When chemical weapons were first used by the German Army during the Great War they were rapidly countered by the British with their own gas. The result was that they were of no net benefit to either side when the other could reply in the same terms. Moreover, they were difficult to employ with precision and had tactical limitations. Eventually the artillery shell and aerial bomb became the preferred method of delivering poison gas, but by then countermeasures had advanced to nullify much of their potency. “By the end of the war, chemical weapons had lost much of their effectiveness against well trained and equipped troops. At that time, chemical weapon agents were used in one quarter of artillery shells fired but caused only 3% of casualties.”
Poison gas, however, remained effective however against unprotected civilians. And they were so used.
The British used adamsite against Russian revolutionary troops in 1919 and allegedly used mustard gas against Iraqi insurgents in the 1920s; Bolshevik troops used poison gas to suppress the Tambov Rebellion in 1920, Spain used chemical weapons in Morocco against Rif tribesmen throughout the 1920s and Italy used mustard gas in Libya in 1930 and again during its invasion of Ethiopia in 1936. In 1925, a Chinese warlord, Zhang Zuolin, contracted a German company to build him a mustard gas plant in Shenyang, which was completed in 1927.
World War 2 saw the major combatants unwilling to use gas on a large scale against foes who could retaliate in kind. There was no net advantage. And even though the new nerve gases proved more lethal than the Great War toxins, they were eclipsed by dramatic arrival of the Atomic bomb. Who cared about Sarin when there were nukes?
And so chemical weapons lay in a kind of limbo. Too lethal to use with precision, too weak to compete with nukes. The interesting thing about the chemical weapons allegedly employed by the Syrian government against civilians, as described in a report of Richard Lloyd of Tesla Laboratories and Theodore Postol of MIT is how successful their users have been at creating a new niche. The chemical weapons examined were much more effective against civilian targets than if normal, military style gas shells were used.
What made the difference was the innovative dispersal system. The WMDs examined are simply a pipe rocket with a small metal barrel at the end. The tip of the pipe contains a small bursting charge rigged to go off at a height above the ground by the action of an altimeter thus peeling back the barrel of Sarin and showering it down on the unfortunates below. There is nothing refined about it. Note how the barrel is filled, probably with an adjustable wrench and a tin funnel.
The drum device contains 18 times the more chemical payload than a 155 mm artillery shell. The Telegraph says that’s the reason why the civilian casualties were so high compared to previously observed attacks. “Prof Charles Postel, a US expert, said that the ‘very effective, very deadly’ rockets would have been capable of carrying up to 20 times more sarin than initially assumed. ” To delivery gas artillery shells, you need a precision manufactured artillery piece, trained gunners and shells manufactured to close tolerances just to deliver a pittance. Those are hard to come by. With the barrel rocket you just fill her up by the gallon — in this case estimated at 50 liters — and let ‘er fly.
Although “a note from Janes Defence Weekly said that the individual number stamped on the rocket motors suggested the rockets were being mass-produced at an official weapons factory” it can be readily seen that the crudity of the weapon does not require a high degree of industrial prowess. You can make this in a decent machine shop. Sarin gas has been around since the middle of the last century. The revolution is in manufacturing technology. What’s novel is someone has figured out a way to build weapons capable of killing a thousand people using nothing more than tools found in a garage.
The barrel-on-a-stick sarin rocket is of course useless against regular military formations. It has no range, no accuracy, nothing that would militarily recommend it against troops. But as a civilian killer the delivery system is a gas — if one may pardon the pun. What’s innovative isn’t the chemical payload, but the industrial and manufacturing technology that potentially puts this killer in the hands of a terrorist cell.
Lindsey Graham raised eyebrows when he described the stakes in Syria as nothing short of existential. Graham said, “I believe that if we get Syria wrong, within six months — and you can quote me on this … there will be a war between Iran and Israel over their nuclear program. My fear is that it won’t come to America on top of a missile, it’ll come in the belly of a ship in the Charleston or New York harbor.”
There are aspects to this assertion that raise questions. One’s first reaction is that if the stakes were always so high, how come the alarm is being sounded only now? Didn’t the President say, only months ago, that the War on Terror was over? That we could abolish nuclear weapons? Cut down the Navy, the Army, the Marines … the whole ball of wax? Didn’t he always find some way to delay or evade the numerous requests by Israel to do something about the Iranian bomb? Didn’t Obama, as recently as the Benghazi incident, not have Valerie Jarrett talking to the Iranians? Wasn’t everything fine as in “Detroit alive and Osama bin Laden dead” and until a few weeks ago?
And now they tell us of a sudden we’re yards from the precipice! Now Graham says that if the US doesn’t do something then “there will be a war between Iran and Israel over their nuclear program … it won’t come to America on top of a missile, it’ll come in the belly of a ship in the Charleston or New York harbor.”
So what changed? Was the administration lying then or now? For their past soothing assurances cannot belong to the same set of facts as their present alarm. Yet Graham may be right. This chemical bomb is an example of something which can be cobbled together in any machine shop and proliferate. What in principle prevents terrorists from building one of these babies and firing one from a truck to burst over Times Square on New Year’s Eve?
In truth, the Syrian civil war has had the unacknowledged effect of creating a Petrie dish that provided an incubator in which men with not very much intelligence but a whole lot of persistence and malice could develop new and crude weapons which will sooner or later appear elsewhere. The Arab Spring is an environment where middling technology meets master-class hatred. The result is the pipe rocket, a kind of AK-47 of chemical weapons, a new IED, the monkey model of the Syrian Army’s weapons development program, such as it is. It’s not a genius weapon, but it kills and cheaply. And if this does not proliferate, then inevitably something else will will climb out of this stew to haunt the world.
In the light of what is now known, the kind of limited Parthian shot the administration is proposing makes even less sense. It will not dampen anything. It will not prevent the spread of anything for any length of time, not unless they bomb every car body repair shop in the Middle East. The problem is that they’ve created a kind of incubator for terror in which they swear never to intervene yet neither can they wall off. Already it is spreading to Jordan, Lebanon and Kurdistan. Almost certainly terror groups will strike outside of Syria perhaps with stocks captured from Assad or maybe just plain industrial chemicals will be used. The administration cannot be serious if they think a strike against Assad will be a one shot deal. As the National Interest put it, after the limited designer strike what does Obama do for encore?
If U.S. action does not deter future chemical-weapons attacks, or other large-scale and high-profile violence against civilians, the Obama administration will face greater pressure from to do more in Syria—possibly drawing the United States into a costly and open-ended civil war with no clear resolution in sight. How does President Obama plan to respond if Syria does not change its conduct? What if Syria retaliates against the United States directly or indirectly, through terrorist proxies?
The hegemon has gone. The whole idea of “leading from behind” implied a freedom from responsibility. Who is America’s man in Syria? That was no longer a question that interested Obama’s until of course it became his problem. As Andrew McCarthy put it brilliantly in the National Review Online, nobody can say what comes after Assad because “after all, to describe them accurately would be to admit that they do not exist in anything approaching the numbers capable of overcoming the Islamic supremacists on opposing sides of the civil war.”
What will spring up in the malevolent chaos created by the hegemon’s exit there at the center of oil and religion and hatred? Well only time will tell.
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