Hamish de Bretton-Gordon's work in conflict zones has earned him global recognition – from training local doctors how to treat gas attacks and risking his life on battlefields, to convincing world leaders to take threats seriously. Interview by Anthony Loyd.
Beneath the smoke-hazed starlight of the desert night, a young tank captain waited for his moment of war. He was a romantic man and it was his first conflict. Now, on the eve of battle, as the trails of rockets arced steeply skywards from launch positions behind him and the crash of artillery rumbled through the darkness, the captain hoped not only that he would see combat but that he would prove himself in action, and perhaps find glory too.
Thousands of other British soldiers waited in the sands that February night in 1991. Their orders had been issued and some were already in action; others were readying themselves for the moment at which they too would move from the Saudi Arabian desert and advance into southern Iraq as part of Operation Desert Sabre. Saddam Hussein's forces had invaded Kuwait six months earlier. The ground war to eject them had just begun.
The numerical strength of the huge allied force arrayed against the Iraqis suggested victory was guaranteed, yet in every hand of war there is an unknown card. Foremost among many soldiers' fears that night lay the uncertain threat of chemical weapons. The Iraqi army had a well-established propensity for gassing its enemies. It had repeatedly used gas on Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq war, and upon the Kurds too, most infamously in the attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988 when over 5,000 Kurdish civilians were gassed to death. Many soldiers were wondering as they waited to move forward if Saddam would use chemical weapons again.
The captain was 27 and freshly promoted. He and his men had already been injected with a soup of vaccines, including anthrax and bubonic plague, to boost their immunity against biological weaponry, and they took daily doses of tablets designed to blunt the effects of nerve gas. Each soldier carried syringes of atropine too: another antidote with which they should inject themselves in case of exposure to sarin gas. So prepared, the captain waited for action with a mixture of apprehension, curiosity and excitement.
Yet when war found him that night, it was not as he expected. Before his unit had even left their position, Iraqi Scud missiles were fired at coalition forces, triggering the sirens from chemical early warning alert systems. For the first time since 1918, the cry of "gas, gas, gas" went up against the sound of shellfire as British soldiers fumbled for real to don their respirators.
No sooner had the captain pulled on his gas mask than the valves malfunctioned, stopping the flow of air through the canister. He could not breathe. Eyes popping and face reddening, suffocating but too afraid to take off the mask for fear of being gassed, he stumbled from his position back to a Land Rover, clambering inside and driving off until he felt far enough away from any gas cloud to pull off the respirator and suck in gulps of air. He found himself weeping with relief.
Adding to the ignominy, it soon transpired that it was a false alarm: there was no gas attack that night. His unit pushed forward into Iraq. When finally he did come under fire it was not from the enemy but from one of his own unit's armoured vehicles, which was lost and fired 15 rounds of heavy machinegun fire into his turret, thinking it was an Iraqi vehicle.
In this way, spooked by a gas attack alarm, half suffocated by a faulty respirator and fired upon by his own forces, Captain Hamish de Bretton-Gordon found war. Far from glorious, the experience seemed slightly shameful.
Twenty-nine years later, the same young captain is a pivotal figure in the fight against the proliferation and use of chemical weapons.
De Bretton-Gordon's work inside Syria has not only earned widespread admiration but saved many lives too, by directly obstructing the ability of the Syrian regime to gas its subjects with the ease it would choose. He has trained doctors and medics inside Syria to identify and treat chemical casualties; advised the UK government at the highest level on chemical and biological weapon use, including over the novichok poisonings in Salisbury; and he has regularly and heatedly clashed with propagandists in efforts to establish fact within the febrile miasma of claim and counter-claim that so typifies warfare in the age of social media.
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It may well be too that Syria's President Assad, apparently a victor in war, is one day brought to account for crimes against humanity on the back of evidence removed from gas-attack sites by doctors trained by de Bretton-Gordon: evidence videoed at every step of process so as to preserve its integrity from the moment samples of soil, rubble, blood and tissue are extracted from chemical strike locations; sealed in triple-layer bags and refrigerated in cooling units; then smuggled out along clandestine routes, sometimes across front lines, and taken abroad for analysis.
"After so many failures and missed opportunities, and so much bloodshed, justice is the one thing we might still be able to give Syrians," he says.
That the start of a long career so entwined with chemical and biological warfare began with such confusion in the desert war of 1991 is an irony de Bretton-Gordon acknowledges. He is candid and refreshingly self-effacing for a man who spent 23 years in the army.
"It was a little bit of failure," he says of that debut war experience. "This was the first bit of action – and I was a romantic soldier. You want to be winning the MC [Military Cross] and all the rest of it, and instead I was left thinking, 'Bloody hell, first sign of gunfire and you are running for the hills. This is not a very auspicious start.' "
He was not the only soldier in the desert that night to be freaked by the sound of the chemical early warning siren. The fear of chemical weapons, of dying at the hand of something unseen, drowning in froth, lungs spuming, is dread itself. That same night, lying in a shell scrape in the sand, a 24-year-old infantry lieutenant – his unit similarly filled with a cocktail of bio-warfare inoculations and pills – also wondered if the alarm meant the start of a chemical attack. He sat up and put on his gas mask, then turned to the soldier beside him to check the man had sealed the space between the hood of his chem-warfare smock and his respirator.
As the lieutenant tapped the soldier on the side of his mask to give him the thumbs up, one of the soldier's Perspex eyepieces popped out and fell to the sand. Even in the darkness the lieutenant could see the soldier's exposed eye widen: the white gaped and shone in abject horror at the thought of being gassed.
I recall the details of that night vividly. The lieutenant was me.
Although I had never met de Bretton-Gordon face to face until last month, we have corresponded and spoken many times over the past eight years.
His expertise in the new dawn of chemical weapons use that began in Syria, and the ever increasing likelihood of proliferation since then, keeps me calling back.
Since the first confirmed chemical attacks by the Syrian regime in 2013, President Assad's forces have used gas in dozens of incidents, ushering in an era of chemical warfare which, combined with the lessons of Covid-19, de Bretton-Gordon says will have consequences that ripple across the future of warfare.
"Chemical and biological weapons will be the scourge for generations," he asserts. "The genie is out of the bottle. These are f***ing good weapons. They are easy, they are cheap, they have got the potential to bring the world to its knees, just like Covid has done. This isn't the First World War any more. The capability of what exists now is far worse: really, really dangerous."
Indeed, in Syria the impact of gas attacks and the attendant fear around them has altered the path of the entire war.
When on August 21, 2013, in the worst of many chemical attacks, President Assad used sarin nerve gas against two rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, killing hundreds, perhaps more than 1,500 people, it earned him strategic reward. Assad's fortunes were at their nadir at the time: Damascus was partially cut off; the surrounding rebel areas had proved resilient to counterattack and the regime showed signs of collapse. By firing nerve gas in surface-to-surface missiles at the suburbs, Assad achieved an astonishing result: smashing the rebels' morale, terrorising their support base and calling the bluff of President Obama, who a year and one day prior to the attack had warned Syria that the use of chemical weapons would mark a "red line" in his calculus for US intervention.
Britain and the US balked at responding to the Ghouta attack, and although the regime subsequently agreed to destroy its chemical weapon stocks under international supervision, it held on to some munitions and chemical attacks continued. In April 2017, reacting to another sarin gas attack by the regime that killed 89 people, the US did strike a Syrian airbase with Tomahawk missiles, but further punitive retaliations against the regime have been stymied by the growing Russian military presence in the country.
Fear is as much a part of chemical weapons' efficiency as their killing properties.
"It's the indiscriminate nature of chemical weapons, their unseen nature and the horrific way they kill you – the drowning – that cause such fear, such panic," de Bretton-Gordon says. "Chemical weapons are a morbidly brilliant weapon if you have no moral scruples."
Such was the legacy of fear in Syria from the recurrent gas attacks that when on April 7 2018 a chlorine bomb was dropped by a helicopter onto a residential apartment in Douma, 10km north of Damascus, gassing to death between 40 and 50 people, rebels defending the city surrendered within 48 hours.
De Bretton-Gordon, who has often argued in favour of intervention against the regime, regards the Ghouta attack in particular as a fulcrum moment in the war that secured Assad's survival, bonded him to Russian support and opened the gates to further proliferation.
"If we had removed Assad then we would be in a very different position," he insists. "Our failure to do that gave him the green light to use chemical weapons whenever he really needs to. Now everyone in the world knows about the power of chemical weapons. Once they were a little-known thing. Now we've had them used in bloody Salisbury. We've really f***ed up."
He never planned to become a chemical weapons expert: it just happened.
Commissioned into the Royal Tank Regiment at the tail end of the Cold War, he gained specialised knowledge in the world of chemical and biological weaponry while serving for two years as the commander of the British Army's Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment.
As the name suggests, the regiment is specifically tasked to locate and identify chemical and biological weapon use, and during his time with the unit de Bretton-Gordon became grimly familiar with the theoretical killing properties of agents and pathogens such as VX nerve gas, anthrax and sarin.
Though he had always wished to command a tank regiment instead, when the army sent him off to the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham to complete a chem-bio science diploma before taking up his CBRN post, he found chemical warfare darkly fascinating. There began his chemical romance.
Citing the killing capabilities of new-generation nerve gases that could kill entire cities with tiny doses, he cautions that biological weapons can do even worse, remarking that while the meek reel from the impact of Covid, the bad have sat up in interest.
"Not even a nuclear bomb can have the impact of a biological weapon," he warns. "I am not suggesting that Covid was manufactured, but its impact won't go unnoticed by every dictator, despot, rogue state and terrorist with an eye to how best to attack us and impose themselves on the world in the future."
Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who was poisoned by Novichok nerve agent in an assasination attempt in Siberia last month before being flown to Berlin, is the most recent high-profile victim of a chemical weapon, but man has used chemicals to kill for thousands of years. As far back as 1000BC the Chinese used arsenical smoke in battle and the first recorded use of chemical weapons in Syria occurred in AD246, when a Persian army gassed Roman engineers during the siege of Dura-Europos by pumping lethal fumes from a brazier burning sulphur crystals and bitumen into the Romans' tunnels.
However it was the during the industrial-scale horrors of the First World War that chemical warfare penetrated into modern consciousness. By the end of the war as many as 100,000 soldiers had been killed by gas, and 1.3 million more injured. During the Holocaust, the Nazis gassed more than 1 million Jews using hydrogen cyanide. Next, during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons frequently and flagrantly against Iranian units and the Kurds, encouraged by the chilling inaction of the international community, bombing Halabja just days before the war ended in 1988.
In response to the chemical horrors of the 20th century, the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force in 1997. Currently signed by 165 countries, the threefold aim of the CWC is to destroy existing chemical weapon stocks, prevent their further production and prohibit their use: tasks supposedly administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Yet the chemical menace strode into the 21st century courtesy of President Assad, and at various points in the past seven years chemical attacks in Syria have eroded US credibility; come close to precipitating full-on western intervention in the Syrian war; exacerbated tensions with Russia; sealed Damascus's alliance with Moscow – and killed around 2,000 people. As de Bretton-Gordon points out, chemical weapons have also contributed to saving the Assad regime.
"Assad was about to fall in August 2013. Then he bombed Ghouta with sarin in a last throw of the dice, and seven years later he's still in power because of it."
We first spoke when I consulted him while working on a story concerning a chemical attack in northern Syria in 2013; an incident that is worth recounting as it sets the scope of a problem that much of de Bretton-Gordon's work over the past eight years has been focused on solving: that of proof.
On April 13, 2013, during the night, a single canister dropped by a regime helicopter plunged through the rooftop stairwell of a young Kurdish car mechanic, Yasser Yunis, living in the Sheikh Maqsood area of Aleppo. The area had recently become the scene of heavy fighting after Kurdish forces there briefly joined rebels to defend their streets against a regime attack.
Woken by the sound, Yasser Yunis walked into the corridor and noticed the air heavy with dust. He assumed a shell had exploded in the stairwell. Then he noticed a sharp tang in the air and heard an animal-like rasping. It was the sound of his wife and children heaving for breath in the bedroom behind him.
"I turned and ran back into the room," Yasser Yunis told me when I found him days later. "My wife and children were struggling to breath. Froth was coming from their mouths. My own throat began to constrict and my heart was hammering. My vision was going. Then I collapsed. I remember nothing more."
He never saw his wife and two infant children again. They died in a local hospital, froth pouring from their mouths. Thirteen others, including rescuers and medical staff who treated the casualties, were overcome by symptoms including foaming mouths, hallucinations and twitching limbs.
In Aleppo, I masked up and entered the gassed house; I saw the high-altitude impact penetration made when the canister crashed through an awning on the roof before exploding in the stairwell; I spoke with Yasser Yunis and with doctors who had treated him; and obtained video footage shot by Kurdish doctors in the hospital, which showed the casualties frothing and twitching.
It was a big story. Since Obama's "red line" warning of the previous autumn there had been a backdrop of intelligence chatter suggesting that the regime was using gas. Now I thought I had compelling evidence suggesting that nerve gas was indeed being used.
De Bretton-Gordon was noncommittal on the case when I called him and detailed what I had learnt. He had left the army a couple of years earlier as a full colonel and had set up SecureBio, a company specialising in chemical weapon consultancy, and so was an obvious port of call for a journalist working on a chemical weapons story.
Despite my enthusiasm, he demurred on passing judgment as to the likely type of gas used in the incident, and clearly thought that the method of the attack – a canister dropped by a helicopter – sounded like an odd way of delivering nerve gas.
He did warn, however, that there was an emerging pattern of small chemical attacks by the Assad regime aimed at testing western resolve: and that much worse would likely follow.
"The regime are prepared to follow the thickness of 'the red line' to test its boundaries," he told me at the time. "What is the thickness of that line?"
In the UK, the reaction to the Times story was an ugly insight into the battle for narrative that has come to follow every incident of chemical weapon use. With the example of Iraq fresh in the UK's mind, where the 2003 invasion had been launched on the back of spurious WMD claims, it was natural that my account of the Sheikh Maqsood attack would be met with suspicion. Yet the disbelief was virulent. Some people thought I was some kind of agent provocateur. One supposed expert commenting on an open-source intelligence site suggested I had smeared froth on the casualties' faces. Others thought that the victims had in fact inhaled tear gas.
Two months later, by which time samples had been removed from the scene of the incident and taken to Porton Down, David Cameron confirmed that sarin gas had indeed been used in the attack, but even then the evidential "chain of custody" – the sequence of recorded steps that safeguards samples from being tampered with between a chemical attack site and a laboratory analysis – was full of holes, and public scepticism remained.
Without a fail-safe system to extract samples from chemical attack sites in Syria for proper analysis abroad, not only would there be no proof of chemical weapon use, but the attacks would likely proliferate.
Three weeks later, de Bretton-Gordon attempted to secure a sample himself. In May 2013 he travelled to the Turkish border with Syria to analyse footage brought out by a BBC team from an attack in the town of Saraqeb, where on April 29 a regime helicopter had dropped three canisters trailing a mysterious white smoke that had caused eight casualties – all of whom displayed the same frothing at the mouth, trance state and pinpointed pupils – and one death.
Despite the compelling footage of the attack filmed by activists and the reporting from the BBC crew, in the absence of a sample once again the story failed to carry its weight. Frustrated by his limited role on the border, the following day de Bretton-Gordon decided to enter Syria in an effort to get hold of a sample.
"I knew we would get nowhere without samples," he says. "I was convinced that Assad was going to use this stuff again. He was testing resolve with those early attacks. Obama had said the use of chemical weapons was 'a red line'. Well, by then Assad had used them at least three times and f*** all was done about it. People didn't believe it. And they would only believe it with the evidence."
Northern Syria at that time was a patchwork of rebel fiefdoms, many of them suspicious or openly hostile towards westerners, and Islamic State was on the ascent. It can be easy enough to feel brave as part of an army, but something else to go over the border into northern Syria – where westerners had already begun to disappear – as an individual to collect samples from a chemical attack, liable to accusations of espionage, knowing that if something goes wrong help is far from hand.
His plan was simple. A Syrian courier, briefed on how to collect samples from the impact site in Saraqeb, delivered the evidence to de Bretton-Gordon in a cooler bag at the Syrian town of Bab al-Hawa. That stage of the plan worked. The next failed. Unnerved by vehicle searches by Turkish troops at the border, and knowing how conspicuous the cooler bag was, de Bretton-Gordon was forced to bury the sample by the roadside. He crossed to Turkey empty-handed, heavy with a sense of failure.
That was the first of ten trips he was to make to Syria, some in the company of David Nott, the renowned surgeon, others in the company of Syrian medical staff whom de Bretton-Gordon began to train: at first in the recognition and treatment of chemical casualties, then in the collection and preservation of samples from attack sites too.
On one occasion he travelled to teach doctors in the Aleppo countryside in a minibus, passing through an Isis checkpoint disguised as "Dr Abdullah", complete with a fake beard and ID; on another occasion a hospital in Bab-al Hawa was flooded with casualties from a schoolyard barrel bombing as he was giving a lesson.
The wounds caused by barrel bombs are grotesque, and de Bretton-Gordon recalled being so shocked, physically and emotionally sickened by the eviscerated torsos and shredded limbs, that he called off the lesson to allow the attendant doctors to treat the casualties.
"But the doctors refused to leave and asked me to carry on," he recalls. "They told me that any of the medical staff in the hospital could treat conventional blast and shrapnel wounds, but that they needed my knowledge on how to treat chemical weapons casualties."
So he continued with the lesson, numbed by the horrors in the corridor outside. Later, driving back to the Turkish border, he saw an ambulance carrying one of the casualties from the bombing, a badly wounded young girl around eight years old, stopped at the frontier, apparently lacking the correct paperwork to carry the girl to a hospital in Turkey. He stepped out of his car to intervene. As he argued with border guards by the open back door of the ambulance the girl died in front of his eyes.
Twice during our two-hour conversation he became visibly aggravated. Describing the girl's death was one such occasion and his voice, usually full and fast, faltered.
"I can still see her face," he says. "The back door was open. She was covered in a towel or cloth. I remember the smell. That smell of blood and flesh. And… one minute she was still there and, um, the next she was… dead. And this was from a barrel bomb on a playground."
The fate of the girl seemed to epitomise Syria's suffering and abandonment.
"I don't wish to sound trite, but that girl really resonates," he continues. "And there are millions like her around the world who nobody gives a f*** about. They will die without even making the dial flicker. That's shit. We are here for such a short time – there are too many people happy to let the clock tick around. I really feel for people who cannot help themselves."
Throughout all his Syrian ventures, de Bretton-Gordon has been accompanied by one consistent companion: the prospect of his own sudden death. Shortly after leaving the army he collapsed during a run and was diagnosed with cardiac sudden death syndrome. A tiny thickening in his heart meant that it could beat itself to his death at any moment. An obsessive athlete, who still runs or rows daily and once held the army record for press-ups (an astonishing 4,489 in 3 hours), he reacted to news of the threat on his life by studying Mo Farah's running technique, adjusting his style to lower his heart rate, in addition to taking a daily dose of beta blockers.
Nevertheless, the threat of sudden death remains part of his every day. Such an acute awareness of mortality must scythe much of the complacency humans naturally feel, and pare down the belief of what is essential.
"I think about it almost every hour of every day," he admits. "It drives me forward. I went for a run this morning – it could have been my last. You could have come to speak today to someone who wasn't there any more. I thought I was indestructible, then one day I was on my back looking at the sky."
Further reminder of human physical frailty came last year when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The oncologist called with the news while de Bretton-Gordon was teaching at a hospital in northern Syria. He shrugged off the impact of the diagnosis, remarking that he was in a room with a child triple amputee at the time.
"If I die of Covid I want, 'He is really f***ing annoyed' written on my gravestone," he smiles. "There are so many other things that should have got me by now."
Impassioned when recalling the girl dying in the ambulance, he becomes momentarily enraged when discussing the death of James le Mesurier, co-founder of the Syrian White Helmets relief organisation, who is believed to have taken his life in Istanbul last year. The two men were friends and colleagues and had met many times. They shared many of the same values – and many of the same enemies too.
Le Mesurier, formerly an officer in the Royal Green Jackets, had become the focus of a campaign to discredit the White Helmets conducted by an array of troll armies, pro-Assadists and conspiracy theorists: some harnessed to Russian disinformation campaigns, others working unilaterally.
The White Helmets were constructed to save lives, not to defend themselves against massed disinformation campaigns and trolls, "useful idiots" as de Bretton-Gordon calls them, who accused the White Helmets of being an al-Qaeda front and said Le Mesurier was a terror financier.
Under increasing strain and already suffering depression, Le Mesurier broke. His body was found beneath the White Helmets offices in Istanbul. He had apparently jumped to his death. Soon trolls were tweeting, "De Bretton-Gordon, you're next."
"There are some f***ing arseholes in the world," he snaps. "These guys are useful idiots – they are f***ing wankers too. I don't know whether James Le Mesurier committed suicide or not – it seems to be the case that he did – but there was a metaphorical hand from others pushing him off that balcony."
In this gruelling theatre of war, the battle for narrative that took the life of his friend, de Bretton-Gordon's has found that his enemies are drawn from across a wide spectrum.
The upper echelon include President Vladimir Putin, who singled out de Bretton-Gordon in a phone call during negotiations to establish a ceasefire during the battle of Aleppo in 2015, in which the Russian president warned that the former soldier should desist from making further accusations concerning chemical attacks.
Other foes lie closer to home. The Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, a UK-based platform co-founded by the conspiracy theorist and academic Piers Robinson, published a specious report last summer on the 2018 chlorine gas attack in Douma in which it described de Bretton-Gordon as an "agent" likely working on behalf of an MI6 covert influence programme.
De Bretton-Gordon snorts at the suggestion that his work is done at the behest of anyone but himself, and describes the notion of taking orders from the government as "ridiculous". Yet his hybrid work portfolio, together with extensive connections in the security establishment, has nevertheless given the conspiracy theorists considerable ammunition.
Moreover, his moral-based advocacy for western intervention against Assad has continued long after the dominance of Islamist groups in the rebel movement made most interventionists squeamish, earning him few allies.
"Of course we all want everything to be lovely in the world," he says, unapologetically. "No one wants to kill anyone. But some times to get there, to achieve a stability, you have to get the knife out. And I get the feeling we have lost our nerve in this regard."
He still holds out for eventual justice though, and in this respect his personal involvement training members of the Syrian medical charity UOSSM to collect evidence from chemical attack sites has had direct consequences on the passage of the conflict.
Angered by the piling civilian body count and the regular chemical weapon attacks, and piqued by this early failure to get a sample out, he began their training in 2013, creating a "CBRN Task Force" of Syrian medical personnel with knowledge not just in the treatment of chemical casualties, but also in "chain of custody" procedures that have since resulted in several samples from chemical attack sites being successfully removed from Syria for analysis abroad: an evidential chain that he hopes may one day see Assad in the dock of an international court for war crimes.
"Look at Bosnia and Kosovo – even years later the generals who committed war crimes in the Balkans ended up in the dock," he expands. "The only real thing we can give the Syrian people one day is justice, and the only way we are going to do that is with evidence."
Yet the world may have lost interest in justice by the time the war finally ends.
The last time I called de Bretton-Gordon from the field, in October last year, it was my turn to have been shocked by the wounds to a child. I phoned him from north-eastern Syria, during an offensive by Turkish troops and their Syrian proxies against the Kurdish YPG. While I was present at a Kurdish field hospital in Tal Tamr, a 13-year-old boy, Mohammed Hamid, was rushed through the doors, his torso and arms excoriated by flame after he had been set alight in a Turkish bombardment.
The boy's screams of pain were so terrible as to silence the moaning of lesser wounded soldiers, and hush the talk of medical staff. It appeared that he may have been burnt by a type of incendiary weapon. Checking other Kurdish clinics in the war zone, I saw a pattern of unusual burns among casualties: deep pitting and blistering, suggestive of white phosphorus munitions, which are banned from use in a direct role against humans.
I rang de Bretton-Gordon to describe what I had seen and sent him photographs of the wounds for his thoughts, only to find that he had already been contacted by the Kurds and had a file full of burn images from the casualties. Similarly concerned that an incendiary chemical was being used, he had liaised with medics who had taken tissue samples from the casualties and had stored them in a refrigerator in Sulaymaniyah, northern Iraq.
There was one big problem. No one would analyse these samples to see if white phosphorus was indeed to blame. There appeared little motivation among any western organisation to get involved investigating a sample that might prove that Nato member Turkey, or its Syrian proxies, was using white phosphorus against the coalition's Kurdish allies.
"I still feel guilty to my Kurdish friends," he recalls, sounding momentarily tired. "The samples are still in Sulaymaniyah, for anyone with the bollocks to test them. I went through all the channels I knew to get them tested and the answer was 'no'. I knocked on so many doors and got classic civil service mumbo jumbo: 'We'll do anything we can except help.' "
After the long march in his efforts to have chemical weapon prohibition protocols adhered to – the years involving so many fights, so much energy, risk and grief – de Bretton-Gordon found that cynicism and moral ambivalence over the issue had spread among western powers too. The refusal to analyse the sample from burnt allies felt totemic of the overall collapse of international morality: the passive acceptance of a new chemical reality.
"It was symptomatic, and shocking," he says. "It really left a bad taste in my mouth. No one gives a f*** about it, because it seems we can apparently use chemical weapons. Why not use something else? Why not use a pathogen next time? Why not use Covid?"
Three decades on, the man who as a captain was once embarrassed by his near-suffocation in the desert sounded shamed again – this time by a world shorn of conviction.
Chemical Warrior: Syria, Salisbury and Saving Lives at War by Hamish de Bretton-Gordon.
Written by: Anthony Loyd
© The Times of London