The Salisbury Attack

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The March 4, 2018 attack on Sergie Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter, Yulia, has resulted in an escalation of tension between London and Moscow and, as a result, an equally intensive diplomatic offensive.

UK’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, stated that it was “highly likely” that Russia was involved in this attack and that the military grade nerve agent used was a type that was developed in Russia.

The identity of the nerve agent used was verified by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) as Novichok. Novichok is an agent that was developed by the Sovietsin the 1970’s and 1980’s.  It is considered to be “5-8 times more lethal than VX.”  VX is the chemical that was used to assassinate Kim Jong-Nam – the half-brother of Kim Jong-Un – in Malaysia.  The OPCW executive summary further mentioned, “the toxic chemical was of high purity. The latter is concluded from the almost complete absence of impurities.”

Without naming the chemical the OPCW executive summary states: “The results of analysis by the OPCW designated laboratories of environmental and biomedical samples collected by the OPCW team confirm the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical that was used in Salisbury and severely injured three people.”

A few weeks before the OPCW findings, Gary Aitkenhead, the Chief Executive of the UK Government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), while speaking to Sky news after his experts had studied the substance used in Salisbury, stated: “It’s a military-grade nerve agent, which requires extremely sophisticated methods in order to create – something that’s probably only within the capabilities of a state actor.” In other words, it is highly unlikely that a lone shark or a miscreant faction would possess the sophisticated capability of producing this type of nerve agent. The OPCW point in the summary stating the high purity of the toxic chemical and the “almost complete absence of impurities” can be considered as implying what Aitkenhead had disclosed earlier – “sophisticated methods in order to create… probably only within the capabilities of a state actor.”

In addition, the Chief Executive stated:“We were able to identify it as Novichok, to identify it was a military-grade nerve agent. We have not verified the precise source, but we have provided the scientific information to the government, who have then used a number of other sources to piece together the conclusions that they have come to.”

Despite not being able to “verify the precise source” the UK government has placed the blame on Russia due to the identification of the toxic chemical as Novichok (a nerve agent which is known to have been manufactured by Russia) and the requirement of a highly sophisticated method and facilities to produce such a highly pure form of the chemical.

High-level intelligence, which is usually restricted between the ‘Five Eyes’ countries (UK, USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand), was shared with other close allies.  The intelligence shared convinced 27 countries to act against Russia through the expulsion of 151 diplomats.  Kremlin reciprocated with its own list of diplomats being expelled from Russia.

In addition, the case of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian FSB security service officer who was poisoned by Polonium in 2006 has established a trend and track record that is more than mere coincidence and cannot be denied.

Furthermore, Russian unflinching support for the Bashar Al – Assad regime in Syria has provided the space for the latter to continue using chemical weapons on its people, despite global pressure and entering the CWC in 2014.On 21 April 2013, Bashar Al-Assad attacked his own people in Ghouta through rockets containing Sarin Gas.  It is estimated that over 1,000 people perished in that attack.  Global outrage followed.  Diplomatic efforts finally resulted in Syria entering the CWC on October 14.  After which, OPCW declared that Syrian stockpile of weapons had been removed.  However, chemical attacks continued:  a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017 resulted in more than 80 fatalities and hundreds injured and, the Douma attack in April 2018 (according to some estimates) resulted in over 70 fatalities with over 500 affected. Throughout this debacle, friendly regimes backing Bashar Al-Assad have tried to repulse global pressure and threats.  These regimes have attempted to spin these incidences by placing blame on either the rebels or other countries as an attempt to discredit the Bashar regime.  This shows a blatant level of disregard for human suffering and international treaties and conventions.

Yet, despite these links,undue haste accompanied by the UK Foreign Office’s mismanagement of this issue has provided room for maneuvering in this battle of accusations.

A deleted Tweet posted by the UK Foreign Office stated: “Analysis by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down made clear that this was a military-grade Novichok nerve agent produced in Russia. Porton Down is an OPCW-accredited and designated laboratory.”

Furthermore, British Foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, in an interview with German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, provided an answer to one of the questions that was similar to the deleted Foreign Office tweet.

The contradiction came from the Chief Executive of DSTL, himself.  As mentioned earlier, in an interview to Sky news he mentioned that they “have not verified the precise source.”  The Russian administration considered this contradiction a vindication of their stance that they were being falsely accused in order to malign their global standing and to distract people from legitimate issues.

This mismanagement, however, remains a mere glitch in the overall investigation of the Salisbury attack.  Short-lived political point scoring should not undermine the overall objective to find detailed proof on the perpetrator.

The repulsion to this form of warfare has been internalized in the psyche of individuals and nations over the span of a century.  The suffering associated with chemical and biological warfare has instilled fear and abhorrence in our mindset.Yet, there are exceptions.  Basic human repulsion towards these weapons has been sidelined for Geopolitical ambitions.  Ideological, religious, political and military considerations have outweighed the immoral aspects of obtaining and using chemical and biological weapons.  Recently, chemical weapons have been used in Syria, Iraq, Malaysia and now the UK.  This is a dangerous trend that needs to be crushed.