Sunday, September 8, 2013

Prepared for the worst?

[Originally posted at NOW]

A chemical weapons attack in Lebanon would overwhelm already-constrained medical resources.

With most major Western intelligence agencies now firmly convinced the Syrian regime did in fact attack residential suburbs of Damascus with chemical weapons on 21 August, some of Syria’s neighbors have begun taking precautionary steps to safeguard themselves in the event that such weapons of mass destruction are turned upon their own populations.

Foremost among these has been Israel, whose government began distributing gas masks and antidote syringes to the public in the days following the alleged attack. Tel Aviv has also bolstered its deployment of Iron Dome and Patriot missile defense systems in its northern regions, aiming to intercept any potential incoming fire from Syria and/or Lebanon.

At the same time, Turkey has implemented a number of measures along its southern border, including stocking food and gas masks inside designated bunkers in seven key locations, and sending a team of 100 chemical weapons experts to the area to screen for traces of chemical agents.

In Lebanon, by contrast, no comparable precautions have been taken, and the country’s healthcare infrastructure would be ill-prepared to adequately treat victims of any chemical weapons attack, according to industry leaders with whom NOW spoke.

To be sure, security analysts see the chances of chemical weapons use in Lebanon as remote. “I don’t think it would ever happen,” said Riad Kahwaji, founder and CEO of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA). Pressed to say, for the sake of argument, where the most likely site of an attack would be if one were to happen, Kahwaji suggested areas deemed to be strongholds of Sunni Islamism, such as the border town of Arsal. “If there was any scenario, it would be in places where the [Syrian regime] claims there are Islamist groups. Right now, in Lebanon, [Arsal] is the area which the regime claims is the stronghold for the Islamists.”

“I wouldn’t go as far [as chemical weapons,] even in a worst-case scenario,” said Dr. Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “The Americans are already going to fight [Syrian President] Assad for what happened in Syria. Now if this happens in Lebanon I think there would be no doubt that the regime in Damascus did it, and [this] could not only bring the end of the Assad regime, but maybe the end of Assad’s life. So I think it is far-fetched.”

Nor does Khashan believe extremist elements among the Syrian opposition are likely to launch chemical weapons attacks on Lebanese targets any time soon.

“Anything is possible, but I don’t know if al-Qaeda has access to chemical weapons. If they did, I think this matter would have been brought up in the past. We would have seen them used in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Yemen.”

That such attacks are deemed unlikely is fortunate for Lebanon, which has next to no capacity to treat victims of the kind seen in Damascus last month, according to Sleiman Haroun, president of the Lebanese Syndicate of Hospitals.

“We cannot pretend that we could cope with a direct attack by chemical weapons,” Haroun told NOW. “Lebanese hospitals could not handle the kind of numbers” of injured witnessed in Damascus. For one thing, there are simple space constraints.

“We have 1,500 intensive care units in the country. These are 90% occupied in normal times. So if we needed to suddenly hospitalize hundreds of chemical weapons victims, we would have a problem of space,” Haroun told NOW.

Furthermore, there is the matter of technical readiness.

“We have the proper medications and equipment, antidotes, and such, to deal with such attacks. And we have been training hospital personnel [in treating chemical weapons victims] since 2012. We now have around 220 individuals trained in this regard.” Indeed, at least four Hezbollah fighters were reportedly treated in a Beirut hospital for chemical gas encountered in Damascus following the 21 August attack.

“But I must say this is elementary, basic training, and we haven’t conducted any drills. So unfortunately, I cannot say we are ready to treat these kinds of casualties.”

The health ministry could not be reached for comment. Ayad al-Mounzer, spokesperson for the Lebanese Red Cross, declined to comment when contacted by NOW.

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