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Three Things: Russia and China Spying, Kavanope

[NB: Yes, it’s Rayne, not Marcy. Check the byline.]

Huge news earlier today related to spying. Really big. MASSIVE.

And a MASSIVE cover-up pawned off on the feeble-minded as a ‘complete investigation‘ into Dr. Ford’s and Deborah Ramirez’s accusations against Brett Kavanaugh.

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Bloomberg published an epic piece of investigative journalism this morning about China’s spying on U.S. businesses by way of tiny chips embedded in server motherboards. The photos in the story are just as important as the must-read story itself as they crystallize a challenge for U.S. intelligence and tech communities. Like this pic:

That tiny pale obelisk to the right of the penny represents one of the malicious chips found in affected Supermicro brand motherboards shipped to the U.S. market — nearly as small as the numbers in the date on the coin. Imagine looking for something this puny before a machine is turned on and begins to launch its operating system. Imagine trying to find it when it is sandwiched inside the board itself, embedded in the fiberglass on top of which components are cemented.

The chip could undermine encryption and passwords, making any system open to those who know about its presence. According to Bloomberg reporters  Jordan Robertson and Michael Riley, the chips found their way into motherboards used by Apple and Amazon.

Information security folks are scrambling right now because this report rocks their assumptions about the supply chain and their overall infosec worldview. Quite a few doubt this Bloomberg report, their skepticism heightened by the carefully worded denials offered by affected and relevant parties Apple, Amazon, Supermicro, and China. Apple provided an itemization of what it believed Bloomberg Businessweek got wrong along with its denial.

I’ll have more on this in a future post. Yes, indeedy.

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A cooperative, organized response by Britain, The Netherlands, U.S., and Canada today included the indictment of seven Russians by the U.S. for conspiracy, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and conspiracy to launder money. The Russians have been identified as members of a GRU team organized out of a facility in Moscow, working on hacking and a disinformation influence campaign focused on anti-doping entities and non-Russian Olympic athletic competitors.

Note the underlined bit in this excerpt from the indictment (pdf) — the last indictment I copied with similar wording was that of Evgeny Buryakov and his two comrades, the three spies based in New York City who worked with “Male-1”, now known to be Carter Page. Who are the known and unknown? Persons who have flipped or co-conspirators yet to be named?

The UK released a statement as did the Canadians, and Netherlands issued a joint statement with the UK about the entirety of spying for which this GRU team is believed to be responsible, including an attempt to breach the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) facility analyzing the Novichok nerve agent used to poison the Skripals in the UK as well as chemicals used against Syrians.

Cryptocurrency news outlets report concerns that this indictment reveals the extent of USDOJ’s ability to trace cryptocurrency.

An interesting coincidence took place overnight as well — Russian Deputy Attorney General Saak Karapetyan died last night when an unauthorized helicopter flight crashed northeast of Moscow. Karapetyan had been linked this past January to Natalia Veselnitskaya and an attempt to recruit Switzerland’s top investigator as double-agents. But Karapetyan had also been involved in Russia’s response to the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the aftermath of the Skripals’ poisoning in the UK.

What remarkable timing.

One might wonder if this accident had anything to do with the unusual release of GRU personnel details by the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) and the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice during their joint statement today.

By comparing the released identity documents, passports, automobile registrations and the address provided when cars were rented, the identities of a total 305 GRU agents may have been identified by bellingcat and The Insider including the four out of the seven men wanted by the U.S. for the anti-doping hackingas well as attempted breach of OPCW.

The identity of the four GRU agents accused of targeting the OPCW was cinched by a taxi receipt in one agent’s pocket from a location on the road next to the GRU’s facility in Russia. Four agents also had consecutive passport numbers.

What remarkably bad opsec.

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As for the impending vote on Brett Kavanaugh:

– Senator Heidi Heitkamp is voting her conscience — NO on Kavanaugh.
– Senator Joe Manchin is now the lone Dem holdout; he says he’s still listening but hasn’t seen anything incriminating from Kavanaugh’s adulthood. (Gee, I wonder why.)
– Senator Bob Menendez didn’t mince words. He said “It’s a bullshit investigation.” (He should know what a thorough investigation looks like).

And the beer-loving former Yale frat boy had an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal which pleads with us to lose all intelligence and believe that he is really very neutral. I am not even going to link to that POS which has re-enraged women all over the country.

GTFO.

Continue calling your senators to thank them for a NO vote on Kavanaugh so that they aren’t hearing right-wing demands alone. Congressional switchboard: (202) 224-3121

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This is an open thread. Sic ’em.

Iraq Crisis Puts US on Same Side With Assad, Iran Quds Force

As I pointed out two weeks ago, US foreign and military policy is now so muddled that the primary response to any ongoing crisis is to choose a side to arm without thought to the inevitable blowback that will come from trying to pick winners and losers in otherwise internal affairs of far-flung countries. As the meltdown of the US-trained Iraqi military accelerates, we now see a situation whose supreme irony would be hilarious if only so many lives were not senselessly caught in the crossfire. Two developments of that sort stand out today.

First is the news that Syrian aircraft have carried out a strike against ISIS targets inside Iraq. Because Iraq has been pleading with the US to carry out attacks of this sort, it appears that early reports first assumed that US drones had been involved:

Syrian government aircraft bombed Sunni militant targets inside Iraq on Tuesday, further broadening the Middle Eastern crisis a day after Israeli warplanes and rockets struck targets inside Syria.

Iraqi state media initially reported that the attacks near Iraq’s western border with Syria were carried out by U.S. drones, a claim that was quickly and forcefully denied by the Pentagon.

Think about that one for a minute. Last fall, the US was agonizing over how to find and arm only those groups fighting the Assad government in Syria that are “moderate” so that we didn’t arm the then fledgling ISIS group. But now, inside Iraq, state media is initially unable to distinguish an action taken by Assad from one taken by the US. That is, Assad, whom we are fighting inside Syria, is on our side inside Iraq.

The second development is a pairing of US interests with one we have been fighting for a much longer time. The New York Times brings us the latest on Iranian assistance to Iraq in its struggle against ISIS. The initial part of the report seems routine:

Iran is flying surveillance drones over Iraq from an airfield in Baghdad and is secretly supplying Iraq with tons of military equipment, supplies and other assistance, American officials said. Tehran has also deployed an intelligence unit there to intercept communications, the officials said.

The secret Iranian programs are part of a broader effort by Tehran to gather intelligence and help Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government in its struggle against Sunni militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

But when the Times drills down to detail on how the assistance is being delivered, we get into more strange times:

Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, has visited Iraq at least twice to help Iraqi military advisers plot strategy. And Iran has deployed about a dozen other Quds Force officers to advise Iraqi commanders, and help mobilize more than 2,000 Shiite militiamen from southern Iraq, American officials said.

Wait. Iran’s IGRC, and especially its Quds Force, is supposed to be still absolutely opposed to the US and even drops comments trying to disrupt the P5+1 negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program now and then. And yet, here they are, sending their head to Iraq to prop up al-Maliki as well as sending “about a dozen other Quds Force officers to advise Iraqi commanders”. Hmm. Advisers. That sounds familiar. Returning to the Washington Post story cited above: Read more

With Removal of Materials Under CW Agreement Nearly Complete, Concern in Syria Over Chlorine Use

Yesterday, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons noted another delivery of materials by Syria under the agreement calling for Syrian chemical weapons-related materials to be destroyed. Tuesday’s delivery took the current totals to 86.5% of all materials to be removed and 88.7% of the Priority 1, or most dangerous, chemicals. That leaves only “two or three” more deliveries to complete removal of all of the materials that Syria declared under the agreement and appears to have Syria on track to meet the current goal of all materials being removed later this month and destroyed by the end of June.

But, because this is Syria, significant controversy continues to swirl. The latest issue centers on the  likely use of chlorine gas. That chlorine has been used seems fairly certain, but each side in the conflict accuses the other of being the perpetrator. It should be noted from the outset that chlorine is a widely used material with many peaceful uses and is not covered by the agreement under which Syria gave up its chemical weapons. It was used by Germany in WWI, but more effective chemical agents have since taken its place.

One central question on whether it is Assad’s forces who used the chlorine hinges on whether it can be shown that the gas was released from helicopters or airplanes, since the rebel forces have no air capabilities. Numerous news outlets quote anonymous US officials suggesting that chlorine has been delivered by aircraft, but no proof has been offered (nor has Syria provided proof that the rebels are responsible for the chlorine).

Today’s New York Times article is typical of the anonymous accusations against Syria:

Nearly 90 percent of the chemicals in Syria’s arsenal have now been exported and only a few shipments remain, international monitors reported Tuesday, but the progress was overshadowed by growing concerns that the Syrian military may be dropping bombs filled with chlorine, a common industrial compound not on the list of prohibited poisons.

Disarmament experts said that if the unconfirmed reports that Syrian warplanes and helicopters have been using chlorine-filled bombs in the civil war were true, that would be a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty signed by Syria last year and could constitute a war crime.

But CNN went much further in the accusations against Syria on Monday:

The Obama administration and its allies believe the Syrian government may have used chlorine gas in a deadly attack this month on its own people, several U.S. officials and other diplomats told CNN.

The alleged assault that killed at least two and affected dozens of others occurred in the village of Kafr Zeita, a rebel-held area.

While there is no firm proof as the matter is being looked into, several U.S. officials and Western diplomats say the United States believes the regime of Bashar al-Assad is responsible because it has such chemicals and the means to deliver them.

“Our assessment is it is, at a minimum, concentrated chlorine dropped from helicopters,” a U.S. official said. “That could only be the regime.”

The official did not speak for full attribution.

As usual for accusations in Syria, attention is turning to video posted to YouTube. Today, one focus is on a chlorine canister attached to a detonator. The chlorine canister appears to have come from China: Read more

With Over Half of Chemical Weapons-Related Stockpile Removed, Russia Says Syrian CW Potential Near Zero

Yesterday, in describing how Russia has played the US media regarding “threats” to the P5+1 negotiations on Iran’s nuclear technology, I mentioned that continued progress on Syria’s removal of its chemical weapons-related materials was further evidence that Russia intends to cooperate on the Iranian and Syrian nonproliferation issues separately from disputes over the Crimea annexation. Today, with news out that removal of the CW-related materials from Syria has crossed the 50% level, Russia has praised that accomplishment while pointing out that Syria now has virtually no capability of using chemical arms. Oh, and if we need any further confirmation that Russia is ready for the recriminations over Crimea to end, Putin himself has now said that there is no further need for retaliation against US sanctions (although I’m guessing that Dana Rohrabacher is in mourning that he wasn’t included in the list of ten US figures sanctioned by Russia since he even played dress-up and “fought” against the Soviets in Afghanistan).

A press release put out by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons yesterday put the removal of materials from Syria at just under 50%:

The OPCW-UN Joint Mission has verified the delivery of another consignment of Priority 1 chemicals today to Latakia and their removal from the port on a cargo ship, raising the amount of Syrian chemicals that are now out of the country to nearly half of the total stockpile.

The confirmation came on the heels of an announcement late yesterday by the Joint Mission of two other consignments of chemicals that were delivered to Latakia and removed during the past week. A total of 11 consignments of chemicals have now been transported out of Syria for destruction outside the country. The updated cumulative figures are as follow:

Priority 1 chemicals removed:             34.8 %*
Priority 2 chemicals removed:             82.6 %
Total chemicals removed:                   49.3 %

/snip/

* Includes all sulfur mustard, the only unitary chemical warfare agent in Syria’s arsenal

But the UN has slightly different figures, putting the removal over 50%:

More than half of Syria’s declared chemical weapons arsenal has been shipped out or destroyed within the country, the head of the international team overseeing the disarmament process said on Thursday.

Sigrid Kaag, head of the joint mission of the United Nations and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said 54 percent of the toxins had been removed or eliminated.

The process, which President Bashar al-Assad’s government agreed to after a chemical attack killed hundreds of people around Damascus last year, is months behind schedule but Kaag said the new momentum “would allow for timely completion”.

“The joint mission welcomes the momentum attained and encourages the Syrian Arab Republic to sustain the current pace,” Kaag said in a statement.

Russia welcomed this news and added that Syria now has almost no capability of carrying out an attack with chemical weapons:

The Syrian government has reduced its chemical weapons potential close to zero, state-run RIA news agency quoted an unnamed official at the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying on Friday.

“Chemical weapons production facilities, equipment for mixing (chemicals) and operating (the weapons), as well as the means of their delivery have been destroyed,” the official said, adding that the only gas that had been ready for use in weaponry had been completely removed from the country.

“At the moment, Damascus has de facto reduced its military chemical weapons potential to almost zero.”

Sadly, those who relish a restart of the Cold War are unlikely to stop now, so we are left to wonder what Putin will do in response if the US (especially Congressional meddlers) takes further steps claimed to be in response to the annexation of Crimea. Putin’s statement today that he sees no need for further retaliation can be viewed as reining back in the “threat” delivered by Ryobkov after the P5+1 negotiations ended Wednesday. Further action by the US, though, could end Russian cooperation in both the P5+1 process and the Syrian CW situation, seriously hurting current nonproliferation efforts.

It is my hope that Cold War fans will restrict their threats against Russia to the realm of what would happen should Putin try to grab more territory beyond Crimea.

Syria On Track For Destruction of All Chemical Weapon Related Materials by July

Back at the end of January, I noted that Syria was being castigated for delays in removing its chemical weapon precursors when the US had not been blamed for delays in making the Cape Ray available for destruction of the chemicals to proceed. Although there were still slight delays after the Cape Ray appeared in the region, we are now seeing from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that the original deadline of all the chemicals being destroyed by the end of June can still be met. Even more encouraging, the pace of removal of chemicals from Syria has picked up significantly and now more than a third of the material will have been removed by the end of this week.

From a press release today by OPCW:

The Syrian Arab Republic has submitted to the OPCW a revised proposal that aims to complete the removal of all chemicals from Syria before the end of April 2014.

The OPCW-UN Joint Mission also verified that two more consignments of chemicals have left the port of Latakia, including a quantity of mustard gas – a Priority 1 chemical – which was previously reported last Wednesday. Another movement, a significant consignment of other Priority 1 chemicals, is scheduled to arrive in Latakia during this week, which will bring the total number of movements thus far to six.

The six movements represent more than 35% of all chemicals that must be removed from Syria for destruction, including 23% of Priority 1 chemicals and 63% of Priority 2 chemicals. In addition, the OPCW has verified that Syria has destroyed in situ more than 93% of its stock of isopropanol.

It would have been a bit more encouraging if all of the Priority 1 materials were removed first, since they present the biggest risk. It is not clear whether the shipment of a higher percentage of the Priority 2 material than Priority 1 was due to Syria withholding more dangerous material intentionally or if it was a result of logistics being dictated by where the materials were stored relative to where fighting in the ongoing civil war was taking place. In that regard, it is worth noting that Syria reported last week that there were two attempted attacks on convoys transporting the materials in late January. Although the Reuters report does not expressly state as much, we are left to assume that the attacks were unsuccessful since they were reported as merely being attempted. This same report also noted that two staging sites for the chemicals could not be accessed during the reporting period due to fighting in the area.

Returning to the OPCW press release from today, this bit at the end cannot be emphasized enough: Read more

Meanwhile, Back in Syria…

The last time I checked in on Syria, there was much consternation over the delays in getting Syria’s chemical weapons precursors sent to the staging area in Latakia so that they can be moved on to the next steps in the process that will eventually result in destruction of the chemicals at sea aboard the Cape Ray. I had noted that stories covering the delay had put all of the blame on Syria for not moving the chemicals (even though they were said already to be at “marshaling” spots) while ignoring that the US was over a month late in making the Cape Ray ready. There has now been a third batch of chemicals sent to Latakia by Syria, but the amount shipped represents a small fraction of the materials to be removed. Despite this, Syria still maintains that the the June deadline for full destruction of the materials will be met.

Going further back, recall that back in September, we were hearing about how wonderful General Salim Idriss is. We were told that he was a moderate (well, that is if we ignore the fellow from his forces who eat hearts of dead foes) and that he had a foolproof plan for maintaining control of arms we shipped to him. It turns out that Idriss wasn’t much of a leader after all. Idriss now has been removed:

The sudden replacement of the Free Syrian Army commander is the strongest sign yet that the rebel group is restructuring to address concerns of its Western backers that it fight both the regime and extremist opposition factions.

Gen. Salim Idriss, the public face of the FSA for the past 14 months, leaves ahead of an expected delivery of new and more sophisticated weapons from Gulf Arab states to rebels aligned with his group.

Complaints against Gen. Idriss have been mounting for some time. His critics said his forces were ineffective and he was too slow to deliver weapons to fighters.

It’s all about the weapons when it comes to “aid” for the Syrian rebels. And Idriss’ control of those weapons? How about this in The Guardian’s coverage of Idriss’ sacking:

The Islamic Front recently seized weapons warehouses from the FSA.

Gosh, I sure hope Idriss got the Islmaic Front to give him a handwritten receipt for those weapons.

But did you notice that bit in the quote above from the Wall Street Journal article, where we learn that Idriss’ removal comes “ahead of an expected delivery of new and more sophisticated weapons from Gulf Arab states”? Iran explains to us in a Fars News article that this really means the weapons will come from Saudi Arabia: Read more

Reuters Allows Anonymous “Diplomats” to Blame Syria for Delays Mostly US’ Fault

Yesterday, Reuters granted anonymity to “sources”, including two who are each identified as “a senior Western diplomat”, to blame Syria for delays in shipping its chemical weapons-related materials out of the country. Only when we get to the very last paragraph of the article, though, do we get to the fact that these chemicals are to be destroyed aboard the Cape Ray, a ship which the US has outfitted with equipment for destroying the chemicals at sea. The article does note that the Cape Ray is now in transit to the region, but it fails to note that even though the original plan was for the Cape Ray to begin its work by the end of December, the ship did not leave the US until January 27. Allowing for transit time to get to the region, it would appear that the US delay in supplying the Cape Ray can account for the bulk of the 6-8 weeks by which Syria is reported to be behind schedule.

The anonymous smears hit paydirt, prompting Laura Rozen to wonder whether the delay would force the US into taking “kinetic action”. Fortunately, Cheryl Rofer saw through the ruse immediately, calling out the reliance on anonymous diplomats and cautioning that the situation falls far short of anything requiring such a response.

Before getting to the accusations transcribed by Reuters, it is important to go back to what we knew in early December when the plan for destroying the chemicals at sea was first announced. In my post about that development, I had this quote from a BBC article:

It is believed that the chemicals, all but 30 tonnes of which take the form of precursors – two or more of which have to be mixed to create the lethal agents – have been gathered in several marshalling areas by the Syrian army and amount to more than 600 tonnes. The other 30 tonnes consist of mustard gas.

This is very important context that is entirely lacking in the Reuters article: by early December, we knew that Syria had already gathered the key materials into “marshalling areas” where they were being held prior to destruction. Also missing from the Reuters report is that back in early November, Syria completed destroying all of the equipment that can be used for mixing binary chemical weapon agents and loading them into shells for firing. Note, too, that only about 30 tons of the material is intact active chemical agent rather than materials that have to be mixed to produce the agents.

Reuters opens: Read more

US Will Destroy Syrian Chemical Weapon Precursors at Sea

After the debacle of floating prisons used for interrogation that included torture, the US now is set to embark on a more noble mission at sea. Hundreds of tons of precursors to chemical weapons being surrendered by Syria will now be destroyed at sea, in part because no nation would agree to being the site for destruction of the chemicals.

Sadly, part of the reasoning behind the refusal to house the destruction can be seen in today’s press coverage of the announcement of destruction at sea. Headlines at the Washington Post, BBC, Los Angeles Times and ABC (this is just a quick representative sample, there are many others) all contain some variation on “US to Destroy Syrian Chemical Weapons at Sea”. However, if we read further, we find this tidbit buried in the BBC story:

It is believed that the chemicals, all but 30 tonnes of which take the form of precursors – two or more of which have to be mixed to create the lethal agents – have been gathered in several marshalling areas by the Syrian army and amount to more than 600 tonnes. The other 30 tonnes consist of mustard gas.

The headlines would have us believe that it is intact nerve agents such as sarin that are being destroyed in this process. The reality is that by the numbers cited here by BBC, more than 95% of the material is precursor material where at least two different components must first be mixed together to produce the active nerve agent. Only the 30 tons of mustard gas included in the overall collection of over 600 tons of material requires no processing to be a recognized chemical weapon. It would seem likely that nations have bowed out of serving as sites for destruction of the material because their citizens believe, based on sloppy reporting in the press, that the material to be destroyed is 100% active nerve agent.

The original announcement that the US would destroy the precursors was made by OPCW on November 30:

In a statement to the OPCW Executive Council on Friday 29 November 2013, Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü announced that the United States has offered to contribute a destruction technology, full operational support and financing to neutralise Syria’s priority chemicals, which are to be removed from the country by 31 December.

The Director-General stated that the neutralisation operations will be conducted on a U.S. vessel at sea using hydrolysis. Currently a suitable naval vessel is undergoing modifications to support the operations and to accommodate verification activities by the OPCW.

Joby Warrick reports in his article in the Post that an unidentified country has stepped up to gather the materials from a Syrian port and hand them off to the US ship when it is ready: Read more

Clearest Indication Yet That Some Chemical Weapon Sites in Syria Are Under Rebel Control

One of the underlying assumptions for folks who joined the rush to claim that the UN report on the August 21 chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus proved the attack was carried out by Syrian government forces was that only government forces had access to the refined versions of chemical weapons that the Assad regime had amassed. That aspect of the story began to crumble quickly once the accidental diplomacy kicked in and it became clear that chemical weapons inspectors would need cooperation from both the Syrian government and rebel forces to gain access to all sites where chemical weapons are present. Today’s New York Times presents the clearest indication yet that it isn’t just access routes to chemical weapons sites that the rebels control, but that the rebels control some of the sites themselves:

A Western diplomat in the Arab world said that though the Syrian government was legally responsible for dismantling its chemical weapons under an international agreement, its opponents should also cooperate in the process, because several chemical weapons sites were close to confrontation lines or within rebel-held territory.

Somehow, though, the Times only discusses this very important piece of information in light of the need for rebels to grant access to the sites to the OPCW without noting that the rebels had direct access to chemical weapons (or their immediate precursors) previously belonging to the Syrian government. This admission by a “Western diplomat” completely invalidates the assumption that rebels had access only to crude, “home-made” versions of chemical weapons.

Today’s news fully underscores the need for a true ceasefire (as I have been shrilly pointing out for some time now):

“The international community also expects full cooperation from the opposition,” the diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a delicate issue. “However divided the opposition might be, it would look very bad if the government was seen to be cooperating fully, while inspections were held up because of problems with the opposition.”

The inspection team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the watchdog group in charge of implementing the agreement along with the United Nations, has not publicly cited any specific instance of opposition fighters’ impeding access to chemical weapons sites. As with agencies that deliver relief aid, the inspectors face a complicated and uncertain process that requires cease-fires with multiple parties among fluid lines of combat.

Clearly, a general ceasefire by all parties would be much better than the current, piecemeal arrangement where it appears that localized agreements are put into place for individual excursions by the inspectors.

Finally, it should also be noted that however the Obama administration got to the diplomatic route involving the OPCW, we got new details over the weekend on how the Bush administration orchestrated the removal of the previous head of OPCW because he wanted to send inspectors into Iraq in 2001-2002 to verify that Iraqi chemical weapons had been destroyed in the 1990’s:

More than a decade before the international agency that monitors chemical weapons won the Nobel Peace Prize, John R. Bolton marched into the office of its boss to inform him that he would be fired.

“He told me I had 24 hours to resign,” said José Bustani, who was director general of the agency, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague. “And if I didn’t I would have to face the consequences.”

/snip/

But Mr. Bustani and some senior officials, both in Brazil and the United States, say Washington acted because it believed that the organization under Mr. Bustani threatened to become an obstacle to the administration’s plans to invade Iraq. As justification, Washington was claiming that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, possessed chemical weapons, but Mr. Bustani said his own experts had told him that those weapons were destroyed in the 1990s, after the Persian Gulf war.

“Everybody knew there weren’t any,” he said. “An inspection would make it obvious there were no weapons to destroy. This would completely nullify the decision to invade.”

What a different place the world would be today if Bolton and his neocon buddies hadn’t held such sway during the George W. Bush presidency.

Syrian Government Off to Good Start With OPCW, But Why Is Peace Conference Six Weeks Away?

The Washington Post reports this morning that the Syrian government has been “businesslike and efficient” in its dealings with the OPCW and that things are on track for representatives from the OPCW to be inside Syria tomorrow to start working on the details of destroying Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile. Considering how rapidly the UN Security Council resolution passed unanimously on Friday evening was put together, though, it remains a mystery to me why the UN is waiting until mid-November for a peace conference to begin in Geneva.

The good news from OPCW:

Inspectors from the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said they would arrive in Damascus midday Tuesday and spend a week in the city before starting visits to chemical weapons facilities declared by the Syrian government. The OPCW officials said the details of the Syrian declaration appeared to line up with external intelligence assessments of what the government possesses, giving them optimism that the regime was being cooperative.

“It’s been good business so far,” said an OPCW official, speaking at a briefing for reporters under the condition of anonymity. “So far, our interactions with the Syrians have been very businesslike and efficient.”

The difficulties that the inspectors will face underline why I have been stating all along that a ceasefire is an important component of destroying the chemical weapons:

Another OPCW official said inspection teams may not even be able to reach every declared chemical weapons site because of security concerns. The inspectors will be working with unarmed U.N. security guards and under the protection of Syrian government forces, but significant portions of Syrian territory are not under the full control of Assad’s military.

“It may be that we are not in a position to go to some of these locations,” the official said. “We are not a military unit.”

It is difficult to tell from the phrasing here whether some of the sites where the inspection teams will work are under rebel control or whether the teams merely need to pass through rebel-held territory in order to reach sites still under government control. In either case, a ceasefire would make the work much more likely to be successful.

Even though it appears that the teams intend to destroy the equipment that Syria could use to do the final mixing of the two chemical precursors composing the bulk of Syria’s chemical weapons by November 1, much work will still be needed to destroy the chemicals themselves. Waiting until mid-November to start the peace conference seems a poor choice to me:

The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday urged the National Coalition for the Syrian opposition forces to reach out to other groups and forge an agreement on a united delegation for an upcoming peace conference in Geneva. Reports suggest that the peace conference will be held in mid-November. Hectic parleys are on in New York, to firm up the exact date, which is expected to be finalised this week. Meanwhile, it was known that Iran may also participate in the peace talks.

In his meeting with Ahmad al-Jarba, president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, in New York on Saturday, the Secretary-General welcomed the opposition’s commitment to send a delegation to the upcoming peace conference.

Ban “urged the National Coalition to reach out to other opposition groups and agree on a representative and united delegation,” states the readout issued by the Secretary-General’s spokesperson.

If we break through all the noise about chemical weapons, the humanitarian crisis of the Syrian war is huge:

Since March 2011, the Syrian civil war has claimed over 100,000 lives. The civil war has displaced over 4 million people within Syria and sent more that 2 million people fleeing for safety to neighbouring countries.

Let’s hope that this peace conference is more successful than the last one:

A first Syria peace conference was held in Geneva in June 2012. The 2012 conference agreed that there should be a transitional government in Syria with full executive powers and called for a new conference to decide how to implement the accord.

The fact that Iran, a strong ally of the Assad government, is likely to take in part in this conference seems to bode well for it to make real progress on bringing hostilities to an end. I just wish the timing were more in concert with the planned actions on rounding up and disposing of the chemical weapon precursors.