Nearly one month from Ghouta
After nearly a month of political activity after the events of 21 August where are we now?
It has been nearly a month since the world of CBRNE and the 'real world' collided. Suddenly the office was bombarded with calls for opinion on anything and everything: was it Assad? Was it the rebels? Was it sarin? What will the UN/US/Russia/France/UK do? There will be a series of larger articles in the October edition of CBRNe World, but it is probably timely to have a brief analysis on where we are.
OPCW - We have not been a fan of the OPCW in the past, not because of what they do, but rather what they do not - ie they are a verification regime (chemical weapons auditors) rather than an investigation regime. With nearly the entire world signed up to the CWC there has been some navel gazing within OPCW as to 'Which way now?' While this will inevitably continue it will do so within a re-invigorated agency, and one that is able to prove that it still has a role. The OPCW is a multinational agency (and one which had Russian military CBRN officers join it recently) and a strongly legal entity, this crisis is what it was set up to deal with and it has handled it admirably. In six to twelve months, as Assad moves towards destruction there will undoubtedly be some criticism, but currently they should be feeling particularly justified.
Russian diplomacy - Whether you agree with their opinions or not (and I largely fall in the 'not' camp) they have pulled a diplomatic masterstroke, pulling the US teeth and running military activity into the sand for the short term. It would have been hard to see a scenario whereby US action in Syria would take a retrograde step six weeks ago, but they have managed to seem pillars of diplomatic good sense and restraint in a highly charged environment. Admittedly they then go and spoil a lot of it with various bits of misinformation and nonsense (the dating of the YouTube videos being the most obvious), but on the strategic level they have proved themselves to be a trusted diplomatic partner to dictators everywhere. Paraphrasing FDR/Hull/Thadeus Stevens, Assad might be a 'son of a bitch, but he is [Moscow's] son of a bitch' and the loyalty they have shown him in the teeth of Western opposition will gain them a lot of face in the Middle East and Asia.
Syrian People - This is not the first chemical attack to be suffered by the Syrian people, and many civilians will have long term health effects from exposure to sarin/organophosphates for a long time. Hopefully this will be the last chemical attack, but personally I cannot see that being the case. Whether it is from fuel-air explosives, release of toxic industrial chemicals or from conventional CWA the stakes are so high in the region, and the conflict so dirty between all participants (Assad, Western FSA and fundamentalist FSA (ISIS etc)), that common decency and morality has long since departed. Much like the accusations of use that preceded 21 August, in Khan Al Assel etc, scale is important, small attacks against combatants will generate small amounts of protest, large amounts against civilians will change the conflict. Whether real or not accusations of CW use will dog this conflict, and that will probably over shadow the tide of human misery and death that conventional munitions are causing.
US Diplomacy - Admittedly this could be re-titled as 'Democracy' and put in the 'Winners' column, but there is no doubt that the Obama administration has been out-flanked. Their lack of desire to get involved with a FSA that they see as compromised with Al Qaeda-esque fighters has left them with strong rhetoric but poor options. They have wanted to be seen to be strong, but even in their talk of air strikes they have equivocated and looked weak. Much like the Balkans they have been given a choice of grey hats, rather than black or white, and have not known what to do to sell it to the American people. A success has been keeping Israel out of a hot conflict, but in terms of allies in the Middle East and Asia they have not come out of this well. The red line has been crossed and all it has led to is more diplomacy - not a clear signal for those nations that might want to create CBRN weapons.
Syrian Chemical Weapons - Syria signing up to the CWC and providing a list of what they possess and moving towards destruction is clearly a good thing, but it is hard to get excited about. Syrian stockpiles have been well guarded to most intelligence agencies (I would suggest Mossad being the one exception), and there is likely to be some fuzzy logic between what Assad regime claims they have and what intelligence sources think they have. Even if the two should tally he has now disbursed his CWA, to protect them from the strikes, from the three sites that we think they were in, to what the Wall Street Journal stated was 50. The best military in the world is likely to temporarily lose 10% of their inventory moving between such locations, and re-finding these assets in a war torn country is not an easy task even if you genuinely wanted to do it. I am now preparing myself for some to be 'lost' or 'captured,' allowing for a tactical stockpile while the rest are destroyed. Assad claimed that he needed a billion dollars and a year to set up his disposal plant, this is the probably the 'back of the fag packet' estimate, the true cost and time is likely to be larger and dependent on how well he is doing in a conventional conflict.
CBRN Troops - There is no doubt that politicians have been looking hopefully into their inventory to see whether they can protect their own forces against CWA. They are not likely to have liked what they have seen - the cupboard is bare. CBRN defence, across Nato, is not what it was three years ago thanks to extensive funding cuts. It might take 6-12 months, but there is likely to be an uptick in budgets for PPE, filters and chemical detectors as the knee jerk reaction kicks in. Unfortunately this is likely to be to the cost of other elements of the force, unless they take the unpopular step of increasing a defence budget, which means that it will be a short term fix rapidly undone once Ghouta becomes a thing of the past.
Finally I'd like to recommend the Brown Moses blog, here, and his Twitter feed, @brown_moses, which is always interesting and opinion forming. He is keen to hear from CBRN professionals, and is worth reaching out to.