Tuesday 3 December 2013

A Chemical Weapons Specialist On Syria's Chemical Weapon Transport Issues

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, Former Commander UK CBRN Forces and COO SecureBio, examines the many issues the international community now faces in their attempts to destroy Syria's chemical weapons.

Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad has told the BBC his government needs the international community to provide military equipment, to help transport their chemical weapons out of the country. Mr Mekdad was attending an Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons meeting in The Hague.

The Assad Regime is required under the auspices of the UN Security Council to remove all chemical agent and the most toxic precursors about 630 tonnes in total from Syria by 31 Dec 13 and the less toxic precursors, around 700 tonnes by Feb 14.  There appear to be 3 phases to the plan, firstly, to move the 1330 tonnes to the Port of Latakia, secondly to transport these chemicals to the MV Cape Ray presumably in the Mediterranean somewhere, and to commercial toxic waste destruction facilities and finally to destroy the most toxic by hydrolysis on the MV Cape Ray and the rest by normal convention toxic waste destruction at civilian facilities, by mid 2014 – all possible, well apparently, until yesterday’s 11th hour request by Minister Mekdad.

It is understood that most of the CW is North of Damascus and will have to move through a number of contested areas before it reaches Latakia.  Sigrid Kaag head of the UN/OPCW in Damascus admitted on Sat 30 Nov 13 on BBC World Service that the route to the Port is currently blocked.  It is the Regimes responsibility to deliver the CW, as per the CWC, to the Port whence it will be loaded onto ships to become the responsibility of the International Community under supervision of, and verification by the OPCW.

Phase 1 planning for the movement to the Port is an extremely complex military operation with many factors which must be worked through in finite detail, from force protection, to logistics, communications, capabilities required and many alternative options if things go wrong.  Ideally, it would take a sophisticated military like the US or UK many days and weeks with great expertise to plan such an operation.  One of the initial stages of military planning is working out whether you have enough ‘Troops to Task’ or forces available, to achieve the mission.  It would appear at the 11th hour, rather than the First or Second, that the Regime planners have decided they do not have the ‘Troops for the Task’ and now require the International Community to supply, presumably Tanks, armoured personnel carriers etc in order to be able to achieve the mission.  Even if the International community was minded to supply this hardware there is no way it could be handed over the Regime and trained on in order to deliver the CW to the Port by 31 Dec 13.  But surely the UN and OPCW have been intermittently involved in this planning and this would be apparent at the outset, or are the Regime only involving them [UN/OPCW] when it is convenient?

It is also, I suggest, too late to get UN or Coalition troops on the ground in Syria to support such a Mission, even if the International Community was ‘minded too,’ which it does not appear to be.  US or UK units who prepare to do to places like Afghanistan usually conduct about 6 months pre-deployment training before going, and we are now in the under 3 weeks bracket.  Of course US and UK have very high readiness forces but they still have to meet theatre entry standards of training and equipment and an absolute minimum would be around a 4 week flash to bang.  Special Forces like the SAS or Navy Seals/Delta could be used but they are not really equipped for what is conventional force activity in this case.

SO WHAT? Is this an attempt by the Regime to buy time or are they setting up the Mission for failure, and planning to blame the International Community for not providing the appropriate support?  Some see Assad’s use of Sarin in Ghouta on 21 Aug 13 as a brilliant ‘ruse of war’.  Initially it was believed, [and by the Opposition, most of them] that the US was going to ‘blast’ Assad off the planet with Cruise Missiles around the 27 Aug 13; but we are now in a position where the International Community is being held to ransom by the Assad’s Chemical Weapons.  And this is a position which I expect the Regime would like to proliferate, and this request for ‘undeliverable’ military hardware appears to be just that -  A stalling tactic.

If this is the case and the Regime really do not believe that they can achieve their mission without the military hardware, the Opposition in all its guises must guarantee safe passage of the CW to the Port.  Because it is only once the CW is out of Syria that  it [CW] stops becoming the Regimes bargaining piece with the International Community and all can focus on Peace at Geneva 2 on 22 Jan 14.  If the CW is still in Syria on 22 Jan 14 what hope for Geneva 2?


You can follow SecureBio on Twitter, and listen to Hamish de Bretton-Gordon on BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight talking about chemical weapon issues in Syria.


  1. Short article from the BBC with video interview of Faisal Mekdad: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25191673

    Press release from NATO which states "[NATO] stand[s] ready to consider further assistance to the OPCW-UN Joint Mission if requested": http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/news_105470.htm

  2. "...the International Community is being held to ransom by the Assad’s Chemical Weapons..."

    As soon as I see this phrasing, I assume the author has some connection with Israel. As soon as the international community accused them of doing the same with their nuclear weapons ("Help us or *everyone* in the Middle East dies"), this suddenly became the phrasing for Saddam Husain's fabricated threat and the phrasing used for Ghadaffi's supposed threat. Odd, since the most obvious direct threat from those weapons was to Israel, not to anyone else. That's the case in Syria.

    There is *nobody* in the U.S. that sees any threat from Syrian chemical weapons in Assad's hands except for our un-trusted, bribed politicians. If anyone would use them outside of Syria, it would be the same salafist extremists that the west is supporting now. The only nation that is paranoid about them now - and probably rightfully so - is Israel.

    Rushing in to civilian-killing activities like 'regime change' to remove CWs hasn't turned out so well for the U.S. In Iraq, we didn't even know which weapons were chemical weapons and ended up poisoning thousands of western troops when they were destroyed. In Libya, we killed Ghadaffi and pretty much let thousands of tanks of his CWs sit unguarded - in the open - in the desert for months. Plenty of opportunities for salafi extremists to truck off several tons for themselves.

    Bretton-Gordon's suggestion that "...the Opposition in all its guises must guarantee safe passage of the CW to the Port..." is absolutely preposterous. They are at war with each other, and the best-armed and best-trained are not Syrians and don't plan on showing up to Geneva II anyway. They have clearly stated so.

    If the UK can be convinced to send it's people to die in Syria to protect a convoy, then go for it. I expect the U.S. media to try to whip up a frenzy here supporting U.S. intervention. Trouble is, so does the U.S. public (and a good part of the military) and they already said NO. They are not going to feel some new sense of urgency simply because Obama moved the red line out a little further.

    The situation is precarious in the U.S. - citizens will not send their sons and daughters to die to protect paranoid Israel or do the leg-work for Bandar's conquest of Syria. Obama is a half-step from being impeached if he tries, and nobody is listening to our congress. The only way you're going to get average U.S. citizens to support any Syrian action is at the end of a barrel of a gun. Spinning stories on CNN doesn't work, anymore.

    1. As far as getting UK forces to Syria in the next couple of weeks is concerned: last night's storm and widespread flooding disaster is more than just a political distraction and will make it difficult to mobilise large amounts of equipment for any purpose other than disaster relief for a while.


  3. Some of the CW sites ( to be inspected) were battle damaged according to the UN/OPCW. The insurgents were in the vicinity.

    What does that tell us? So, maybe release a few nuns, quit beheading people for a bit, confidence building measures. Whatever.