There are many good opportunities to dissuade a country from using chemical weapons(CW). Generally speaking once a full blown war (civil or otherwise) is going on its starting to get a bit late. So while President Obama’s stern warning ” not to use chemical weapons or…. Or…. Or…. Well dammit we will do something and you will like it even less than the situation you are currently in” is welcome but a bit woolly. The reply he got said very clearly they wouldn’t use chemical weapons “on their own people”. A legal colleague of mine observed you could drive a juggernaut with an aircraft carrier in a side car through that political vagueness – you must bear in mind the assertions from Syria that most of this uprising is down to foreign terrorists. Nor can many governments get too precise for fear of being hypocritical – the famous ‘non-lethal’ issue that killed over a 100 people in the Moscow theatre siege and the continued use of CS, CR and other riot control agents (RCAs) for policing actions only is key here. The insistence by certain Western countries that they are allowed to use riot control agents on their own people means that we have the ridiculous situation where to use them on your own people rioting is fine, but to use them on someone else’s people is to cross a line. It’s like some warped international policy on spanking children, you can beat your own just not others.

I’d be highly surprised if RCAs haven’t been used in Syria. And they would perhaps provide something of a mask to limited CW use. Even rational states in their death throes can consider the unthinkable – our own Churchill had plans to contaminate beaches with CW in the event of invasion. Leaving aside the fact that we have taken an interestingly inconsistent view of supporting the Syrian uprising compared to Libya (have we run out of aviation fuel? Are they doing too well for it to be sporting to assist? Are the Syrian Army tanks less powerful than the Libyan ones we deemed ‘too much’ for the Libyan rebels to face?), we are increasingly leaving Assad with nowhere to go, isolating him and creating the conditions where a use of CW (or perhaps Biological) more and more likely. It pains me to say it but the Russian position isn’t entirely incorrect in saying that you have to force both sides to the negotiating table and not make it look from the start like your mind is already made up.  While we might consider that we have picked the morally right side (and wow have we shown ourselves to be epically bad at doing that in the past during revolutions) it really doesn’t help to make it look so obvious that Assad is totally screwed, we all hate him and a negotiation will just be about how we conduct a trial against him. Honestly, why would anyone agree to that?

In the meantime if you happen to be in or near Syria please be careful. If you can – don’t be there. If you must be there then try to have some kind of training or protective equipment to hand for escape purposes only. If the situation allows approach unknown areas, especially ones that have been shelled from upwind and uphill and look for signs of people dead from no obvious cause (no or little wounding). A good rule for any warzone – don’t touch things unless you really have to and where you can wear gloves! Finally try to keep hydrated and as healthy as possible so should any symptoms develop you can differentiate them from the (more likely) signs of dehydration, tiredness etc. This doesn’t constitute formal guidance as every situation is different – and you should seek formal advice if you possibly can from your Embassy, OPCW or formal public or private organisation with experience in these issues.

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