Tag Archives: nonproliferation

Syria’s Chemical Weapons Trace Back to Russia

Chemical weapons expert Amy Smithson’s phone started ringing on the morning of August 21, 2013, right after rockets containing nerve gas rained down on a suburb of Damascus killing hundreds of civilians. Her telephone hasn’t stopped ringing, or as she told a gathering at Middlebury College on November 6 in the Robert A. Jones ’59 House: “Since August the 21st my life has been Syria, Syria, Syria.”

Smithson_0196_cropOver the past few weeks the senior fellow in the Washington office of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) has been on National Public Radio and Fox News, and has been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Slate, Yahoo! News, Time Magazine, and other print, Web, television, and radio outlets.

That’s because Smithson’s primary area of research is chemical and biological weapons proliferation and threat-reduction mechanisms, and she has more than 20 years’ experience in the field. Prior to her appointment in 2007 to the CNS, which is a division of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Smithson was an analyst for two public-policy institutes: the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Henry L. Stimson Center.

A political scientist with a Ph.D. from George Washington University, Smithson gave her audience of about 75 college students, faculty, staff, and townspeople a class in how chemical weapons are produced, which countries helped Syria obtain them, where they are stored, how they are deployed, and how inspectors are doing in locating the weapons and, ultimately, in destroying them.

Smithson spoke for 50 minutes, took questions for nearly half an hour, and met with students later over dinner. During her talk she cautioned that the disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons program “is an adventure that’s just beginning,” and she pulled no punches in her indictment of Bashir al-Assad in the attack of August 21.

The video footage released hours after the attack (which indicated to Smithson the gas was most likely an organophosphate, or nerve gas), the timing of the attack (early morning, when most people were at home), and the weather conditions at that hour (cool temperatures and little wind, which are optimal for poison-gas saturation) pointed toward a well-planned event and debunked Assad’s claim that it was the rebels who had deployed the poison gas.

“The quantity of agent involved and the delivery systems used confirmed my initial suspicions,” she added, and then when the United Nations secretary general’s report of September 16 was released “it was the equivalent of the gun, the fingerprint, and the bullet that pointed completely at the Assad government.”

Smithson_0200“At that time the rebels didn’t have much rocket capability — maybe some do-it-yourself bombs — or this quantity of chemicals, and they certainly weren’t coordinated enough to pull off an orchestrated attack like this at so many different locations. [So] the idea that the rebels would attack their own people home in bed doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Other facts contained in the secretary general’s report — including the results of blood tests from the victims and the likely point of origin of the rockets — put the responsibility for the attack squarely in the lap of the Assad government, Smithson said. The report “also gave us a smoking gun leading back to Moscow,” as she displayed a photograph showing remnants of one of the rockets used in the August 21 attack. “That’s Cyrillic writing on one of the delivery systems, and I think we are going to see more of this in the days ahead.” (Earlier in the lecture the CNS senior fellow said the Syrian government in the 1970s and 1980s obtained poison gas from the Soviet Union and other countries.)

Finding Cyrillic on the rockets used in the attack “was one of the hallmark events in this series of very rapidly moving developments,” Smithson said, and she commended the chemical-weapons inspectors for moving so quickly. “I have been working on the prevention of chemical weapons since the early 1990s, and I have never seen anything move this fast. The Chemical Weapons Convention [of the OPCW, or Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] took 24 years to negotiate. This is a world where things move slowly, but not in this particular set of circumstances.”

The guest speaker gave her rapt audience a brief analysis of Syria’s chemical sites and facilities, including eight mobile mixing and filling units which, to Smithson, are a clear demonstration of Assad’s “seriousness to wage war.” She discussed the quantity of chemicals found, the number of production facilities that have been destroyed to date, the difficulty of neutralizing the chemicals, and the likelihood that Syria has declared only those sites and facilities that the West thinks it has — all of which served to buttress the title of her talk: “Chemical Weapons In Syria: The Bumpy Road to Elimination.”

The conventional wisdom is that Assad may end up as a defendant at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for waging chemical warfare on his own people, Smithson added. He is following the “bad-guy playbook” of Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gaddafi, and Hafez al-Assad, his father.

She concluded with a rationale for Vladimir Putin’s active role in coaxing Syria to give up its arsenal of chemical weapons. “Moscow has something pretty serious to be embarrassed about,” she said, for having handed over to Syria the means of producing and delivering chemical weapons in the first place. “Moscow’s hands are dirty here and I think that’s part of Russia’s motivation to push Syria” to destroy its chemical weapons.

Smithson’s lecture at Middlebury was sponsored by the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs, the Center for Careers and Internships, the M-Squared program committee, the political science department, and the Middle East studies program.

A slide from Smithson's presentation showing the complexity of destroying chemical weapons

Smithson’s slide explaining the hydrolysis system of destroying chemical weapons. Click to enlarge.

Nuclear or Not

At a time when nuclear issues are both topical and highly debated in our daily news, Middlebury was fortunate enough to host two days of lectures and discussions by three experts in the field—who also happen to be our colleagues from Monterey Institute of International Studies. On March 21, Bill Potter and Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, who together co-edited the 2010 book Forecasting Nuclear Proliferation in the 21st Century, spoke to a crowded room in Robert A. Jones ’59 House. Potter, the director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at Monterey Institute, and Mukhatzhanova, his research associate, discussed 12 nations that might develop nuclear weaponry over the coming decade.

Iran topped their list of Middle East countries that could “go nuclear” along with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey. Serbia and Ukraine are potential builders of nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe, as well as the Pacific Rim’s Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. South Africa is also a candidate.

Despite the long list, Potter did not paint the overly gloomy picture posed by “most political figures, scholars, and media pundits who, regardless of their political orientation, are too quick to depict the future of nuclear proliferation as exceptionally bleak,” he said. Potter and Mukhatzhanova have found no basis that an arms race exists among the nations they considered, and they both agreed that “if one nation should decide to disavow its nonproliferation commitments, there is little reason to expect an epidemic.”

Following the talk, the pair conducted a “career conversation” with a group of undergraduates interested in internship opportunities with CNS and the new Master of Arts in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at Monterey Institute.

Learn more from Avner Cohen about his recent book and his experiences while researching nuclear weapons in Israel.

The next afternoon, a similarly engaged crowd listened intently to Avner Cohen, a senior fellow at the Washington office of CNS and author of the recent book, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb. Cohen spoke particularly of Israel’s position on its possession of the nuclear bomb, which is known as amimut—a Hebrew word used to describe an intended policy of ambiguity. “For decades, Israel has adopted a stance of opacity or opaqueness regarding the bomb,” said Cohen. “We all know it’s there, but no one talks about it.” Until now.

Cohen has been at the forefront of opening the dialogue about Israel and its nuclear capabilities. “My book is an effort to understand how this denial, this amimut came to be,” explained Cohen. “Not only from a political perspective, but also from a cultural and psychological standpoint.” It is a daring and thoughtful approach, one that begins in the late ’60s and follows with commentary on the outdatedness of Israel’s current stance. “The time has come to explore whether this policy of opacity makes sense. It is overdue for change,” Cohen said emphatically. “As nuclear issues become a more worldwide issue, Israel needs to bring the conversation out of the basement,” he said, referring to the highly censored and somewhat clandestine approach to any open discourse on nuclear arms.

After his talk, when asked by an audience member if Israel is more secure because of its nuclear weapons, Cohen paused thoughtfully before answering. “Perhaps, at this specific point in time,” he said finally, then added, “But time’s are changing.”