Expert warns of collateral damage to civilians, ecology

Updated - June 02, 2016 08:07 am IST

Published - August 31, 2013 12:45 am IST - London:

Though the David Cameron government received a sharp rejection of its Syria policy in the House of Commons on Thursday, the military intervention option in the mid- to long-term is still not closed. The pending report of U.N. forensic inspectors who are visiting the sites of the chemical weapons attack on August 21 in Syria will be decisive in shaping the U.K. government’s course of action. If the report indicates that the Bashar al-Assad regime was behind the attack, the government will have the necessary ammunition to raise the issue again, and perhaps even go back to the House of Commons for a crucial second vote on intervention.

According to Richard Guthrie, a leading chemical and biological warfare specialist and Coordinating Editor of CBW Events, the mandate of the U.N. team is to establish evidence of the use of chemical weapons, determine the precise chemicals and quantities used, and establish how they were manufactured.

“The mandate is on the same lines as that given to the U.N. team that inspected the evidence of chemical weapons used by Iraq against Iran in 1984,” Mr. Guthrie told The Hindu . “At that time, the inspectors were not given the mandate to attribute, but they did so in the follow-up report in 1986,” he said, citing a U.N. document in which the then Secretary-General quotes the specialist U.N. team as naming Iraq as the perpetrator of the attacks.

Are the U.N. inspectors in Syria likely to find evidence of who was behind the attack?

Mr. Guthrie said the U.N. team would examine “the damages to civilian targets, and determine the types of weapons used.” For clues on the authorship of the attack, he said the “key thing would be the position of the ammunitions, the devices used to distribute it, and their direction of travel.”

Not incontrovertible

“For example, from how these munitions are positioned, an estimate may be given of the range and direction from which they travelled,” he said. However, this sort of evidence is not incontrovertible and “not beyond reasonable doubt, which means you cannot use it in a court of law.” The ground situation in Syria made it difficult to attribute. “Even if the evidence indicated that these weapons may have been fired from Syrian army lines, it doesn’t mean that they were fired on the orders of the Syrian regime” he said.

A second point of heated debate in the House of Commons was the government’s assurance that intervention would take the form of a “precision strike” that is “proportionate and limited”. What does taking out a chemical weapons stockpile involve? What would be the collateral damage to civilians and the environment?

Other consequences

“If it were that easy,” Mr. Guthrie said, “the United States, Russia, and even India [which dismantled its chemical weapons capability in 2009], would not be spending so much money on dismantling their programmes.” According to him, Russia’s chemical weapons destruction programme from 2009 to 2011 cost that country $4.7 billion. Besides, there could be many unpredictable outcomes of a “precision” strike on a chemical facility. “The explosions produce energy that releases heat and hot air rises. Winds can carry toxic substances for hundreds of 100 miles,” he said.

A productive intervention in Syria by the U.K., Mr Guthrie argues, would lie in offering whatever authority emerges after the war the expertise to dismantle chemical weapons facilities.

He feels that such an offer should be made now. “A political authority that emerges from this conflict will be governing a very poor country and will need to spend substantial sums in reconstruction. With so many demands on its limited funds, would that authority be able to dismantle its chemical weapon facilities? That is why we should make these offers now.”

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