How to Determine Whether Chemical Weapons Were Used in Syria

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Marco Werman: Iran's next president will surely spend a lot of his time responding to events in neighboring Syria. Iran's been supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against opposition rebels in Syria, and recently the Assad regime appears to have regained the upper hand in that war. But the momentum could be about to shift again now that President Obama has reportedly decided to send weapons to the rebels. That news followed the declaration from the White House yesterday that U.S. Intelligence now believes with a high degree of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against the rebels. There are still some questions though, about the evidence behind that statement. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a former commanding officer at the U.K.'s joint chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear regiment. He's now CEO of SecureBio, consultants in bio and chemical weapons. So you know the evidence pretty well. You worked with the BBC to assess the evidence for chemical weapons deployment in Syria. Weigh out the evidence now. What did you see in your own assessment earlier this year that scans or doesn't scan with the news from the White House yesterday?

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon: Well, I think it's all interrelated, and I think when you put all the evidence together that we've seen over the last six months and what we saw with the BBC in May, it's quite compelling. And I think some of the evidence we saw in Saraqib and also in Shake Almusadin[sp?], Aleppo is very similar and probably the same evidence which the U.S. administration have come out and unequivocally saying they believe sarin, or chemical weapons have been used, I think up to eight times, against opposition forces in Syria.

Werman: Right, so can you just explain what has changed since you helped with your assessment with the BBC. I mean, what new evidence do you think flipped the switch?

Bretton-Gordon: Well, first of all these samples have not been collected with the full forensic chain in mind so one isolated sample would not be good. But now that we've seen up to eight, the detail chemistry required in laboratories in the U.S., and the U.K., and France, actually takes a bit of time. These are very tiny trace elements of sarin.

Werman: And talk about the samples. What kind of samples are you referring to?

Bretton-Gordon: Well certainly the ones I've seen have been soil samples and masonry collected from the likes of Aleppo and Saraqib and Damascus. I think there have also been some clothing samples. And it's also been widely reported that blood and hair samples have been taken off refugees and people that have escaped from those areas. And presumably U.K. and U.S. government sources have been able to pin those people to the place and event, and that sort of time.

Werman: I mean, Israeli intelligence as well as France and other countries sounded certain beyond a shadow of a doubt weeks ago that Assad had used chemical weapons. Why has it been so difficult to establish certainty in this case? Is it the evidence or the politics?

Bretton-Gordon: I'm sure it's a bit of both. And of course, you know, people like myself who fought in the last Gulf War on some very spurious evidence of WMD usage understand the reticence of President Obama coming forward to unequivocally say that chemical weapons have been used. So, it's both the politics and the evidence itself.

Werman: I mean, given that this news has now pushed the U.S. into openly arming the rebels, why do you think Assad used these weapons in the first place? He must have known that this would have been one of the consequences.

Bretton-Gordon: In my discussions when I was with the BBC in the region with some of the opposition it was very clear that the threat of chemical weapon usage was hampering their campaign against the regime because they have no protective equipment or any way of monitoring chemical weapon usage. So in effect the regime were conducting a ruse of war. I think the regime probably believed by a very limited use that it would not cross that line. I think they also knew it was going to be hugely challenging for the international community to get forensic samples to lead to yesterday's announcement.

Werman: Chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon.