September 17, 2013

Probably final Syria chem thought

What's really interesting about the Syrian chem attack, analytically speaking, is that it's one of those rare situations where the two of the most reliable intuitive principles we have are completely at odds. The Cui Bono assessment of this is that the Syrian government would have to be incredibly stupid or reckless to attack their own people this way. The Occam's Razor hypothesis points now, entirely at their having done so.

Posted by BruceR at 02:22 PM

Syria attacks: also note the quantity required

HRW's Peter Bouckert raises another good point:

The rocket systems identified by the UN as used in the attack – truck-launched 330mm rockets with around 50 to 60 liters of Sarin, as well as 140mm Soviet-produced rockets carrying a smaller Sarin-filled warhead – are both known to be in the arsenal of the Syrian armed forces. They have never been seen in rebel hands. The amount of Sarin used in the attack – hundreds of kilograms, according to Human Rights Watch’s calculations – also indicates government responsibility for the attack, as opposition forces have never been known to be in possession of such significant amounts of Sarin.

Assume that only the two 330mm rockets the UN inspectors saw were involved. That would still be 100+ litres of sarin in those two rockets alone, not counting the BM-14s or any other munitions involved (estimates have actually suggested 20 or more munitions were used in this one attack). By comparison, the Aum Shinrikyo cult used a total of 5 litres in the Tokyo subway attacks, the only successful deployment of sarin in history by anyone other than Saddam's Iraq. (The Japanese cult released a similar amount in their previous 1994 Matsumoto attack, killing eight.) There is no question the apparatus required for the production here would have been significant. Interestingly, although sarin will kill you, no question, if a drop lands on unprotected skin, when distributed in the air, whether in Syria, Iraq or Japan, it takes roughly a litre of distribution per fatality. Sarin is not the deadliest chemical weapon out there; that honour probably belongs to VX, which the Syrians also have in smaller amounts, which is about 10 times as deadly, and persists longer in the environment (unlike Sarin, which sunlight rapidly degrades).

Note also that the production or transport of Sarin or its schedule 1 precursor chemicals is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which both Russia and Iran have signed, and that sarin's shelf life is about the same as milk -- months.

Posted by BruceR at 12:49 PM