Chemical weapons inspections in Syria: preparing for the pitfalls

 

By Chen Kane and Egle Murauskite – Reports are coming out of Syria of missiles tipped with chemical weapons being fired into rebel controlled areas near Damascus, which, if confirmed, would be the most brutal incident so far. This adds significant complications for the United Nations (UN) team of inspectors, who arrived in Syria on August 18, tasked with the first “on the ground” investigation into the possible uses of chemical weapons.

 

The inspectors were already facing a daunting task: after months of negotiations with Damascus, they are only allowed to investigate three of the thirteen alleged incidents of chemical weapons use in Syria, and instructed not to seek to identify the culprit. The investigative scrutiny was expected to reinforce the conviction that the use of chemical weapons in any conflict will not go unnoticed, shaken by the White House’s lukewarm response and “receding red lines.”

 

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However, such a major incident of alleged chemical weapons use occurring in the presence of the UN team, with the investigators not allowed to visit this new site – and in all likelihood quarantined in their hotel altogether for the next few days for security reasons, their mission stands on ever shakier grounds. It is important to understand what the UN investigation can and cannot prove, particularly since the Assad government seems to have more to gain than to lose in this case, and to appreciate the uncomfortable possibility of the Syrian opposition forces engaging in increasingly desperate tactics.

 

While France, Israel, the UK and the U.S. have concluded that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, namely sarin. But these claims were met with skepticism internationally: It was these same countries that were certain of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003. That turned out to be a total intelligence failure and evidence was sexed up by war hawks. The smoking gun that allegedly proves chemical weapons were used was gathered in April from sites in Syria, but this evidence could have easily been tampered with.

 

The UN team will be headed by Dr. Ake Sellstrom, chemical weapons expert from Sweden, and will include experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the World Health Organization. In order to minimize the potential for political tensions, an effort was made to assemble a team of mostly Nordic European, Latin American, and Asian inspectors, avoiding representatives of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, Arab countries, and Turkey.

 

Of the just three alleged chemical weapon incidents the UN team will be allowed to investigate, the key one occurred in March 2013 in a village near Aleppo, Khan al-Assal. The Syrian government has invited the UN to investigate this incident involving sarin gas, which killed 26 people, claiming that the rebels were responsible. The rebels blame the government. The other two sites of alleged chemical use to be visited are Homs (December 2012), and Ataybah (March 2013).

 

In the late 1980s, following allegations of chemical weapons use during the Iran-Iraq war, the UN created the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism to investigate allegations concerning the possible use of chemical, bacteriological (biological) and toxin weapons. The Secretary-General has the power to launch an investigation if requested from any UN member state and this is the first time the mechanism will be put to use. Interestingly, the Syrian government is the one that asked for the UN investigation following the Khan al-Assal incident.

 

 

The UN inspector team will face substantial challenges, given the small number of sites it is allowed to visit, the small amounts of nerve agent likely used, the time that has passed since some of the attacks, and the limited mandate agreed prior to the investigation. The investigation would only seek to establish whether chemical weapons were used, without pinpointing a culprit.

 

The first set of the issues concerns the access to sites. The opposition forces have invited the inspectors to visit additional sites where they claim chemical weapons were used – particularly, the town of Adra, which is now under rebel control. However, given the sensitive political nature of negotiating access with the Assad regime, it is doubtful inspectors would try to deviate from the pre-agreed three sites.

 

Many sites of interest are in areas of open warfare and combat, raising serious questions about the ability to ensure inspectors’ safety on the mission. The UN team will likely rely on the Syrian army, underscoring how much their mission will depend on the Syrian army for their own safety. Rebel forces control at least one of the sites (Khan al-Assal), a Syrian army escort would likely be refused entry or attacked. A second set of concerns relates to the level of access and measures allowed. In particular, opportunities to interview victims and witnesses of the incidents may be limited by the Syrian government. Assad’s forces can control access to most witnesses.

 

The most useful evidence the inspectors could hope to obtain would be blood and urine samples from the victims, examine victim’s bodies, and collect soil samples and debris from the attack sites.  While traces of nerve agents could point to deliberate use by Assad’s forces, it is hard to believe Assad would have agreed to the inspections, if he had reason to believe such evidence could be found.

 

Another option is that the Syrian military may have indeed been exposed to chemical agents, but that they were unintended victims of a “friendly fire” conducted by Syrian forces. Worst case, should the inspectors chance upon traces of nerve agents, Assad could dismiss their findings as an isolated instance of unauthorized chemical weapons use by a rogue commander.

 

On the other hand, it would be even harder to determine what happened in case the harmful substances used turn out to be industrial chemicals. A possibility that cannot be ruled out is that as the conflict in Syria drags on, anti-government fighters could be trying to stage incidents, made to look like chemical weapons use were used by the Syrian army to trigger direct military intervention or to elicit more aid to rebels.

 

And with jihadist elements among the Syrian rebels, another possible scenario could involve extremists actually putting chemical weapons to use against their fellow anti-government fighters, who are not jihadists, forcing collective acts of martyrdom of sorts, with the same underlying logic of compelling an international outcry against Assad and possibly military intervention.

 

Another option is that Assad’s military has been mixing small amount of chemical weapons with “riot control agents,” and conventional munitions to save its chemical weapons and create a confusing blend of symptoms, and mask their source. The UN decision to settle on investigating three sites may have seemed better than nothing at first glance. However, the UN should carefully consider, and hopefully find a workaround, the glaring pitfalls and heavy political implications that the inspections, as currently framed, would produce. There are 13 or more sites where chemicals were allegedly used. Looking only at three of them, and three Assad wants them to look at creates a flawed investigative methodology. 

 

One possible way of addressing these investigative pitfalls and achieve a better result would be for the UN not to publish its findings, until access to all alleged sites has been granted. In the end the UN investigation can produce one of three possible outcomes. The experts may conclude that chemical weapons were used, or that they have not been used, or that the investigation is inconclusive due to lack of evidence.

 

In case of “no use,” the Syrian government would trumpet the UN conclusion as a clean bill of heath on anything chemical weapons related, possession as well as use. Similarly, since the inspectors will not be trying to determine who used the weapons, based on the mandate agreed with Syria, in case the use of chemical weapons is confirmed, the Assad regime could still claim (as it has been all along) that they were the victims of an opposition attack, not the perpetrators. No matter how much the inspectors try to qualify their conclusions, such subtle nuances do not resonate well when the investigation is supposed to inform policy makers.

 

The greatest challenge for the UN team will come in the months following the conclusion of their investigation. Namely, the struggle ahead will be to prevent the outcome from being politically manipulated – by the Syrian regime, by advocates of military intervention, or international parties looking to justify inaction in face of humanitarian disaster.

 

 

Dr. Chen Kane is Senior Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and co-editor of Arms Control and Regional Security for the Middle East. She can be followed on Twitter at: @ACRSME.

 

Egle Murauskaite is a Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, with the focus on Middle East regional security issues and global trends in sensitive technology transfers.

 

The original article was published by McClatchy-Tribune.

Hezbollah under fire

 

By Bilal Y. Saab – With the bloodbath in Egypt, ongoing carnage in Syria, and gruesome bombings in Iraq, another explosion in the Middle East might hardly seem like news. But the importance of the blast that rocked Beirut’s southern Shia-dominated suburbs on August 15, killing around 20 people and wounding hundreds more, should not be diminished. It could spell the beginning of the end for Hezbollah, the dominant political-military actor in Lebanon and one of the United States’ most powerful nemeses in the region. 

 

Reports of Hezbollah’s death have abounded in the past eight years. In 2008, only two years after a devastating war with Israel, Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s most senior military commander, was killed in a car bombing in Damascus. Analysts claimed that Hezbollah had lost its military and strategic edge. They also claimed that Israeli intelligence services had infiltrated the organization and that it was only a matter of time before spies within sewed chaos. In fact, Hezbollah was doing just fine. Despite Mughniyeh’s unique skill-set and accomplishments, he was only one part (albeit an important one) of a much larger institution. The group has an organizational structure that would be envied by the most sophisticated corporations, and it was fully capable of replacing Mughniyeh. In fact, it did so less than a week after his funeral.

 

In July 2011, when an international tribunal investigating the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri formally accused four Hezbollah members of the crime, commentators again rushed to say that the Shia group was doomed, since it had lost legitimacy in the eyes of most non-Shia Lebanese. Yet Hezbollah weathered the storm with a mix of political strategy, violence, and defiance. The group hardly loses any sleep over its deteriorating popularity among non-Shia. As long as it has the guns and the support of its social base, it is business as usual for Hezbollah.

 

Hezbollah’s prospects truly started looking grim about a year ago, months into the conflict between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah’s staunch ally, and the Sunni rebels attempting to depose him. The Assad regime seemed on the verge of collapse. About to lose its ally (and the arms and intelligence he passed along), the thinking went, Hezbollah would become politically isolated at home. Those assertions had the ring of truth, but it was never clear that isolation would lead to the group’s demise and, in any event, Assad survived. Even if he is toppled down the road, there is a high probability that Hezbollah and Iran have plan Bs. For example, Iran already seems to be reaching out to Sudan, which, although not a perfect alternative to Syria, has a friendly government with viable Shia connections in Iraq.

 

Since Hezbollah has survived war, the death of Mughniyeh, the international tribunal’s powerful verdict, its loss of popular legitimacy, and the near loss of its strategic alliance with Syria, it might seem like there isn’t much that could touch it.

 

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But there is: the deterioration of its relationship with its Shia supporters. Throughout Hezbollah’s 31 years of existence, the organization has made cultivating good relations with Lebanese Shia a top priority, knowing full well that such ties would serve as its first and last lines of defense. It is the one source of support that the organization simply cannot live without or replace.

 

For the first time in Hezbollah’s history, this special bond is in danger. By entering the fray in Syria earlier this year or last to come to Assad’s aid, Hezbollah has flirted with open conflict with the region’s Sunnis — both moderate and extremist. Regional demographics have always worked against the Shia — and they know it. Even the staunchest Lebanese Shia supporters of Hezbollah would prefer peace with their fellow Sunni Lebanese and the region to agitation.

 

That is what makes the attack in Al Ruweiss so remarkable. Hezbollah’s leadership will see it as an attempt by its enemies to put pressure on the Lebanese Shia community to call for Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria — just as it did after a bombing last month in the same area, and when two other bombs were discovered in the southern suburbs earlier in the year. If Lebanese Shia start to doubt Hezbollah’s strategy, Hezbollah is doomed.

 

Soon after the first bombing last month, Hezbollah’s leadership vowed to continue the fight in Syria, saying that attacks will only deepen their conviction. At the time, Shia sentiment was still pro-Hezbollah, although some in the community were already starting to question why the group was risking everything. In the last attack, though, there were no deaths. Not this time. And now anxiety is starting to set in.

 

It would take a long time for increased Shia dissent and dissatisfaction to shake Hezbollah’s grip on the community. After all, Hezbollah has been nurturing these ties since 1982, providing Shia with social goods, a political voice, security, and a sense of empowerment. But with every bomb that goes off in its stronghold — and with every loss of Shia life that is not caused by Israel — the group’s control of its support base will wane. Unless Hezbollah changes its Syria strategy, it might soon find itself really alone at home and in the region.

 

This article originally appeared in Foreign Affairs on August 16, 2013.

Forget the second carrier. It’s time to rethink the Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf

 

By Bilal Y. Saab and Joseph Singh – When the U.S. Navy announced the deployment of a second carrier, the USS Harry Truman, to the Persian Gulf on July 23, the news should have alleviated critics who view the presence of only one aircraft carrier in such a strategically vital region as a major risk to U.S. security interests in the Middle East. But it didn’t, because there won’t be two carriers in the gulf for long. Just a week earlier, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, stated that the Navy would not operate a second carrier group in the Gulf during the 2014 fiscal year due to sequestration.

 

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This article originally appeared in Defense One. For the rest of the article, please visit http://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2013/08/forget-second-carrier-time-rethink-fifth-fleet-persian-gulf/68633/?oref=d-topstory

 

 

Anger management in the Middle East

 

By Nilsu Goren, Aviv Melamud, Ibrahim Said Ibrahim, and Ariane Tabatabai – The Middle East has provided an arena for different weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. Such weapons – nuclear, chemical, biological – are either being developed, acquired, stored, or contemplated throughout this highly-volatile and conflict-prone region. Most notably, there is the nuclear issue (Israel’s opaque nuclear posture and the controversial Iranian nuclear program), but the abundance of chemical and biological weapon programs throughout is arguably just as –according to some, more – dangerous and flammable.

 

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This danger is, of course, even more disconcerting considering that the Middle East has provided the stage for several instances of actual use of WMD in the past decades. Chemical weapons have been allegedly employed in the region by Egypt in North Yemen in the 1960s, Saddam Hussein during and after the Iran-Iraq war against Iranian and Kurdish civilians, and allegedly most recently by the Assad Regime in the ongoing civilian conflict in Syria.

 

On top of that, a number of terrorist organizations and fragile states coexist in the region, which makes the presence of WMD particularly worrisome. Preventing the next WMD disaster in the Middle East is obviously an urgent and crucial endeavor. The establishment of a WMD Free Zone in the region would be most fitting to handle the danger, but the initiative has run into difficulties.

 

Despite these challenges, the creation of such a Free Zone in the Middle East is indeed pressing and of vital consequence for the entire region. Yet the majority of Middle Eastern populations are alienated from the debate. Transparency and a public discourse around the topic, as well as a greater understanding of issues of arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament can therefore play a key role in preventing the next WMD disaster in a region that is already facing multiple security challenges.

 

In an attempt to address some of these issues, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies has initiated the Middle East Next Generation of Arms Control Specialists Network, bringing together young arms controlers from the region. The Network has undertaken to promote nonproliferation and arms control education in the region in the hopes of creating such a culture and positively influencing the establishment of a WMD Free Zone. Four of them (from Egypt, Iran, Israel, and Turkey) recommend here five steps to protect the Middle East from the use of WMD (that is, just until they actually do establish that Free Zone).

 

Step 1: Weapons of Mass Disruption: It’s Messy

Considering the levels of hostility and the gravity of the conflicts in the region, perhaps it would be most realistic to begin promoting cooperation on so-called ‘low hanging fruits,’ meaning those threats that are shared by all, regardless of political disagreements.

 

When thinking of WMD, one category is often overlooked. Sure, the biological-chemical-nuclear triplet is always in the spotlight, but there is actually a fourth kind of WMD – radiological. And this one would in fact be the terrorists’ likeliest WMD of choice, since there are numerous radioactive sources throughout the region from which to obtain (read: steal) materials for weaponization: such materials are used for commercial and medical purposes, not just in highly-guarded nuclear facilities but also in factories and hospitals. Accidents and thefts of these sources already accrue in the region. If terrorists get their hands on some, it could be used for mass disruption. That makes for a real mess.

 

The fragile state / terrorist organizations (Molotov) cocktail that exists in the region means that unless facilities and materials are secured, and unless governments are ready to respond to a WMD incident, things can escalate very quickly and become, at best, a tool for mass disruption. The worst case scenario would be a full WMD disaster. Since the need for effective protection against WMD terrorism is shared by all states, a region-wide policy on how to counter these threats, as well as a code of conduct on securing and handling WMD sources, can be a good way to get some cooperation going.

 

Enhancing security and increasing cooperation are noble causes, but perhaps the real incentive here is that prevention of unconventional terrorism is of interest to all regional states. A radiological (dirty) bomb is scary, of course, but perhaps a more effective way for terrorists to operate is through targeting the stomach! Bio-terrorism is just as potentially dangerous, since biological agents, like radiological ones, are present in labs and hospitals throughout the region. If stolen, these could be dispersed and used to poison, say, food. A campaign for keeping hummus bio-terrorism-free could appeal to all regional states; Hummus is after all a serious matter in the region.

 

Step 2: Circumventing Governments: From the Mid East with Love

If you know your neighbors, you won’t want to blow them up! Build trust directly among nations in the region, because after all – we have much more in common than we are led to believe!

 

Sure, this is not easily done in a region that has had a long history of conflict and where, in some countries children are taught from early on to hate some of their neighbors. But by allowing people to get to know each other and to debunk the myths surrounding each other, one can guarantee lasting peace (or at least less conflict…).

 

Any opportunity to get people talking is a chance for making connections and exemplifying just how useless conflict is. With the internet and social media, people are connecting with each other beyond – and in spite of – their angry and spiteful leadership. Now more than ever, people from neighboring countries have more chances to being exposed to one another’s culture, and to discover realities beyond propaganda.

 

Step 3:  Circumventing governments, part deux: non-governmental organizations (that’s almost too obvious…)

OK, social media and people-to-people encounters are nice, but hardly enough. This is a region with too many weapons, some of them are WMD, and that’s a recipe for disaster, literally. While these weapons hold the potential of mass destruction, the “masses” are surprisingly absent from any discourse relating to them. One can imagine, however, that they’d have something to contribute!

 

The establishment of local and regional non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that specialize in arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament, are crucial to enable people to become part of the discourse and take ownership of it in a knowledgeable and meaningful way. This will support both a domestic and regional dialogue, currently completely absent. After all, grassroots movements don’t sprout out of nothing…

 

Step 4: Get Smart: Weapons of MassInstruction

Indeed, the lack of even basic information and knowledge on matters of arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament is (terrifyingly enough) not exclusive to the masses and general public. Policy-makers, officials, scientists, and technicians also lack basic information on WMD.

 

Producing materials on arms control and nonproliferation in regional languages and establishing courses and training programs is of key importance to promote a better understanding of these crucial issues. This will allow more relevant local actors to take part in the discussions and decision making processes in an informed manner.

 

Furthermore, scientists and technicians from industry and research should also be offered information and tools to become more active in the prevention of WMD disasters. Their role is central because of the dual-use nature of many of the materials they use – potentially hazardous agents that are employed daily and extensively for peaceful purposes could be weaponized! Discussing the dangers and the importance of correct code of conduct when handling such agents will develop a knowledgeable and responsible community within the people who are at the technical frontline.

 

Tackling the lacunas in education on arms control and nonproliferation in the region will assist in developing a community of knowledgeable, dedicated, and critical-thinking people who could have a key role in promoting and supporting a process of establishing a WMD Free Zone in the region. The first step in preventing a WMD crisis is getting the necessary knowledge out there!

 

Step 5: The Kids Are Alright

There’s no better ending than with a cliché: the future is in youth.

 

Empower the youth and facilitate collaboration and cooperation among young specialists by establishing programs, courses, and employment opportunities. Public and foreign policies are generally not seen as conducive to prestige and high-income. Therefore, young people either do not go down that path or they do and leave their native countries. The result is that the field remains in the grips of an older generation, whose views and ideologies are not necessarily representative of those of their constituencies. This is a tremendous obstacle in a region where most countries have fairly young populations. Empowering the youth will inject more openness and flexibility into a process that has been marred by a resistance to cooperate in many instances. Otherwise, youth may have to resort, as it has been already throughout the region, to take things into its hands.

 

Nilsu Goren is a Turkish PhD candidate at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, specializing in Turkish security policymaking and a graduate fellow at Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM).

 

Aviv Melamud is an Israeli PhD student at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, and a research associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF).

 

Ibrahim Said is an Egyptian Fellow of the United Nations Program on Disarmament (2013), Verification Scholar at the Technical Nonproliferation and Disarmament Project of the UK/Norway initiative hosted by the Center for Accelerator-based research and Energy Physics, University of Oslo (2012).

 

Ariane Tabatabai is an Iranian-American PhD student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, an incoming Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, and a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

 

 

This is published on the behalf of Nilsu Goren, Aviv Melamud, Ibrahim Said Ibrahim, and Ariane Tabatabai of the Middle East Next Generation of Arms Control Specialists Network. This article originally appeared on Arms Control Wonk.