The suspected Syrian chemical attacks: What now?

By Bulletin Staff | August 22, 2013

The written news accounts were shocking enough. The video was absolutely horrifying: hundreds of men, women, and far too many children laid out wall to wall on hospital floors, dead, with an occasional survivor twitching madly here or there.  Opposition groups contend that early on August 21, Syrian government forces attacked villages to the east of Damascus, using chemical weapons that killed at least hundreds of people. The attacks occurred three days after UN inspectors arrived in Syria to investigate prior reports of chemical weapons use. The White House announced it was “deeply concerned” by reports of chemical weapons attacks and called on the Syrian government to allow UN inspectors to have “immediate access” to affected people and locales.  According to the New York Times, the Syrian government vehemently denied that it was behind the attack, and Russia, a supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, contended that Syrian rebels had conducted the attack in hopes it would be blamed on the Assad regime. Despite the many questions that surrounded the attack, the footage posted to the Internet made it clear that hundreds had been killed, and that they had not been victims of gunshots, or any other weapon that draws blood.

The Bulletin asked an array of chemical weapons and national security experts to assess the situation in Syria and suggest ways in which the United States and the international community might proceed, in light of what would—if proven true—be the most extensive use of chemical weapons in the Syrian uprising and a major breach of international law. Given the confused situation in Syria, it is perhaps unsurprising that these experts agreed on one thing: A proper response will require verification of the chemical weapons used, and the people who used them.

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Lawrence Korb, Center for American Progress, Senior fellow and former assistant defense secretary,

At this point the details of what exactly happened outside Damascus this morning are still emerging. The preliminary evidence—based on amateur videos, photographs, and eyewitness testimony—indicates a large-scale attack using an unverified nerve agent that is likely not sarin. Unconfirmed reports indicate hundreds of civilian deaths in circumstances consistent with a chemical attack. The Obama administration has previously stated its belief that elements of the Assad regime have used chemical weapons on a small scale, but today’s attack—if verified—would represent a serious escalation in the use of these weapons. President Obama has also stated that, “a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

The obvious question now surrounds how the United States and the international community should respond to deter the further use of these weapons, thereby preserving long-standing international consensus against the use of chemical weapons, without worsening the humanitarian situation in Syria and the wider region. For the United States, there is now also a vested interest in maintaining President Obama’s credibility in light of his publicly stated red line. 

But several key questions must be resolved before any steps are taken. First, reliable casualty counts must be established and the cause of death confirmed to be a nerve agent. Second, the United States must use its formidable eavesdropping and human intelligence tools to establish to the extent possible the chain of custody of the weapons used, and determine who issued the order and what unit or faction carried out the attack. There is an inclination to assume that the Assad regime is a coherent, unified body, but the regime is under tremendous pressure and there are numerous loyalist groups active in Syria today. Determining who made the call will be important in calibrating a proper response. Third, the United States should coordinate with its closest regional allies—Israel, Turkey, and Jordan—in advance to agree upon a response and present a unified position that secures our mutual interests.  

These steps will take time and will not satisfy the strident, emotional calls for an immediate and forceful response, but they are crucial to establishing the facts and ensuring legitimacy for international action. If it is established that the Assad regime orchestrated a chemical weapons attack on the scale reported, the United States will have to lead a much more aggressive campaign to deal with the long-term consequences of Assad’s actions. Under these circumstances, the administration must present its evidence of chemical weapons use to the United Nations and request the authorization of all necessary means to remove or apprehend those responsible. The United States should press the United Nations to designate the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against civilians as a crime against humanity, name Assad and his close supporters as war criminals, and refer the case to the International Criminal Court. 

If Russia continues to block meaningful action at the United Nations, the United States should consider limited cruise-missile strikes on those determined to be responsible. These strikes should not be undertaken if the targets are embedded in civilian areas. If it is determined that the use of chemical weapons represents an Assad regime policy, limited cruise-missile strikes should be undertaken against several militarily significant targets (e.g., airfields). The purpose of these strikes will not be to change the balance of power in Syria, which would require a much larger commitment and would likely dramatically worsen the humanitarian situation, but to present a clear cost to the Assad regime for any further use of chemical weapons and to maintain the credibility of President Obama’s threats.

Margaret E. Kosal, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology, assistant professor,

Chemical weapons are not an artifact of history. If no other lesson is to be taken from the allegations of use of chemical weapons in Syria, that one should be. Too often over the last decade, the national security community has perpetuated the treatment of chemical weapons—whether state-based or terrorist use—as a lesser danger than the threat from biological or nuclear agents. And sometimes, the chemical threat is practically dismissed outright, as has happened across too much of the United States government. For example, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, a bipartisan US congressional endeavor, did not even consider chemical weapons in its final report in 2008; that report focused solely on nuclear and biological weaponry. Perhaps the greatest irony is that the commission’s report predicted that “unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.” Well, it seems their prediction was correct in its timing. But the attack doesn’t appear to have been made by terrorists. And the agent used wasn’t biological or nuclear.

Another lesson to be drawn from the experience in Syria is the need for better remote verification methodologies. If the international community, some allied coalition, or the United States is to respond to chemical weapons use, more accurate and precise technologies and means of verification are needed. That means investing not only in technology for chemical weapons detection from a distance, but also—and especially— in basic research in that area. Better verification data is needed to enable more robust political and foreign policy choices. Better and faster detection capabilities will also benefit nonproliferation and deterrence by increasing the likelihood that chemical weapons use will be discovered.

Paul F. Walker, Green Cross International, director, Environmental Security and Sustainability,

Today’s news reports of an alleged large attack by deadly chemical weapons just outside of Damascus, killing dozens—perhaps hundreds—of innocent Syrian citizens, is another very troubling case of the alleged multiple and indiscriminate use of weapons of mass destruction in the two-year-old civil war in Syria. More than 100,000 lives have now been lost in the war, most from the widespread use of conventional weapons.

Ironically, this alleged attack comes at a time when the long-awaited United Nations inspection team is in the country, just a few miles away. The UN team, consisting of chemical weapons experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, public health experts from the World Health Organization in Geneva, and other experts from the United Nations, is led by Ake Sellstrom, an arms control expert and diplomat from Sweden. It is important that the UN team inspect the site of this most recent alleged incident within the next 24 hours, as it will be able to verify whether chemical agents were used—and, if so, which agent was used, and how it was delivered.

The team’s mandate in Syria this month is not to determine who fired the chemical-tipped weapons on August 21—the Assad regime or the rebels—but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some helpful indications as to which side used the weapons. The three inspections that the team is scheduled to undertake this week and next will examine alleged attacks from several months ago; they may not provide any solid proof of chemical weapons use and, obviously, will explain nothing about this latest alleged attack.

This latest of some 14 alleged attacks with chemical weapons since last December would appear, at this early time, to be the largest, and to have claimed the most victims. Earlier attacks reportedly produced casualties in the double digits; this attack may have injured more than 1,000 people. The amateur videos available do indicate that it was likely a chemical attack, with victims showing no outside injuries by explosives or shrapnel, but at the same time exhibiting extreme breathing difficulties, constricted pupils, and frothing and drooling from the mouth. These are all signs of nerve agents, which attack the nervous system and can cause total loss of bodily functions, including respiration and heartbeat.

One should also point out that Syria is one of only seven countries that has not yet joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the multilateral treaty regime that mandates complete abolition of this whole class of weapons. Since its entry into force in 1997, the CWC has overseen and verified the safe destruction of almost 56,000 metric tons of chemical agents in millions of munitions in six countries. Two countries—Russia and the United States—held more than 95 percent of these agents and munitions and have since completed destruction of 80 percent and 90 percent, respectively, of their declared stockpiles. Three countries—Albania, India, and South Korea—have completed elimination of their much smaller stockpiles, and two countries—Iraq and Libya—continue to work on stockpile destruction.

If Syrian President Assad is being truthful about not using his acknowledged chemical weapons stockpiles, it would behoove him to have Syria join the CWC and begin planning the safe demilitarization of its chemical munitions. The other countries that have yet to sign—Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea, and South Sudan—should also join the treaty in the near future, universalizing the regime and truly making the world free of chemical weapons.

In the shorter term, though, now is the time for Assad to permit the UN inspection team to investigate this latest alleged use of chemical weapons, and to guarantee that the team has unfettered access to reported chemical attack sites and that it is itself secure from attack. The international community will only then learn the facts about these horrible allegations and be able to judge with some certainty whether chemical weapons have been used in the Syrian civil war.

Laura H. Kahn, Princeton University, researcher, Program on Science and Global Security,

If the Assad regime has nothing to hide, then it should allow UN inspectors to investigate the allegations. The reports seem to corroborate the use of chemical weapons against men, women, and children. If true, then the international community must hold the perpetrators accountable for violating international prohibitions against the use of such weapons. If it doesn't, then international agreements proscribing use of these weapons will be meaningless.

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