Below the headlines: CBW matters (12)

(A weekly digest from the internet on chemical and biological warfare issues. Emphasis is on incidents and perspectives, but inclusion of an item does not equal endorsement or agreement with the contents. This issue covers items collected between 1 – 7 May 2017.)

Chemical warfare in Syria

  • U.S. Pushes Back Against Reports Russia Knew of Syrian Chemical Attack (Paul D. Shinkman, 10 April 2017): U.S. investigators are not yet certain that Russia was complicit in the April 4 chemical attack in Idlib, Syria, that prompted a U.S. strike in retaliation. The Associated Press reported that Russia knew in advance of Syria’s April 4 chemical weapons attack in the city of Idlib, citing an unnamed U.S. official. The claim represents a serious accusation tying Russia to an internationally recognized war crime that prompted the U.S. to launch Tomahawk missiles on the Syrian base that officials say launched the strike. It also complicates opportunities for Moscow to cooperate with the U.S. on peace talks ahead of hosting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later this week.
  • Almost a month after Trump’s airstrike, Syria remains a barbaric battlefield (Jackson Diehl, 30 April 2017): Syrian and Russian planes have been pounding civilian targets across Syria on a daily basis with bunker busters, cluster bombs, phosphorus and barrel bombs packed with shrapnel. On a typical day last week, between 70 and 80 people were killed in the civil war, according to reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights — about the same number as died from the gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun.
  • Inside Assad’s Shadowy Chemical Weapons Factory (Russ Read, 30 April 2017): Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (CERS) may sound benign in name, but the recently sanctioned organization is almost single-handedly responsible for developing the country’s chemical and unconventional weapons programs.
  • Syria: New Evidence Shows Pattern of Nerve-Agent Use (Human Rights Watch, 1 May 2017): New evidence supports the conclusion that Syrian government forces have used nerve agents on at least four occasions in recent months: on April 4, 2017, in a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed at least 92 people, and on three other occasions in December 2016 and March 2017, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
  • Soviet-Era Bomb Used in Syria Chemical Weapon Attack, Claims Rights Group (Colum Lynch, 1 May 2017): The findings by the New York-based advocacy group add to the mounting evidence that Syria carried out the deadliest chemical weapons attack in the country since March 2013, when the U.S. government alleged that Syrian helicopters dropped sarin bombs on the town of eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, killing more than 1,400 people.
  • Rights group: Syria used suspected nerve agents in 4 attacks (Edith M. Lederer, 1 May 2017): New evidence indicates that the Syrian government used suspected nerve agents in four chemical weapons attacks since December as part of a broader pattern of chemical weapons use, a human rights group said Monday.
  • Chemical attack in Syria that drew U.S. response was just one in a series, rights group alleges (Missy Ryan, 1 May 2017): Human Rights Watch said the well-known April 4 incident in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, which prompted President Trump to launch the first U.S. military strike on Syrian government facilities, was just one of a series of recent incidents involving deadly chemical munitions.
  • April Nerve Gas Attack in Syria Appears to Be One in a Series (Anne Barnard, 1 May 2017): Last month’s chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held Syrian town may have caught the world’s — and President Trump’s — attention, but it was not the only recent suspected use of a nerve agent by Syrian government forces. On three other occasions in the months leading up to the attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, witnesses, doctors and human rights investigators say, government attacks left scores of people sickened with similar symptoms, like foaming at the mouth, shaking and paralysis — including two attacks in December, little noticed at the time, that killed at least 64 people.
  • Echoes of the Past: Syria, Chemical Weapons, and Civilian Targeting (Luke O’Brien, 1 May 2017): On April 4, a chemical attack struck the northern Syrian village of Khan Shaykhun. What followed in the aftermath was a back and forth between Western governments and the Assad regime and its supporters.
  • The Times Uses Forensic Mapping to Verify a Syrian Chemical Attack (Malachy Browne, 1 May 2017): “How can you verify a video?” There is a simple answer to that question: Find a computer, get on Google Earth and match what you see in the video to the streets and buildings. For the six years since the Syrian conflict began, I’ve used these basic tools — and widely accessible information — to verify images broadcast on television.
  • Russian MoD Slams HRW Allegations About Use of ‘Soviet’ Chemical Bomb in Syria (Sputnik, 02 May 2017): Russian Defense Ministry has dismissed a report issued by western experts from the Human Rights Watch on the alleged use of a Soviet-era chemical bomb in Syria as a “fairy tale.”
  • Russian MoD disputes HRW report claiming Soviet chem bomb was used in Syria’s Idlib (RT, 2 May, 2017): Russia’s Defense Ministry has disputed speculation in a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on chemical attacks in Syria, which used online photos and interviews to conclude that a “Soviet-made air-dropped chemical bomb” was used in Khan Sheikhoun.
  • Propaganda War: Chemical Incident in Idlib Still Remains a Story Largely Untold (Sputnik, 02 May 2017): The international community will be able to overcome the threat of the use of chemical weapons only by working together, Italian expert Matteo Guidotti told Sputnik. The expert stressed the urgent need of a thorough investigation into the Idlib chemical incident by an international group of reliable professionals.
  • Syria’s systematic use of chemical weapons and Russia’s cover-up exposed (James Law, 3 May 2017): THE Assad Government has repeatedly used chemical weapons to consolidate its power in Syria, according to new evidence that has “decimated” the Russian “cover story” for the deadly April 4 attack on Khan Sheikhoun.
  • Sarin, investigations, refutations and vested interests (Jordan Times, 4 May 2017): France and Human Rights Watch have issued a fresh accusation that Damascus was responsible for an apparent attack with sarin gas on April 4 on the town of Khan Shaikhoun in takfiri-held Idlib province in northwest Syria.
  • Bashar al-Assad Could Launch Another Chemical-Weapons Attack (Daniel R. DePetris, 4 May 2017): We don’t know how much chemical material the Assad regime has in its inventory. The Israelis estimate it possesses a range of one to three tons of chemical weapons. General Sakat predicts that hundreds of tons are still outstanding. But what is just as puzzling is why any of us would believe that a man like Bashar al-Assad—someone who has deployed chemical weapons on countless occasions, has leveled entire cities, displaced half of his country’s population, and committed so many unspeakable atrocities that the world has almost gotten used to it—would be anything but deceptive with the international community.
  • Does Syria’s Bashar al-Assad still have chemical weapons, and why would he use them? (Bethan McKernan, 4 May 2017): Both the far-left and far-right settled on conspiracy theories claiming the opposition either faked the attack or used sarin on their own people in order to manufacture worldwide outrage at the Syrian regime. Damascus and Moscow, on the other hand, said that the casualties occurred when a conventional air strike hit an al-Qaeda-affiliated weapons depot, releasing the deadly gases in the explosion.  Yet the overwhelming evidence – gathered from radar and satellite imagery, eyewitness reports, medical charities, Western intelligence services and geolocated photos and video – supports the conclusion that the Syrian government deliberately used sarin in Khan Sheikhoun.

OPCW investigation in Syria

  • Investigation into Khan Sheikhoun: Rules-based order tested by Western scheming (Dr Alexander Yakovenko, Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 2 May 2017): There is still no proper reaction by the OPCW to the alleged use of sarin in Khan Sheikhoun in Syria on 4 April. Unfortunately, the work of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) to Syria is shrouded in secrecy. What is clear is that it continues to operate in a remote mode, using Internet data mostly concocted by the radical elements of the Syrian opposition, including the notorious “White Helmets”.
  • International probe underway to lay blame for sarin attack (Mike Corder, 5 May 2017): An international team set up to apportion blame for chemical weapons attacks in Syria has started investigating the deadly April 4 sarin gas incident in Idlib province, the head of the global chemical weapons watchdog said Friday.
  • Russia satisfied with OPCW conclusions sulphur mustard gas used in Syria by terrorists (Tass, 6 May 2017): Russia is satisfied with conclusions included in the OPCW mission’s report that sulphur mustard gas was used in the Syrian village of Maarat Umm-Hawsh in the Aleppo region, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Saturday. “The conclusions we had made along with our Syrian counterparts that terrorists used sulphur mustard in the populated locality of Maarat Umm-Hawsh have been fully confirmed at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). We state this with satisfaction,” the ministry said.

Status of CW disarmament in Syria

Other CBW-related incidents

CBW disarmament

  • Israel should ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (Shemuel Meir, 3 May 2017): Even though Syria still has chemical weapons at its disposal, Israel should ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention. Doing so would not affect its deterrence, and would give it greater sway in the global diplomatic arena.
  • Science and Clarity in the Chemical Fog of War (Robert Fares and Adam Rosenblatt, 3 May 2017): Our scientific capability is crucial to locating such weapons and properly disposing of them. For example, after the attack in 2013, the United Nations passed a resolution requiring the full destruction of Syrian chemical weapon stockpiles. However, there were formidable political and technical constraints to implementing the resolution: No country was willing to receive the weapons or to construct destruction facilities in their territory. Fortunately, eight months prior to the attack, the U.S. government had the foresight to invest in technologies to solve these challenges: portable destruction equipment with miniaturized chemical reactors in an expeditionary kit. Developing this technology in advance provided a new diplomatic option in which the international community safely destroyed all declared weapons aboard a ship in politically neutral international waters.
  • Syria’s Chemical Weapons Show the Limits of Arms Control (Rebeccah Heinrichs, 4 May 2017): Arms control failed to prevent Bashar al-Assad from using weapons of mass destruction against noncombatants, and this should serve as another hard lesson in its limitations.
  • Korean diplomat runs for chief of anti-chemical arms body (Korea Herald, 4 May 2017): Kim Won-soo, a South Korean career diplomat and former under-secretary general at the United Nations, is running for the top position of a global body against chemical weapons, officials said Thursday.

CWC 20th anniversary

  • NATO welcomes 20th anniversary of Chemical Weapons Convention (NATO, 2 May 2017): NATO welcomed the 20th anniversary of the Convention on Chemical Weapons on Saturday (29 April 2017), in a letter from Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

CBW armament

  • Amines and Sarin – Hexamine, Isopropylamine, and the Rest… (Dan Kaszeta, 3 May 2017): One subject that keeps coming up in ongoing debates about Sarin chemical attack in Syria from 2013 to date is the nature, role, and presence of possible additives to Sarin. A molecule of Sarin is pretty much the same molecule however and wherever it was made. However, even in the best laboratory settings you don’t ever get truly pure Sarin. Relatively pure Sarin, with some additives, is the best for long term storage and the engineering needed to get pure Sarin is usually a level of expense and difficulty greater than anyone wants to expend, or is even capable of doing. The “other stuff” that ends up in Sarin – byproducts, impurities, contaminants, residue, additives and whatnot is often what gives away the most useful information. The purpose of this article is to explain in general terms the roles amines can play in the manufacture or storage of nerve agents.

CBW threats

  • Why Are We More at Risk Than Ever for a Global Pandemic? (Saskia V. Popescu, 28 April 2017): We tend to focus on chronic diseases and forget the growing threat of infectious diseases. Sadly, if we think about it, this usually leads to a dangerous and debilitating fear. Outbreaks of novel or emerging infectious diseases often create ethical dilemmas for healthcare workers. The HIV/AIDS epidemic saw healthcare workers refuse to treat patients with AIDS and Ebola was no different. Hospitals are not immune to fear and that trickles down to those caring for patients. This was prevalent in every country, but the cases in Dallas, Texas raised several questions when healthcare professionals refused to care for potential patients as their hospitals prepared.
  • North Korea’s Chemical Weapons, Biological Weapons, And Nanoweapons (Louis A. Del Monte, 1 May 2017): It may appear unbelievable that a country unable to feed its people or reliably provide basic utilities, like electricity, is able to develop and deploy chemical weapons, biological weapons, and nanoweapons.
  • North Korea accuses US of ‘biochemical’ attempt to assassinate Kim Jong Un (Tristan Lejeune, 5 May 2017): North Korean state media on Friday accused the U.S. and South Korea of conspiring to assassinate Kim Jong Un using a “biochemical” substance.

History

  • That antique shaving brush could give you face anthrax (Rachel Becker, 1 May 2017): Here’s the thing about that antique shaving brush you bought on eBay: it might have anthrax on it. Poorly disinfected animal hair shaving brushes caused a mini-epidemic of head and face anthrax during World War I, according to a historical review published by scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Modern brushes or well-used antiques made after 1930 are probably safe, the authors of the study write.

CBW defence, protection and preparedness

  • Worse Than Ebola: U.S. Not Preparing for the Next Bio-Threat (Maggie Fox, 1 May 2017): The U.S. government is slacking off on preparing for the next big pandemic or biological terrorism attack and is not only endangering its citizens but also missing out on a great opportunity to score political points, experts said Monday.
  • Pox virus discovery has implications for vaccines and cancer (PhysOrg, 3 May 2017): Contrary to previous assumptions, the Crick team found that the Vaccinia virus needs proteins from the host cells it infects to replicate. Michael Way of the Crick explains: “Poxviruses, unlike other DNA viruses such as herpesviruses, do not replicate in the cell nucleus, where the host’s DNA replication machinery is located. Instead, it was previously thought that Vaccinia replicates its DNA outside the nucleus, in the host cell’s cytoplasm because it does not require any factors from the cell as it only uses viral proteins.”

Industry matters

  • Syria nerve gas attack points to US need for new antidote (Monte Reel, 11 April 2017): To spur pharmaceutical companies to develop new and improved drugs, despite their limited profitability, Congress passed Project BioShield, a multibillion-dollar program that’s helped fund more than a decade’s worth of research and development. Last week’s mass sarin attack in Syria, as well as February’s assassination of North Korea’s Kim Jong Nam with VX poison, served as grim reminders that the threat hasn’t gone away.
  • DoD Seeks to Enhance Navy’s Biological Warfare Agent Identification Systems (4 May 2017): The U.S. military’s Joint Product Director for Biological Detection Systems (JPD-BDS) is conducting a market survey to identify sources capable of manufacturing fully automated biological warfare agent identifiers using Raman Spectroscopy.
  • Smallpox Vaccine Potency Testing (Global Biodefense, 4 May 2017): The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced intentions to award a sole source contract to Sanofi Pasteur Biologics, LLC for the purchase of services to perform a plaque titration to quantify the titer of Wetvax for the CDC smallpox stability program.

 

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About JP Zanders

Jean Pascal Zanders (Belgium) has worked on questions of chemical and biological weapon (CBW) armament and disarmament since 1986. He was CBW Project Leader at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project and Senior Research Fellow responsible for disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation questions at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He now owns and runs The Trench.