The Challenge of Chemical Weapons: An American Perspective


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As the war in Syria continues, it remains as critical as ever to accept that chemical weapons have value for the aggressor, and to devise political means to compel states to trade away these dangerous weapons. American counter-insurgency doctrine emphasizes the need to isolate and defeat the insurgent actor, empower the population to support such operations, and gain legitimacy with the population. As a result, most states are forced to use unguided munitions instead. Many targets, if sufficiently protected, can weather most unguided attacks by sheltering in structures, tunnels, or fighting positions.

For example, it can take upwards of unguided mm artillery shells to destroy a moderately-sized structure. Those that land near the building will be unable to strike any of those sheltering inside unless many fragments have chipped away at the concrete wall. Though manifestly unpleasant , the majority of people seeking shelter are likely to survive.

Chemical Weapons and Warfare

Chemical weapons, however, can seep into these buildings with relative ease, as long as the shells land even reasonably close to the target. To effectively target these buried facilities, Assad has turned to chemical weapons, which often descend and concentrate in low-lying areas. The advantage is clear: The regime can ensure heavy casualties with a small amount of effort, either by incapacitating or killing combatants, or by terrorizing these groups and the civilians who live alongside them.

These tactics are not unusual. In , the Iraqi government used chemical weapons to kill civilians hiding in basements in Halabja. Indeed, the Iraqi army was quite transparent that this was their intent. Then you and your family will die. You must leave right now. Chemical munitions are also relatively cheap to produce. Unlike expensive precision-guided munitions and the advanced command, control, communications, and intelligence systems needed to use them , even smaller and less advanced states can field chemical weapons programs relatively cheaply.

The chemical warfare program has been a relatively cheap investment for Iraq.

Is It Too Late to Determine Which Chemical Weapons Were Used in Syria? - Scientific American

Conspiracy theorists are fond of asserting that Assad would never use chemical weapons because this would be provoking Western military reprisals. This argument underestimates both the value of chemical weapons to the Assad regime and the serious constraints on Western action in Syria.

The regime presumably weighs the expected cost of retaliatory strikes against the clear military benefit of chemical weapons use. The United States, for its part, has to balance the desire to punish the regime for violating its commitment not to use chemical weapons with other factors, like protecting American troops in northeast Syria and limiting the risk of unintended escalation with Russia. The United States and its allies have signaled that they do not want to risk such escalation over the war in Syria. Thus, Assad can count on the presence of Russian forces in Syria to act as a deterrent against strikes that could threaten regime stability.

He can reasonably assume that American military action has to be refined to try and prevent unintended escalation, and will therefore be relatively small in scale. In addition, Assad has almost certainly dispersed chemical weapons storage facilities and production centers to ensure that they cannot be destroyed from the air.

Assad can assume that Russian diplomatic and military support — combined with American hesitance to topple his regime — will protect him from regime-threatening external intervention. In many ways, our popular imagination views chemical weapons as magical McGuffins to be pursued by Bond villains, two-dimensional terrorists, and commandos, not as actual battlefield weapons that help state actors defeat insurgents.

They are less military history and more Michael Bay.

The battle is what people consider counts as proof. What kind of testing is done to find out what chemicals were used in the attack? Is it all done on-site? The team that goes in can either do on-site testing or they can take it to one of 20 facilities outside the country that are certified to conduct off-site testing. One of the benefits of off-site testing is that the devices there are usually more advanced.

Usually they do a combination of both. So in this case you take a sample and split it into eight [parts], which are then sealed to prevent contamination. Two of the eight [parts] are analyzed on-site. One goes to the inspector state party, and one is sent to be analyzed off-site.


  • Tantra;
  • Forestry and Climate Change (2007)(en)(256s)?
  • Introduction to Polymer Spectroscopy.

Each sample is weighed and reweighed before and after shipment to ensure no tampering takes place. The samples then go through gas chromatography—mass spectrometry GC—MS analysis, which breaks down the sample into its various chemicals. Then they identify them by comparing what they have with a database of more than 2, chemicals. The gas chromatography GC component separates the chemical mixture into pure chemicals based on the ease with which they evaporate; the mass spectrometer MS identifies and quantifies the chemicals based on their structures.

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If it was sarin, they have 29 weeks to detect the degradation components. What happens is it goes into the soil. If there were bursts of sarin in the area say, nearby a crater, the bottom of that crater would be a great place to find sarin remnants. With such a large number of people killed in this attack, there is evidence that large amounts of the chemical—if it was sarin—was used.

I expect it lingered in certain areas.

An American Perspective

The main one is IMPA, or isopropylmethylphosphonic acid. Some experts have said it looks like a combination of the nerve agents sarin, used in two terrorist attacks in Japan in the s, and VX, which some suspect was used in the Iran—Iraq War in — Is that possible?

Do you agree? What we do know is that VX can be up to times more toxic than sarin. If VX were both of those things, that would be a game changer.

United States

Take Libya, for example. They had a chemical weapons program. The first thing they made in high quantities was mustard gas, which is poisonous and lethal, but is not terribly difficult to make. Then they tried nerve agents. That was just a bridge too far for them. One of the things that made it so difficult was that the U. In the end they abandoned the effort and chose to rely on their nuclear program. Syria and Israel are among the only countries not to have signed or ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Syria signed but never ratified and Israel never signed , which required signatories to stop bioweapons work and destroy existing stockpiles.

The Challenge of Chemical Weapons: An American Perspective The Challenge of Chemical Weapons: An American Perspective
The Challenge of Chemical Weapons: An American Perspective The Challenge of Chemical Weapons: An American Perspective
The Challenge of Chemical Weapons: An American Perspective The Challenge of Chemical Weapons: An American Perspective
The Challenge of Chemical Weapons: An American Perspective The Challenge of Chemical Weapons: An American Perspective
The Challenge of Chemical Weapons: An American Perspective The Challenge of Chemical Weapons: An American Perspective
The Challenge of Chemical Weapons: An American Perspective The Challenge of Chemical Weapons: An American Perspective

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