Thursday, January 24, 2013

Bashar al-Ghul? The Real Scarecrow?

Is Bashar al-Assad really The Scarecrow?
A Levantine villain hell-bent on chaos releases a potent, airborne fear gas upon a metropolitan population with the intent of reducing citizens to deluded, hallucinating lunatics. Sounds like the fiendish plot of Ra's al-Ghul and his cohort Scarecrow from the movie Batman Begins, right?

But it also describes the very real activities of Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, who allegedly used a weaponized gas known as Agent 15 against his own people in that country’s ongoing civil war just before the December holidays.

In fact, it was reports of a Syrian chemical weapons program that vaulted the United States and European allies into intervention in this conflict, which had been underway for nearly two years. According to the United Nations (and an article by presidential advisor Richard Price in the magazine Foreign Affairs), this conflict had already claimed over 60,000 lives. So why is it that those deaths were not a factor, but the use of chemical weapons were?

Well, for one thing, the Chemical Weapons Convention is one of the most widely adhered-to international treaties. Even countries that routinely engage in torture adhere to the CWC. It represents the idea that war can be civilized, and 188 states around the globe support it. That’s 97.4% of The United Nations current 193 member states. Israel and Myanmar have signed, but not yet ratified it, and Angola, Egypt, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria are not party to it.

Another reason? Chemical weapons are cheap.

Dirty bombs are significantly less expensive to engineer than tactical nuclear weapons and the systems necessary to detonate them, and chemical and biological weapons are even cheaper than that. Just as box-cutters and commercial passenger planes became the dime-store face of modern terrorism, neuromuscular and neuroglandular aerosols like Agent 15 and the family of benzilate incapacitating agents have become modern examples of uncivilized warfare. Compared to the mustard gas used in World War I, or the Sarin used against the Kurds and American troops in Iraq, Agent 15 (classified as BZ, or Buzz, by NATO) is like a trip to Disneyland. Well, more like a trip to Knotts Berry Farm on a mixture of DMT and Ketamine. But compared with the ever-escalating military budgets of prosperous nations, what alternative does the third world have? And it’s not like countries like Syria invented this stuff. So who did, you ask? It was those pesky peaceniks, the Swiss.

Back in 1951, Swiss Pharmaceutical company Hoffman-La Roche was investigating anti-spasmodic drugs for gastro-intestinal discomfort when it accidentally developed 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate. By 1959, the United States military was testing it as a chemical weapon. It was weaponized for delivery in cluster bombs until stocks were destroyed in 1989. However, BZ and other acetylcholine blockers are easily synthesized in clandestine labs. It is odorless, slightly soluble in water, has a half-life of up to 4 weeks in moist air, and symptoms are often delayed for several hours after contact–making it an effective stealth weapon. As an aerosol it can be dispersed with 90% effectiveness and ingestion of a singe micrometer particle approximates 80% dosage, while inhalation of that same unit yields 50%. Under heat, it can be delivered percutaneously, or through the skin. After 24 hours, serum levels can still achieve up to 10% of intravenous administration. At least two compound chemicals in the BZ family tree, Atropine and Hyoscyamine, can cross the placenta and persist in small amounts in breast milk. Central Nervous System effects include stupor, confusion, and confabulation with concrete and panoramic illusions and hallucinations, and with regression to automatic "phantom" behaviors such as plucking and disrobing. As long as you don’t swallow your tongue, you’ll be fine.

3-Quinuclidinyl Benzilate
aka BZ or Agent 15
It sounds horrifying, but it’s technically not toxic. It’s classified as an incapacitating agent rather than a toxic chemical warfare agent. But, like its torture equivalent, waterboarding, it’s no picnic. If you’ve ever seen the movie Jacob’s Ladder, you’ve heard reference to BZ. In actuality, there is no known side effect that turns normal people into homicidal maniacs, but tweaking the formula could very well produce slightly different results. Just because the US stopped experimenting with it doesn’t mean anyone else has. Up that dosage from 1 microgram to 6.2 micrograms per kilogram of body mass and you will incapacitate 50% of the target population. Raise that concentration to 100mg, and you’ve got a 50% instance of death.

It’s not compassion that informs this western need to rid the world of chemical weapons so much as shame, however. It was the west –primarily the US and Germany, that engineered most of the biological and chemical weapons still in use. It must have been obvious to American military minds that inexpensive weapons would be the wave of the future, and therefore a great equalizer for the third world work force. Especially in the 1950s when the CIA was involved in clandestine activities in Central and South America, Southeast Asia and the Middle East on behalf of American business interests there. Insurgencies were business as usual even as they were kept out of the headlines, but the success of the suicide bombing campaigns in French Algeria were not lost on France’s Vietnam-allies, America.

The need to change the script became the primary goal of the propaganda machine: Bullets are ok and long-range missiles are fine, but cheap terror tactics are inhuman. “They’re blowing themselves up! They must be psychos!”

The hardline against chemical weapons only became a central goal at the UN after the American military had doused Vietnam in literally tons of Agent Orange and Napalm. That such tactics did little to discourage insurgents there helped cease their usage. And the push toward nuclear disarmament became possible only after it was clear that the US had achieved marked nuclear superiority over the Soviets.

So what became of all the chemical and biological weapons developed in the pre-CWC era? Destruction activities are monitored and verified by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is an independent organization based in The Hague, Netherlands. Unfortunately, records connected with the amounts and variety of these weaponized materials are incredibly difficult to come by. Most states don’t want to admit the extent of their experimentation for fear of appearing barbaric to the rest of the world.

AIDS is widely believed to have been the product of genetic weapons experimentation. Today the epidemic has claimed over 34 million victims. Small Pox, widely believed to have been wiped out in the late 1970s, was discovered in Chechen bio-terrorism lab records in the 1990s. The core of Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons program is believed to have come from those same Soviet labs. Red Mercury is also rumored to have disseminated into the hands of fundamentalist terror cells and other anonymous high-bidders after the division of the Russian Federation collapsed. The US even initiated a multi-billion dollar buy back program for Soviet nuclear materials to keep them out of the hands of terrorists. A similar program was considered for North Korea back in 2007.

In the weeks that followed the initial reports of Agent 15 usage in the Syrian civil war, the White House has backed off its allegation that chemical weapons were used. The pre-Christmas, pre-assistance line has changed post-inauguration, post involvement. "The reporting we have seen from media sources regarding alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria has not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told Yahoo News. This mere weeks after (now former) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement that Assad regime's "behavior is reprehensible; their actions against their own people have been tragic," she continued, "But there is no doubt that there's a line between even the horrors that they've already inflicted on the Syrian people and moving to what would be an internationally condemned step of utilizing their chemical weapons."

What is a good enough reason to deploy, when proven false, is seemingly never a good enough reason for recall. 400 US troops and missile batteries are still deployed at the Syria-Turkey border, and Bashar al-Assad remains in power in Syria.

Both Ra’s al-Ghul and Scarecrow remain at large in the pages of Batman.