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Monday, August 26, 2013

Chemical Weapons: Who Has Them? Who Makes Them? And How Deadly Are They?

Israeli Defense Forces soldiers take part in a drill that simulates a chemical rocket attack in Jerusalem Wednesday, 29 May, 2013. (Abir Sultan/AP)

Israeli Defense Forces soldiers take part in a drill that simulates a chemical rocket attack in Jerusalem Wednesday, 29 May, 2013. (Abir Sultan/AP)

As evidence mounts that chemical weapons were used last week in Syria, and the White House deliberates on U.S. responses, Here & Now turns to international security expert Jim Walsh to ask:

  • What is a chemical weapon and what kind of stockpile does Syria have?
  • Which other nations possess them and who manufactures them?
  • What are the technological hurdles both for manufacturing chemical weapons and for using them?
  • How much trade is there across borders, in fully developed chemical weapons and in related materials and technology?


Opinion pieces by Jim Walsh



Well, let's pick up on that last point, the potential response to what has happened in Syria. Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington said this morning on MORNING EDITION that President Obama will have to act, given the red line he drew over chemical weapons.

AARON DAVID MILLER: There's no question that without a response this president will have zero credibility to operate in this region.

HOBSON: But clearly there are concerns about the risks of U.S. military action, especially given our intervention in Iraq, which we now know was based on bad intelligence about weapons of mass destruction.

Joining us now to talk about this is Jim Walsh, an expert in international security at MIT's Security Studies Program. Jim, thanks for being here.

JIM WALSH: Good to be with you.


Well, let's start with the U.N. weapons inspectors trying to figure out what happened. The White House says it has been too long since the attacks last week for them to do their job effectively. Is that the case?

WALSH: Well, that might be a little premature. Nerve agents have a reputation of breaking down pretty quickly, not persisting in the environment, and this environment is a difficult one. They're - assuming they can get past the snipers, they're going to arrive into a scene that's been bombarded, so there's destruction and there may be industrial chemicals already sort of mixed in with what's going on.

So it could be a compromised crime scene, if you will. On the other hand, Doctors Without Borders reports that there are patients that they are treating that show symptoms. They may be able to recover bodies. I mean one of the questions will be will they be allowed to take samples back to their own independent labs.

You know, those inspectors were there anyway to look at incidents that had happened quite a while ago. This is a relatively recent attack. So I wouldn't rule out the possibility that they could find something.

HOBSON: What exactly would they be looking for?

WALSH: Well, I think they'd want to - they're going to do interviews. They're going to want to take samples of soil, samples of the deceased, I don't know how delicately I can put that. But they're going to want to do a variety of tests in the environment and among the victims and among the medical workers who were treating those victims who are reported to show some signs of aftereffects from treating those victims and being exposed to the agent.

So there's going to be a number of different things they're going to do. And then post-that, you know, the first question is, was this used? The second question will be, who did it? And then there are a whole set of other questions about, well, what was the delivery vehicle? Was it - there were rumors that it was a Soviet-style rocket that the Syrian government had imported. So does that point more to the Syrian government than the rebels? So that'll be the next set of questions after, was the agent used or not?

HOBSON: Now, Bloomberg News is quoting U.S. officials today, saying that the evidence for chemical weapons use in Syria is much stronger than the intelligence was about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but that it is not ironclad.

WALSH: Yeah, I think that's right. You know, as someone who opposed the war in Iraq, who had deep skepticism about the claims of WMD, I think that is probably the perfect characterization. Why - we know that Syria has chemical weapons. The question previous was, did Iraq have nuclear weapons, did they have X, did they have Y.

We know Syria does. They themselves have admitted it. And in fact it appears as if they may have used it. So I think we're starting from a different evidentiary threshold. But I agree that we don't have a smoking gun, and that remains to be - we should let the inspectors do their job and see what they come up with.

HOBSON: And Iraq, of course, also said that it had weapons of mass destruction.

WALSH: Yes, that's true, but they didn't claim that they had nuclear weapons.

HOBSON: That's true. Now, if indeed there was a chemical attack by the Assad regime, Jim Walsh, there are a lot of questions about why they would do that while the inspectors are right there.

WALSH: You know, I think there's a whole set of curious puzzles about this. Normally states use chemical weapons because - as a last resort, when they're losing. You know, when Saddam used them against Iran, the human waves in Iran, or when Nassir used them in the '60s against Yemeni rebels, you know, you're losing because you used them.

All the reports we've had in the last several months is that Assad's forces seem to be doing quite well.

HOBSON: Right.

WALSH: And you have the inspectors on the ground when they launch this attack. So you know, the question - so I think we have to go back and question some of our assumptions. Maybe he's not doing as well as we thought he was. Maybe there's a problem in the chain of command, the military chain of command, and people are acting on their own.

You know, there could be other possibilities. But I do think it's curious. I think in the end, if it's been used, and I think it probably has, it is probably the Syrian government rather than the rebels because there are some other circumstantial pieces of evidence that point to that. But it does really raise questions.

You know, the only thing that - the only way for Assad to lose, really, is if he brings the U.S. in. And what's the one thing that might force the hand of the U.S.? This sort of attack. So it doesn't really add up.

HOBSON: Well, there is clearly a lot of pressure building, especially in Washington now, for some kind of response, given the red line that we talked about. Are you alarmed by that? Do you think that it's logical that there would be that kind of pressure right now so quickly, or do you think people aren't asking enough questions?

WALSH: Well, I think we should let the inspectors do their job. You know, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I think chemical weapons are not the same as nuclear weapons, but they are different than conventional weapons. And I think, you know, we should think about actions that would deter Assad from using them in the future. I think that's important.

On the other hand, I'm sort of scared by all these credibility arguments: We have to do this or we'll lose our credibility. There's a lot of social science that really questions those assumptions.

HOBSON: We're going to take a break and continue this conversation with Jim Walsh, an expert in international security at MIT's Security Studies Program, in just a moment.


HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW, and let's get back to our conversation about chemical weapons and the apparent attacks in Syria last week. Jim Walsh is here in our studio. He's an expert in international security at MIT's Security Studies Program. And let's just define the term, Jim. What counts today as a chemical weapon? How many different kinds are there?

WALSH: Well, chemical weapons include many different classes of agents. Some are blistering agents, they affect the skin; some asphyxiate, they sort of choke off your oxygen supply or affect the bloodstream and circulation. The class of chemical agents that we've been discussing with respect to Syria are nerve agents that paralyze and kill in that way.

You know, some nerve agents are so crude - I mean, excuse me, some chemical weapons categories are so crude - any, you know, major industrial country that has, you know, a pretty big industrial base, is going to have - use chemicals, right? And a lot of those chemicals...

HOBSON: For industry...

WALSH: Exactly. So a lot of these things on the lower end are dual-use. When you start talking about sarin and the V-gases or V-nerve agents, you're starting to talk about a class of sophisticated chemical weapons that would require more advanced technology and different types of precursors. So there are grades here in terms of the challenge to producing them.

HOBSON: And would a country like Syria make them in-house? Would the government be making them? Or would it be something that they would buy?

WALSH: Well, the people who follow the Syrian chemical weapons program suggest that Syria first got - received chemical weapons just before the 1973 war with Israel from Egypt and basically relied on others up until about 1979 and then beginning in the 1980s really made indigenous production a goal.

So what would they do? They'd go out to Europe, to Russia, elsewhere, and they would buy technology that would allow them to manufacture, because they needed to be able to maintain standards of purity and containment and storage, and then they would buy the chemical precursors, the chemicals one step back that you would mix together to produce a chemical weapon.

And so through the '80s into the '90s and the 2000s, it's been the general assessment of the intelligence community and outside experts that Syria's had one of the largest, if not the largest, chemical weapons programs in the world.

HOBSON: Are there companies that make them the way that other weapons are made by just commercial companies?

WALSH: No, no, because we have something called the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty that outlaws the production and use of chemical weapons. Most countries are members of that treaty. There are several countries in the Middle East that have refrained from joining, arguing that as long as Israel has nuclear weapons, they need something in the way of a deterrent or a way to retaliate against Israel's nuclear weapons.

And so in some parts of the world, the chemical weapon is the poor man's nuclear weapon, the poor man's bomb. But those countries have sort of - as those governments have changed, that's changed. So Libya used to have chemical weapons; now it's a member of the treaty. Iraq used to have chemical weapons; now it's a member of the treaty.

So really these days the number of states that are considered to have chemical weapons, it's really down to North Korea and Syria and suspicions about others.

HOBSON: What do we know about Syria's stockpile? How much do they have?

WALSH: We don't know that. I think what we - our sense of it is the type of weapons they have, you know, how sophisticated they are and sort of the scale, is it big, medium or large. And I think the answer that most people would offer is that it's large and that it involves nerve agents, at least rudimentary nerve agents.

HOBSON: Last week on CNN, President Obama emphasized that a key U.S. interest now is preventing the proliferation of these weapons. How much trade is there across borders of chemical weapons?

WALSH: Again, not much in the weapons themselves. It's really about the materials that you use to mix together, as it were, to make the weapons and the technology you use to do that. Now, a lot of those precursor chemicals are on proscribed lists. But again, many of them are also dual-use, not all of them, but many of them are dual-use.

So you could have a legitimate commercial reason for buying these chemicals. So it's like the nuclear world in some respect, and I mean this analogy broadly. You can use low-enriched uranium to fuel a power plant for energy, but you can also use that same material, and if you enrich it more, for other, more nefarious purposes. So that's one of the challenges with chemical weapons control.

HOBSON: Let's switch back to U.S. policy concerns. You're among the many people who worry that the threat of retaliation may actually make the Syrian regime more likely to use their chemical weapons.

WALSH: Yeah, you know, this is a tough question. On the one hand you want to deter him from using them if you can. So you want to punish, to say if you do this again, the punishment will increase. On the other hand, if you go to punish him, either threatening him or his chemical weapons stocks, a couple of different things could happen.

If he thinks his chemical weapons stocks are going to be under attack, he'll disperse them. So suddenly, you know, they're dispersed, which means your control over them, his control over them, begins to degrade. Or let's say you degrade his command structure. Well then again, can he make - is that a government that's going to be able to make decisions to keep these things under wraps and not be used?

And if he starts to topple, and I don't expect that to happen tomorrow or anytime soon, again, most states tend to use these in moments of desperation. So if he's pushed to the edge, his incentive to strike back may actually increase.

HOBSON: Well, if they're dispersed, are they the kind of things that people could figure out how to use, or are they, you know, protected in some way from just being used by anybody?

WALSH: Yeah, you put your finger on a really great question because traditionally chemical weapons are kind of tough to use. You know, Aum Shinrikyo tried to use sarin in the Tokyo subway. It really didn't kill a lot of people. What they ended up with, sort of a puddle of stuff that was toxic, but if you didn't touch it, you know, you didn't die.

So part of the trick with chemical weapons is being able to disperse it, and that means you have to have the right type of artillery shells, rockets or airplanes to be able to do that. Clearly the Syrian army does. Do the rebels? You know, it's just unclear.

HOBSON: Now, this is a conflict in Syria that's been going on now for over two years, more than 100,000 people dead, killed not by chemical weapons but by conventional weapons. Why are chemical weapons so different? Why would that red line be drawn there?

WALSH: Yeah, I hear you, and I have good friends - my friend Steve Walt here at Harvard who made a similar argument this morning. He says this is a category mistake. We put chemical weapons in the same category as nuclear weapons - that is to say, weapons of mass destruction - when they're really not. You know, they're not nuclear weapons.

And I'm sympathetic to that. But it's clear that chemical weapons are also not conventional weapons. And yes, you know, you can take swords and ice picks and kill a lot of people. We've seen that in genocides. But I do think that there's a difference between a chemical weapon and a conventional weapon. We do have an international norm that says do not cross here into this territory.

And I do worry that if that begins to crumble, will it affect the use of - or affect other norms that we have against other terrible weapons? So, you know, I wouldn't be so cavalier as to say, oh, it doesn't really matter, it doesn't matter how you die, these are all terrible things, but I do get the argument that says they're not the same as nuclear weapons.

HOBSON: What do you expect, Jim Walsh, in the minute or so we have left, will happen now?

WALSH: Well, it sure looks like we're going to see a repeat of what past presidents have done, which is the Navy will move in, it'll fire off a bunch of Tomahawk missiles. And then the question is, what are their targets? Are they going to go after Saddam himself - I meant Saddam there - there's a Freudian slip - go after Assad himself.

HOBSON: Assad, yeah.

WALSH: And send a message. Are they going to go after the chemical weapons stockpiles? Are they going to go after military assets? I don't know. There are no good choices here. But I think we're going to see something. But it's going to be limited, and then we'll see whether Assad responds and whether we respond in kind. This is how that goes.

HOBSON: And if there is a response, you would say it's reasonable, or it's a rush to response?

WALSH: I think they'll wait until the U.N. inspectors are out. It's a tough call. You know, they could come out and say we don't know, in which case I'd be willing to entertain a limited response. But you know, it's not going to accomplish that much.

HOBSON: Jim Walsh, expert in international security at MIT's Security Studies Program, thank you so much for coming in.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Syrian

    Help the children of Syria, the Assad regime has no limit, they do not care if they massacred the whole Syrian people to stay in power, they do not care about the international community, the US or the west in general, they act as a gang not as a government, Hitler refused to use chemical weapons on his enemy, but this monster used it on his own people.

  • Syrian

    One fact about this regime is that it does not function as a government, an uneducated regime secret police agent has more power than a minister and killing is the easiest thing they can do, even killing their own supporters, I used to be a Lieutenant in the Syrian army, and you have no choice but to support the regime otherwise you and your family will be killed, this has been going on for centuries and just after the revolution

  • Syrian

    I hope Robin will not try to make it as if it is possible that the rebels could have been used the chemical weapons, do not understand me wrong Ms. Young I love your show and I am sure you are an honest person, but you could have been affected by the propaganda spread by this criminal regime

    • X-Ray

      And the Rebels issue no propaganda?

  • adelheid olivier

    Stay out of Syria

  • Dan

    Why did the chemical weapons get used when UN inspectors are on the ground?

    scenario one: The rebels uses them to frame the government, knowing that an investigation would never happen in time without inspectors on the ground.

    Scenario two: the The government used them in order to frame the rebels because no one would think the government would be stupid enough to carry out the attack.

  • Abu Tayyi

    If it weren’t so tragic, one would have to be amused at this sudden concern for the people of Syria by a nation (ie, the USA) which has been complicit in the dispossession, jailing and mass killing of Palestinian Arabs by zionists just next door. Only a few years ago far more Gazan women and children were killed by zionists flying US aircraft and artillerymen using white phosphorous than have apparently been killed by nerve agents in Syria. More Arabs, Christian or Muslim, at NPR would help provide perspective.

  • Matt

    Jeremy! Puh-leeeze stop contributing to the revision of Iragi war history! The US intervention did not start due to faulty intelligence. The war started as a result of the deliberate misrepresentation of US and ally intelligence. Further, the Administration intentionally conflated their reading of the intelligence with 9-11. There was no connection between Iraq and the attack on September 11th. Your off-handed commentary is dangerous and seriously misplaced. Please correct these comments. Thanks

  • Len

    The job of the CIA is to overthrow governments we don’t like. It is agreed that they
    instigated the coup in Iran in 1954. It is agreed that they were behind the contras in El Salvador and the war in Nicaragua. There are many books on the CIA.
    I could figure out how to do it. You go into a country, find a handful of people who don’t like their government, give them plans, money, guns, and whisper in their ears that “don’t worry, the U.S. will support you”.

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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