Friday, December 21, 2012

Another Curveball

David Ignatius is well aware of the unreliability of reports from defectors from a tyrannical regime during civil war. They may exaggerate, make up, or simply have incorrect information. So, to prepare us, he says this:

For some historical context, readers should recall the Iraqi defector known as “Curveball,” who made allegations about Iraqi chemical weapons a decade ago that bolstered the case for war — but turned out to be fabrications.

But he goes on to assure us that he is well aware of such problems and has therefore confirmed “some of the details” with independent, knowledgeable sources. Some? Just some? Which ones?
This Curveball, too, has a tale of WMD and mobile laboratories, this time chemical rather than biological. No drawings have been proffered; perhaps they are yet to come.

In Ignatius’s second-hand telling, there seem to be two stories: One that “two senior Syrian officers moved about 100 kilograms of chemical weapons materials from a secret military base in January.” They drove, in a civilian vehicle, toward Lebanon, and shortly after, two men with Lebanese accents were instructed in “how to combine and activate the chemicals, as well as the proper safety precautions in handling them.”

The other story is that 10-15 trucks “that could combine and activate so-called ‘binary’ chemical weapons agents” have been built at a “workshop in the Damascus suburb of Dummar.” Mobile laboratories!

And here’s what Ignatius considers confirmation by the independent source:

An independent source confirmed that both the Dummar and Nasiriyah facilities mentioned by the defector are, indeed, part of the Syrian chemical weapons network.

Um, there’s nothing there about movement of chemicals, mobile laboratories, men speaking Lebanese.
Ignatius keeps his defector anonymous, his only identification that he “worked inside the chemical weapons network”. On the same date, the Times of Israel published a claim from Maj. Gen. Adnan Sillu, who defected earlier this year and “was reportedly charged with overseeing Syria’s chemical weapons training program.” Reportedly.

Sillu says “Syria’s chemical arsenal has reached similar levels to Israel’s nuclear weapons,” and that Syria’s chemical weapons could easily be taken over by “anyone from the Free Syrian Army or any Islamic extremist group.”

I don’t have any evidence that Sillu is Ignatius’s source, but, based on the simultaneous appearance of the two reports, I think we can say that he is with the same confidence that Ignatius confirms his story.

Shorter version: If you know anything about chemical warfare agents, both stories are nonsense.
Let’s start with the Times of Israel story. What does “Syria’s chemical arsenal has reached similar levels to Israel’s nuclear weapons” even mean? How would Sillu know the extent of Israel’s nuclear arsenal? How is he comparing the two? Numbers of bombs? Potential for numbers of people that might be killed? Both are very scary?

There is no reason to believe anything else after someone says something like that. But is Sillu Ignatius’s source? I don’t know, but there does seem to be an overlap in the identifications.
There is a bit more to Ignatius’s story. He glues the two pieces together with this:

Drawing on the defector’s reports, the Syrian opposition quietly gave Lebanese officials a description of the trucks about six weeks ago, so that they could monitor whether the vehicles were crossing into Lebanon with chemical weapons on board. Since then, none has apparently been seen near the border.

So the Syrian opposition believed the defector enough to warn Lebanese officials that something might be up. That’s a fairly low bar of belief. And no trucks have been observed.
But by the end of the article, Ignatius seems to have convinced himself that the “mobile laboratories” exist.

I wrote the other day that I don’t know of any country that produces binary chemical weapons and then mixes them before loading them in shells, and listed some good reasons why that is a dumb thing to do. I’ll repeat and add a few more.

Nerve agents are highly toxic. That makes them very hard to handle. A pinhead’s amount on your skin will kill you. That is the reason for producing them in binary form: two chemicals that are much safer to handle and form the nerve agent when they are mixed and react chemically. The point is never to have to handle the nerve agents themselves; binary shells are designed to mix the two safer chemicals in flight.

Mixing binary agents and then loading them into shells is the worst of all worlds: a more complicated setup is needed to produce two chemicals rather than one, and then the shell-loading is with the highly toxic agents. The United States and the Soviet Union produced most of their chemical arsenal in unitary form. That has made it very difficult to destroy those stockpiles, which effort is still in progress.
So how would you clean up a truck with pipes and pumps and valves and fittings with residual nerve agent inside all those pipes and pumps and valves and fittings? Not to mention that fittings come loose when you’re driving around over unpaved back roads and any drips will kill you. And, please, Mr. Ignatius, how is that mixed-up nerve agent going to be delivered militarily? Are there trucks that are then fitted, leak-proofedly, to the mixing trucks to load the shells?

Then there’s that 100 kilograms of “chemical weapons materials,” which the context seems to imply are binary components. That would be about 12 gallons of liquids, in units easier for Americans to grasp. But even the less-harmful binary components are not packaged like gallons of milk in the grocery store; they are likely to be in sturdy metal cans, perhaps double-walled. The 100 kilograms would probably look like three or four gas cylinders, perhaps shorter and stouter. They would fit in a car, preferably a large SUV. Handling them requires glove boxes and remote-controlled equipment; it’s not something you teach guerrillas around the campfire.

Ignatius’s story is incoherent and filled with inferences that cannot be supported; the fact that military bases exist is in no way support for the whole of what he presents, which defies simple logic in places.

Cross-posted at The Agonist and Nuclear Diner.

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