify as powerful countries, and they are held together by a Union. The United Kingdom almost works, but is apparently a little creaky at the seams. So what are the differences here? The most obvious one is history. Scotland and England spent many centuries warring. The parts of the UK still consider themselves separate countries within the Union, which makes it different from the US. One important aspect of the US is that the educational system imprints the importance of being United, and the citizens accept that. So, in my opinion, a United system works best when everyone speaks a common language and has no more than location to identify citizens as being different. Notwithstanding that, a Federal system works quite well when there are regions with different languages and different cultures, provided the Federation accepts the differences and shows pride in them. Thus Canada, although occasionally a little creaky, basically works well. In the US there are differences between states, and again these are accepted and praised. The Federal government makes a major effort to see that all states are treated more or less equally. Also, a fair application of fair law is required.

Now if we look at our troublesome regions, Ukraine is plagued by a section that uses a different language, and worse than that, the Western Ukraine has in the past seemed to want to suppress that language, and there is no reason to believe that attitude will change. Poroshenko has promised that suppression will stop, but the problem there is nobody believes him. That gets to the next obvious requirement for a Union: the various parts have to trust the whole to treat them according to agreed rules. Ukraine fails because law is not strongly founded there.

When we look at Syria and Iraq, the problem is reasonably clear: governments based on religion do not work when there is more than one religion. Governments must be secular. It is here that the West has failed these regions. Yes, Saddam and Bashir are not exactly examples of good governance; they have been brutal and of course they are/were anything but democratic. However, provided you obeyed the rules, you were generally safe there, and until the West started bombing Iraq the first time, Iraq was prosperous, secular, safe, and reasonably liberal. Now it is a feeding ground for Jihadis, who cannot wait to get revenge on the West. Now, the Shia government has decided to get revenge on past suppression, and it is actively discriminating against the Sunni minority, which is hardly desirable when that minority provided most of the military class previously. The US hardly helped either by effectively making the Kurdish part a separate entity.

The question now is, what should be done? My view is that everybody else should keep out. Yes, what is going to happen is not going to be pretty, and a lot more blood will be spilt, but this is largely due to outside intervention. There has been no sign of competence so far, other than in bombing, so why does anyone think there will be an improvement? The problem is, politicians visualize the ending they want; they do not seem capable of visualizing what they do not want.

Why should my comments count? I have no special experience that makes my opinion more important than yours, and my one and only experience that is relevant was being caught up in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, during which I talked to people from both sides. On the other hand, I have thought quite a bit about the issues in general because in the future history novels I write, I have “invented” various forms of governance to support the themes related to abuse of power. After all this thought, I do not know the answers, although I think I can guess what will not work. If you, the reader, feel you can contribute, please do.

Finally, remember the reduced prices on my Mars novels this solstice; see the previous post for details.

Democracy? Do the people have a say?

One of the themes of my futuristic ebooks is to look at different forms of government. We believe, or are continually told, that democracy is the best form of government, but that is merely an assumption. We know Plato did not think so, despite living in something much closer to a democracy. In The Republic he makes the excellent point: if you and a number of others were lost at sea, do you want a navigator or a vote?

But that leaves open the question, do our forms of government really have democracy, and if so, to what degree? Two events have sparked this thought. The first involves military action against Syria. There were good signs, in that in the UK, while the Prime Minister was quite gung ho over action, parliament turned around and voted against it. There are also less good signs. When President Obama suggested that Congress should vote on the issue, John McCain immediately implored the Republicans to vote with the President so as not to weaken the US image overseas. That might have been the right thing to do, but surely the decision as to whether to kill so many people should be made on grounds better than, “Let’s keep our image strong!” Surely a decision like that should be made on the basis of whether the situation will be better with the act than without it, and whether there is something else that could be done that would be better still. Logic says that at the very least, if you are going to do something, there should be a net benefit, not a net liability.

The second event was local to New Zealand. There is a question as to whether the government should partially sell infrastructural assets that it owns. There are a variety of views on this, the government saying it will give it more cash to do more, to which the cynic might suggest that it is selling assets to do things that make it look good at the next election, which is essentially the government trying to buy votes. The reality is that the government has latched onto the right wing “privatize everything” theology. Now, in an effort to get some democracy, some citizens have initiated a referendum, which, unfortunately, is not binding on the government. The government has said it will ignore the referendum, which it is legally entitled to do, but what message about democracy does that send to the citizens? The government says it was elected, and that gives it a mandate to sell the assets, since it mentioned this in its electoral policy statements. Is this argument valid? 

In my opinion, the answer is, “No.” In any such election, there are a number of issues, and in my opinion, the real reason why it got elected was that it had lowered income tax rates, and those that voted for it wanted to cement that in. It is funny how a little extra for the wallet leads so many to overlook so many other things. A subsidiary reason was that the opposition was still somewhat unpopular, having previously earned some ire during nine years in power. As for the tax, only too many overlooked the fact that those taxes had been made up with other taxes, such as an increase in the goods and services tax.

The problem with an election is that everyone gets one vote, but they have to spend it on a politician. The net result is that the people can choose their temporary autocrat, but they cannot selectively vote on policy. The referendum concept gives the people the right to vote on an issue, but autocrats tend not to like that. Yes, I know it would end up being messy, with everyone voting for mutually incompatible policies, but surely there must be some level of policy that citizens could vote for?

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?