The chemical realities of Russia’s Idlib attack claims

#SyriaWar

The Russian claim that the Syrian air force bombed a rebel Sarin factory that released the chemical is technically highly unlikely

Dan Kaszeta's picture
Thursday 6 April 2017 11:31 UTC
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In response to allegations of a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday, the Russian Ministry of Defence made a statement in which it claimed that a warehouse containing chemical agents was hit in the same town as the attacks occurred. As RT reported:

The Syrian Air Force has destroyed a warehouse in Idlib province where chemical weapons were being produced and stockpiled before being shipped to Iraq, Russia’s Defense Ministry spokesman said.

The strike, which was launched midday Tuesday, targeted a major rebel ammunition depot east of the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.

The warehouse was used to both produce and store shells containing toxic gas, Konashenkov said. The shells were delivered to Iraq and repeatedly used there, he added, pointing out that both Iraq and international organisations have confirmed the use of such weapons by militants.

As the source of the chemical exposure seen on 4 Aprilfrom a technical chemical weapons perspective it seems unlikely that the Russian “warehouse/depot” narrative is plausible. 

To date, all of the nerve agents used in the Syrian conflict have been binary chemical warfare agents, so-named because they are mixed from several different components within a few days of use.

For example, binary Sarin is made by combining isopropyl alcohol with methylphosphonyl difluoride, usually with some kind of additive to deal with the residual acid produced. The nerve agent Soman can also be produced through a binary process. The nerve agent VX has a similar binary process, although it has proved to be a more complicated process than merely mixing the materials.

If the Syrian regime actually did believe that the warehouse stored chemical warfare agents, then striking it deliberately was an act of chemical warfare by proxy

There are several reasons why the Assad regime would use binary nerve agents. Binary nerve agents were developed by the US military in order to improve safety of storage and handling, so that the logistical chain would not have to actually handle nerve agents. The US had developed some weapon systems that mixed the materials in flight after firing. These particular weapon systems were the M687 155mm binary Sarin artillery shell, the XM736 eight-inch binary VX artillery shell, and the Bigeye binary VX air-dropped bomb.  

All were the product of lengthy research and development efforts, and none of them worked terribly well in practice, particulary the VX weapons. There is no evidence that the Assad regime has ever made or fielded “mix-in-flight” binary weapons. Inspections by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) after Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 revealed a variety of fixed and mobile mixing apparatus for making binary nerve agents.

Shelf-life problems

The other key reason for binary Sarin is that only a few countries really ever cracked the technology for making “unitary” Sarin that had any kind of useful shelf-life. The main chemical reaction that produces Sarin creates one molecule of hydrogen fluoride (HF), a potent and dangerous acid, for every molecule of Sarin. This residual HF destroys nearly anything the Sarin is stored in, and quickly degrades the Sarin.  

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The US and USSR had devoted a huge effort to finding a way out of this problem. They found different ways to refine the HF out of the Sarin using very expensive heavy chemical engineering techniques which, for obvious reasons, are best not described here.

Syria either did not develop such techniques or decided it was far cheaper, safer and easier to stockpile binary components for a “mix it as you need it” process. Hence, the “mobile mixing equipment” found by the OPCW. Similarly, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had huge problems with the short shelf life of its Sarin.

Even assuming that large quantities of both Sarin precursors were located in the same part of the same warehouse (a practice that seems odd), an air strike is not going to cause the production of large quantities of Sarin.

Even assuming that large quantities of both Sarin precursors were located in the same part of the same warehouse, an air strike is not going to cause the production of large quantities of Sarin

Dropping a bomb on the binary components does not actually provide the correct mechanism for making the nerve agent. It is an infantile argument. One of the precursors is isopropyl alcohol. It would go up in a ball of flame - a very large one which has not been in evidence.

Another issue is that, if the Syrian regime actually did believe that the warehouse stored chemical warfare agents, then striking it deliberately was an act of chemical warfare by proxy.

Finally, we are back to the issue of industrial capacity. It takes about 9kg of difficult-to-obtain precursor materials to generate the necessary steps to produce Sarin. The ratio is similar with other nerve agents. Having a quantity of any of the nerve agents relies on a sophisticated supply chain of exotic precursors and an industrial base.

Are we to seriously believe that one of the rebel factions has expended the vast sums of money and developed this industrial base, somehow not noticed to date and not molested by attack? It seems an unlikely chain of events.

This piece originally ran on Bellingcat

- Dan Kaszeta is the managing director of Strongpoint Security Ltd, and lives and works in London, UK. He has 24 years experience in CBRN response, security, and anti-terrorism.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A photo from Khan Sheikhoun after Tuesday's attack (MEE/Muhammad Aldogem)