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Syrian Civil War: The Foreign Adviser

March 27, 2015

Syria large explosion

For Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, ex-Colonel in the Royal Army, it all started in 2012.

He was in Afghanistan at the time. After 20 years serving her Majesty, he was in business for himself. As a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) expert his skills are sought out by those working in conflict zones.

But then a Syrian doctor got in touch with him, needing his help. A year since the Arab Spring bloomed in Damascus the Assad regime was fighting back and bombing population centers.

And using poison gas on civilians.

Three years later and the scope of Gordon’s work in the Middle East has broadened. Not only is he active in Syria, openly collaborating with the Free Syrian Army near the Turkish border, but the Iraqi government is an eager client of his. Like in Syria, the reason why has to do with poison gas.

ISIS is now using poison gas. Chlorine, specifically. To delay the advance on Tikrit, they’ve sown its roads and highways with IEDs packed with chlorine. Gordon insists Iraqi forces are finding a thousand chlorine bombs a day.

When we met, Gordon had just arrived in Manila from Baghdad. Earlier that morning he introduced his work to a mixed civilian and military audience during the Protect 2015 security conference. A day later he repeated the same to Filipino soldiers and emergency personnel in another venue. Then he was off to Indonesia. His presentations were always about CBRN.

Syria Hamish de Bretton-Gordon

Gordon at work. (Via Mark Esplin/The Telegraph)

In the meantime, he agreed to share his experiences in Iraq and Syria, where two separate wars have become a single regional crisis because of ISIS.

A rare firsthand source, Gordon’s views agree with the prevailing consensus on how the war is panning out almost a year since the fall of Mosul. In other matters, however, he offers a unique perspective.

Gordon’s View

First, Mosul remains the turning point of the war. Should it be retaken, ISIS lose half of their “caliphate” and their Iraq theater collapses.

Second, the high estimate of foreign jihadis traveling to the caliphate is worrisome. Since 2014, 20,000 foreign volunteers have flocked to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS.

But Gordon believes their overall contribution to ISIS is questionable and more of “a PR thing.” The threat they pose is learning CBRN techniques and then bringing it home–to the UK, France, Germany and beyond.

Third, despite the influx of foreign volunteers and their own considerable resources, ISIS are losing ground.

Fourth, to halt the Iraqi push into Mosul, ISIS are mass-producing chemical weapons. Chlorine bombs are a favorite since the raw material is readily available.

Gordon traces ISIS current fixation on chlorine gas to the Assad regime, who resorted to chlorine barrel bombs after the Damascus suburb incident on August 21, 2013, when US-led airstrikes seemed imminent.

Having forsaken much of their conventional chemical stockpile, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) resorted to improvised chlorine bombs dropped via helicopter from 3,000 feet. Although it leaves few dead–Gordon puts the number of gas casualties in Syria at less than 1% of the total death toll of 300,000–it’s an effective terror weapon.

Gordon cites the battle of Deir Ezzor on December 3, 2014 as a turning point. ISIS lost because of extensive chlorine gas attacks on their ground forces, since then they’ve adapted the technology, albeit for low grade improvised munitions.

Fifth, while Coalition strikes have hurt ISIS’ mobility, it’s a steady influx of ammunition and ordnance from Iran that is making a difference in the battlefield.

Almost every reporter, analyst, and primary source on Iraq agrees with this assessment.

Sixth, Syria has turned into a failed state on par with Afghanistan in the 1990s. While moderate rebels are holding their ground, the opposition to Assad is now so fractured it’s doubtful the regime can be toppled without foreign intervention.

“70% of Syria is destroyed. There’s very little water, very little electricity. A whole generation, maybe two generations, of children have no education. Syria is a battlefield like nothing I have ever seen, which is why I keep coming back to do whatever I can [to help].”

–Hamish de Bretton-Gordon

Aside from speaking at events and running his own company, Gordon has dedicated himself to the Syrian cause. He seeks to raise $1 million for Syria Relief, a non-profit that runs clinics across Syria. He’s also involved with the NGO No Peace Without Justice as a consultant.

According to Gordon, a million dollars would buy 5,000 emergency escape hoods, 200 chemical detection units, and 20,000 decontamination sets.

It’s for the Syrian people, who need it the most.

The Series So Far

A Homage to Homs

Damascus Besieged

The Missile Gambit

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