by Stephen Bryen***
[Editor’s Note: This article was prepared on March 8th, 2013. On March 19, 2013 the first reports on the use of chemical weapons is being reported in Syria. Here is the information from Debka, which echoes other filings: “Extensive preparations by Syrian army units for launching chemical weapons against rebel forces have been sighted in the northern town of Homs, Western intelligence agencies told DEBKAfile’s military sources Tuesday, March 19. Damascus paved the way for resorting to unconventional weaponry with an accusation run by the state news agency SANA Tuesday that Syrian rebels had fired a rocket containing chemical substances in the Khan al-Assad area of rural Aleppo, allegedly killing 15 people, mostly civilians. Rebels quickly denied the report and accused regime forces of ‘firing a chemical weapon on a long-range SCUD, after which 20 people died of asphyxia and poisoning.’ Neither of the accusations could immediately verified.” ]
According to reports coming out of the Middle East, the Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons has already been compromised and some of their supplies have fallen into rebel hands, including among the rebels the most radical al-Qaeda backed extremists. These extremists are said to operate in the Yarmouk valley area and in the Syrian side of the Golan Heights that borders Israel. The occasionally reliable Debka Report says that “the Islamist Martyrs of the Yarmouk, is now seen as tying in closely with the next plans of the Islamist militias of the Syrian rebel force, headed by Jabhat al-Nusra, which are to cement their grip on the Syrian Golan, eastern Syria and the Upper Euphrates, where the important towns of Deir Azor and Abu Kemal are situated.” This group is reported to have in hand Syrian chemical and biological agents.
Syria is known to have stocks of mustard gas, Tabun and Sarin, which are nerve gas, and according to some reports the even more lethal nerve agent called VX. Syria also is reported to have biological weapons. Syria has worked on: “anthrax, plague, tularemia, botulinium, smallpox, aflotoxin, cholera, ricin and camelpox, and has used Russian help in installing anthrax in missile warheads.”
Biological weapons of one sort or another have been used throughout history, everything from throwing infected animals over the walls of towns under siege, to fouling water, to the use of mycotoxins on innocent populations, as happened in Laos and Afghanistan. According to Global Security “Between 1974 and 1981, evidence suggested that the Soviet Union developed complex delivery systems for trichothecene mycotoxins including aircraft spray tanks, aircraft-launched rockets, bombs (exploding cylinder), canisters, a Soviet hand-held weapon (DH-10), and booby traps. Aircrafts used to deliver the toxin included L-19s, AN-2s, T-28s, T-41s, MiG-21s and Soviet MI-24 helicopters. Soviet client states also reportedly used these sophisticated delivery systems.” Given that both Syria and Iran are clients of Russia, and the fact that much of the weapons know-how came from Russia (although the manufacturing equipment was supplied mostly by Europe), the Syrians and, perhaps, the rebels also have mycotoxins.
The full extent of the damage that can be caused by the spread of biological agents was shown when a secret Soviet-era anthrax production facility in Sverdlovsk leaked a deadly gas on April 2. 1979. There are different versions of the story and a lot of official lies, but probably more than 600 people died and thousands of animals, mainly sheep, were killed as the poison cloud went downwind some 75 miles. We now know, based on exploitation of cadaver tissues** that were preserved and were analyzed in recent years, that the Soviet-made Anthrax was actually a “cocktail” of different Anthrax seed stocks, one of which, at least, came from the United States. It is why, after 9/11 when Anthrax showed up in attacks in the U.S. (in Florida, New York, New Jersey and Washington D.C.), the type was American and the belief was it came from Ft. Dietrich, where the Army has biological weapons labs. But, in fact, the Soviet-Russian Anthrax was made to look like it came from the U.S. by using American feedstock, and Saddam Hussein was getting the same feedstock from the same place, namely from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Nerve gas and mustard gas were used extensively by Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, especially in the fighting in the Al-Faw peninsula. Again these agents were “cocktails” –making self-defense very difficult.
The last major attack of nerve gas, mustard gas and probably some toxins, was against the Kurdish village of Halabja on March 16th, 1988. Around 3,500 villagers were killed outright, another 10,000 were casualties and there were many subsequent deaths, among them cancers, particularly colon cancer. The attack, carried out by the Iraqi Air Force and Army, ranks as the world’s most lethal use of chemical weapons and toxins. It also was an attack purely against a civilian population.
The problem with the spread of Syrian WMD in the form of its chemical and biological arsenal is that there is very little defense against them, and the only country that presently has a fighting chance to survive such an attack is Israel, because it has a chemical defense program.
In Israel there are a combination of defense strategies which include early warning, the use of “sealed rooms” during an attack, gas masks, Atropine injections and training and instruction on what to do ahead of an attack. Israel may also be providing antibiotics to deal with Anthrax.
Typically, Israeli preparations are based on relatively long range threats, primarily by missiles like the SCUD. This provides some warning time. The Israelis also have know how to clean up after an attack.
For Jordan and Lebanon there is no such program that amounts to a coherent and well organized effort to thwart any such attack through population defense. Ditto for Syria. So in case there is the use of these kinds of weapons, whether by the Syrian army, the rebels, or both, the victims will be largely in population centers, which could be devastated. The chance for more Halabjas is great.
As things now stand, there is no good answer to the coming war threat.****
** PCR analysis of tissue samples from the 1979 Sverdlovsk anthrax victims: The presence of multiple Bacillus anthracis strains in different victims in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States, February 3, 1998.
***I want to dedicate this article to my uncle, Lou Bryen, the brother of my grandfather Jacob Bryen. Lou Bryen, a private in the U.S. Army, was gassed in World War I on the western front, probably a victim of mustard gas and phosgene. He lived into his 70’s, but long suffered because of damage to his lungs. When I was a boy, Lou told me stories of the Great War. He remembered they were ordered to put gas masks on the mules, before they put their own gas masks on. Lou, a real American Patriot who came from Czarist Russia as an immigrant, followed orders.
****AN ADDED NOTE
In 2002 I wrote an article on Iraq’s chemical weapons called Iraq’s Threat. It was published by the National Review Online. It is reproduced below. The URL for the article is http://old.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-byren010302.shtml
What we know about their biological and chemical weapons.By Stephen Bryen. Mr. Bryen previously headed the Department of Defense’s technology-security program .
January 3, 2002 9:20 a.m.
|hen U.S. forces overpowered the Iraqi Army in the Gulf War in 1991 they found many valuable documents about Iraqi chemical and biological weapons. These captured documents, plus interviews with POWs, made it clear that Iraqi forces were well trained in the use of chemical agents such as Sarin, a nerve gas. But they had almost no guidance on how to handle or use biological weapons, although the documents support that such weapons were available.According to declassified Gulf War intelligence reports, Iraq had trained teams of chemical-weapons NCOs (non commissioned officers) on how to manage a chemical-warfare operation and how to decontaminate their own troops and equipment after their use against allied forces. But Iraqi Army NCOs were not given concrete guidance on biological-weapons use or safety precautions. Unlike U.S. troops in the Gulf, Iraqi troops were never vaccinated against biological agents like anthrax. Yet, had Iraq used its chemical weapons it may have found its own troops affected by biological agents which, no doubt, would have killed as many Iraqi soldiers as alliance forces.After being hit by Iraqi chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, Iran learned the dirty secret of Iraqi weapons: they tend to mix together various types of chemical agents with biological-warfare agents. An early choice was a Soviet-developed form of mycotoxins (sometimes called “yellow rain”). Mycotoxins were used by the Soviet Union in Laos against Hmong tribesmen and, later in Afghanistan. Intelligence sources believe there was considerable cooperation, particularly in the 1980s and perhaps since, between Iraq and Russia’s biological-warfare units. Some reports single out the Russian organization Biopreparat as being linked to Iraq.One of the “fingerprints” of Russian weapons is to mix many substances together. Adding mycotoxins to a chemical-weapons “cocktail” is a trademark of the Soviet/Russian-weapons program which Iraq copied. Iraq’s use of mycotoxins combined with chemical agents was confirmed by Belgian scientists working on behalf of the United Nations.While Iraqi soldiers did not know what was in their bombs, NCO war prisoners told allied interviewers that they feared that if they used such weapons many of them would die just from contamination. Indeed, the fact that the Iranians found it very hard to get rid of the persistent CBW agents used by Iraq against them is a harbinger of what we are now experiencing trying to clean up a relatively small anthrax attack.The truth is nobody knows how to use biological weapons, or even the best way to protect themselves from them.
Russia, the U.S., and Britain have worked on vaccines to protect soldiers exposed to biological agents. During the Gulf War over 150,000 American soldiers were inoculated against anthrax. In the U.S., with the failure to adequately decontaminate post offices, America’s homeland-defense agency has offered anthrax vaccine to U.S. Senate workers and U.S. Postal Service employees for post-anthrax exposure protection. It is not known if it really works — the offer is strictly an experiment and the vast majority of postal workers have turned down inoculation.
It is far from clear that anthrax inoculation works reliably, even to protect against initial infection. The success of the inoculation depends on the type of anthrax and how the anthrax was “engineered.” The anthrax manufactured in the Soviet Union, for instance, was no simple germ agent. The stuff that leaked into the air at Sverdlovsk in 1979 contained at least four, and perhaps five, different strains of anthrax mixed together (including the Ames strain, the strain that was used by terrorists in the United States). At least one of the Russians killed by the Sverdlovsk anthrax leak, probably an employee of the Soviet weapons lab there, had received anthrax vaccine before exposure.
Recently, the Russians have said they have made progress on new vaccines and have offered them to the United States to combat the anthrax attack.
Dr. Philip Brachman, a pioneer in anthrax research, told theLos Angeles Times that the anthrax spores found in the U.S. were so small that they could get in someone’s lungs and, perhaps years later, fester into the anthrax disease. U.S. Government officials concur with this assessment.
During the Gulf War there was concern about so-called “dusty agents.” Dusty agents are very fine types of chemical or biological dust that can penetrate protective clothing and gas masks. In the Gulf War U.S. intelligence was sure that Iraq had dusty chemical agents and may have had dusty biological agents.
Dusty agents remain a major problem, as the recent U.S. terrorist attacks make clear. The U.S. Army is searching for better gas-mask seals and improved protective clothing to protect troops against chem-bio attacks. (During the Gulf War troops were advised to put rain gear over their chem-bio protective suits to try and block dusty agents.)
Engineered anthrax in dusty form is an indiscriminate terror weapon. It has no sensible military use, and how it operates on a complex society is not well understood. When the Sverdlovsk leak occurred, the Soviet government ordered surface soil removed, buildings decontaminated on the outside as well as the inside, roads paved over, and dead bodies buried in coffins filled with caustic chemicals to kill remaining anthrax spores. That is how they dealt with a dusty agent.
Over the next few years the United States will be searching for ways to handle the anthrax threat, and threats from other biological weapons. But is that enough?
Countries that build biological weapons whose effects can’t be controlled or even predicted are engaged in global terrorism. That is one reason why the U.S. ended its offensive biological-warfare program years ago.
Countries with a demonstrated capability and willingness to use chem-bio weapons, and who continue to develop nastier forms of biological-terror weapons, are a potential threat to global survival. Iraq, from all the evidence available including recent defectors, is the world’s leading threat.