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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