There’s a lot of noise about Syria’s chemical weapons in the press. Here’s a little signal, within the left and right limits of what’s already public information, and what’s reasonable scientific or analytic inference, without disclosing matters that may be harmful to our troops who may be in the field against these weapons in the immediate future. (For what purpose is unclear. Uniformed, DOD civilian, and NCA leadership on this issue is entirely lacking).
Syria’s Sources of Weapons
Syria’s original supplies of chemical weapons came from the Soviet Union as early as the 1970s, in the aftermath of Syria’s crushing back-to-back defeats in the 1967 and 1973 wars. The Syrians fought bravely as long as they were winning, and their Soviet equipment had some technical strengths against even front-line Israeli gear, but the Israelis were smarter, faster on their feet, and better able to exploit the asymmetries between Western and ComBloc materiel and doctrine. In the end, the Syrians were not only not equal to the Israelis man-to-man, they weren’t close even given numerical and terrain advantages.
Hafez Assad, then dictator (the current dictator’s father; Syria is an absolute monarchy in all but name) not only was humiliated, but realized he was just one more jihad away from having a tank full of angry Jews doing a pivot turn on his head in Damascus. Chemical weapons were thought to be the Doomsday Weapon the Arab nations needed to avoid Israeli domination. With them, they could threaten Israeli troops, and if the troops hardened up with NBC protections, Israeli cities and populations.
In the late 1980s, the Arabs discovered that not only Russian designers were eager to sell them lethal technology, but so were Western Europeans. German and French firms, South Africa’s Armscor and Belgian PRB made significant sales of chemical weapons munitions to Iran, Iraq and Syria; some of these firms proliferated launch systems (i.e. artillery) as well.
The General Classification of Chemical Weapons
Lethal chemical weapons are classified by their type, which means according to the mechanisms by which they work on humans, and sub-classified by their individual chemistry. These are Nerve, blood, choking, blister, and incapacitating. They are independently classified by their military effects: persistent and non-persistent agents are used as area-denial and offensive agents respectively, for example.
Nerve agents work by inhibiting the transmission of nervous impulses, producing rapid disability and death; most of them can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Nerve agents are available in a wide range of persistencies, and are closely related to some classes of insecticides. Blood agents, generally inhaled, inhibit the transmisison of oxygen in the bloodstream, producing very rapid disability and death (this mimics the mechanism of carbon monoxide poisoning). They are generally nonpersistent and were a key ingredient in Warsaw Pact offensive doctrine, in which most Syrian senior officers were trained. Blister agents produce painful lesions on skin or lungs. While mortality is low, the military and psychological effect of the agent is high, as even survivors must be removed from the line; these were some of the most horrifying gases used prior to international conventions limiting gas warfare, for example, in World War I and the Italian seizure of Ethiopia. Blister agents tend to be persistent and Warsaw Pact doctrine stressed using them for area denial. Choking agents were common in World War I, but don’t really serve a military purpose that isn’t better served by some other class of agents. Incapacitating agents make exposed troops or civilians dysfunctional, but don’t kill most of them; the perfect incapacitating agent is entirely nonlethal, but such an agent doesn’t exist, which is why they’ve never been used on the battlefield to the best of our knowledge. Russian Ministry of the Interior Spetsnaz have used incapacitating agents in hostage situations, but accept a level of hostage fatalities that would be a non-starter in the West.
Both sides of the Cold War divide chose chemical weapons they preferred. The US developed and stockpiled G (originally German interwar developments) and V (originally British cold war agents) series nerve agents and incapacitating agent BZ, and the Soviets maintained a more comprehensive arsenal of G nerve agents, blood agents, and blister agents, as well as an offensive biological warfare program that had no real equal in the West.
The USA ceased production of chemical weapons and all offensive BW work on the order of then-president Nixon 40-odd years ago. In the 1980s, existing chemical warheads and shells were replaced with more modern technology. Since the 1990s, the US has destroyed the bulk of its chemical weapons. Since the fall of the Warsaw Pact with its chemical war plan, and even more so since 9/11 and the demands of endless desert warfare against ill-armed irregulars, the military has deemphasized chemical defense training. (In the 1980s, CW was taken so seriously that at one point we conducted a series of proficiency jumps in MOPP 3 and MOPP 4 protective ensembles. Has any SF unit done so since? We’re doubtful).
Chemical Weapons Manufacturing
On an industrial scale, chemical weapon manufacture is relatively easy. Any pesticide or fertilizer plant can be adapted to chemical warfare in short order. Some chemical agents are extremely hazardous to handle, but can be made from inert or at least generally safe precursors. Sophisticated chemical munitions have two precursors (binary munitions, standard in the West) or three (ternary) which are mixed on target, making them safe for aircraft ordnancemen or artillery ammo handlers to load. The Soviet system distributed the chemicals in a binary format and had them loaded and mixed by specialists in chemical protective equipment close to the battlefield: from that point forward, the bombs, spray tanks and shells had to be handled with mortal care. Syria has developed or obtained binary technology.
Syria has the capacity to produce chemical surface-to-surface missile warheads, MRL rockets, artillery shells, aerial bombs, sprayers, foggers and land mines. It produces certain fillings: mustard gas (a blister agent) and nerve agents GA (Tabun), GB (Sarin), GF (Cyclosarin, the most persistent common G-agent) and VX. The VX facility is German in origin but may have come to Syria indirectly, through Syria’s ally Iran. Syria has binary Sarin artillery shells and Scud warheads; other agents are produced from binary precursors and loaded by chemical specialist troops under protective measures.
Syria’s premier chemical delivery system is the Scud-C, which is indigenously produced. This weapon carries a ~1,000-lb warhead, of binary chemical or of chemical bomblet type. Syrians deploy these missiles more frequently with chemical than with HE warheads. It’s easy to see why: the Scud-C, without Russian-provided GLONASS or other navigation capability, has a circular error probability of over a mile. Syria also used to have older Scud-B missiles, which are even less accurate, and trade off about half the -C’s range to loft about double the -C’s payload; but in the 1990s Russia developed a Scud-D upgrade that uses a system like that of the original Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (a camera images the ground as the warhead falls, a computer compares images to a databank) and is claimed to improve CEP to a militarily useful 50m. It’s unlikely the upgraded missiles will be fired with chemical warheads.
Syrian scuds are organized into battalions of 16 launchers.
Syrian Scud planning is based on a war with Israel, and differs in some ways from their Warsaw Pact mentors’ approach. While the Pact planned to shoot, displace, shoot, continuously, the Syrians have little illusion that their launchers will last under Israeli pressure, and so deploy them with less than one combat day’s worth of reloads. Indeed, while world Scud operators average 10 to 50 rockets per launcher, Syria has fewer than 2 per launcher.
Syria’s Stockpiles of Weapons
Syrian stockpiles include not only Syrian-produced weapons and imported Russian weapons, but also materiel from Western Europe. German firms in particular have been eager to assist Syria and Iran in chemical weapons modernization.
With US strikes long threatened, it’s probable that Syria has decentralized its formerly more-centralized storage. However, Syrian leaders are aware that dispersed chemical weapons are harder to protect. (This is the same dilemma faced by Admiral Kimmel and General Short at Pearl Harbor. Saboteurs are best deterred by lining up the assets together and guarding them well — which left their defensive aircraft vulnerable to a surprise raid).
Until this year, chemical weapons were contained in a limited number of facilities that made their comings and goings easily monitored by nations with satellite surveillance capability, if Syrian WMD was a high enough priority for sat tasking.
Some chemical WMD activities have significant indicators on signals or imagery intelligence, but others do not. Therefore, it is a near-certainty that aerial or cruise missile attack cannot succeed in disabling Syria’s chemical WMD capability.
Syria also has a biological WMD program, which was established with Russian guidance and support. They have weaponized and maintained several strains of commonly weaponized pathogens, and have sought (unsuccessfully) to obtain smallpox strains from their Russian sponsors’ smallpox weaponization program.
The Syrian bio program is not developed as a warfighting, force-on-force capability. It is meant to target foreign population centers (cities) and provide a terrorist “doomsday” capability; the primary means of delivery are Scud surface-to-surface missile, aircraft bombs and dispensers, and clandestine means.
What We’ve Seen to Date
The Syrians have used two classes of agents, nerve and blister agents or vesicants. While Syrian government forces did use blood agents in previous internal conflicts, they do not seem to have deployed them here and now. The blister agents, the scourge of World War I, produce incapacitating, painful blisters on exposed skin, but can have toxic effects if absorbed through the mucosa, and are principally lethal when inhaled, by blistering the lungs. Survivors may be left permanently disfigured or disabled.
The Russians, who were after all the principal suppliers of these weapons and this technology to Syria as well as to other third-world WMD users, have been floating the idea that it is Syrian rebels gassing their own people instead. While the Syrian rebels are, if anything, a more repellent bunch than Boy Assad and company, they have not got the organization to mount a Sarin or blister-agent attack, unless they capture the agents from government units or depots.
The agents in use are not exotic, although some of them are hard to manufacture (VX) or hard to store (Mustard). Sarin (GB) was manufactured by a grad student for the Aum cult in Japan, which deployed it as a liquid.
And one more thing…
To us, the most interesting development here, and one that flies straight in the eye of 1970s and 80s chemical warfare theorists, is the relatively low level of lethality of Syria’s chemical weapons. We’re seeing morbidity rates (who gets injured by exposure) of well below 100%, and mortality rates, so far, of only 10% of the morbid fraction. And this is against an unprotected population taking only improvised protective measures (staying inside, under cover, improvised breathing and eye protection). This is to us an indicator (if a weak one) that the nerve agent used is a G-agent (and probably GB, sarin, specifically) rather than a V-agent. Syria has sought technical assistance in the production of V-agents from Russia and Iran (the Russians do not produce VX, but an isomer with similar properties, VR).
This suggests that American and Europeans who may deploy to the region can protect themselves well with vehicular NBC equipment, mission-oriented protective posture gear, and most effective of all, by aggressively targeting Syrian government artillery pieces, storage bunkers, and production and maintenance facilities.
Or they could stay home and let the Syrians keep whacking each other — that’s not a technical, but a political decision, and if our guys are sent, they’ll go, although we’re not picking up lots of enthusiasm.