Chemical weapons in Syria: Will there be justice for a serial offender?

By Amy E. Smithson | September 29, 2016

The first signs of what would become an abhorrent new twist in the Syrian civil war—the use of chemical weapons—started to appear in late 2012, yet at the time the relatively small scale of the incidents made it hard to figure out just what was occurring. Perhaps Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was testing the waters to see if the international community would look the other way if he used poison gas. Perhaps the rebel forces opposing him might have somehow obtained chemical agents and a delivery system other than small, sometimes improvised rockets. Or maybe conventional bombs landing near local sites with chemicals had ruptured tanks and released toxic gas. Before long, however, social media images from the war zone, accounts of medical professionals treating victims, and analysis of samples from the attack sites pointed to Assad’s military as the primary chemical culprit. Now, inspectors from the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have put the capstone on previous reports implicating Assad’s government in gross violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the 1997 treaty that outlaws the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. The next step will be for the nations of the world to decide if Assad will get away with it.

Fingerprints on the gun. Although this latest report, which came out in late August, remains confidential, news outlets have reported some details. Established a year earlier to look into nine chemical incidents in Syria from April 11, 2014, to August 21, 2015, the investigative team included staff from the UN as well as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the inspection agency of the Chemical Weapons Convention. While the 95-page report—based on 450 videos, 950 photos, 8,500 pages of documents, and four visits to Syria—does attribute an August 2015 sulfur mustard attack on the town of Marea to Islamic State militants, it also fingers Assad’s military for two chemical attacks using barrel bombs on the Syrian towns of Talmenes and Sarmin, in April 2014 and March 2015, respectively. According to the report, “makeshift weapons deployed from helicopters” released chlorine gas on the towns. The treaty bans the use of any chemical for military purposes, including commercial ones like chlorine.

In the case of Sarmin, Syrian helicopters gassed the town twice on the same day, March 16. Medical staff saw the helicopters above as gasping victims inundated their hospitals. That night, the helicopters returned, with one barrel bomb plummeting down the chimney shaft of a house to the cellar where a family was hiding. In what a Syrian physician described as a “makeshift gas chamber,” chlorine killed six members of the Talib family, including three children. Speaking to Reuters, a diplomatic source familiar with the new report specified that four military units were responsible for the chlorine attacks—Syria’s 253rd and 255th helicopter squadrons, and the 22nd Division and 63rd Brigade of the Syrian Army. The diplomat also said the report gave “no indication” that rebel groups trying to oust Assad launched any chlorine attacks.

With convincing evidence in hand that chemicals were used in three additional attacks from the original nine, the investigators have requested more time to probe further. But regardless of whether more time is granted, the inspectors have already identified the proverbial fingerprints on the gun as belonging to Assad’s military forces.

Supporting evidence. Long before this latest development, anyone who bothered to read earlier fact-filled reports, either from Human Rights Watch or from previous international inspection teams, would have understood that the Syrian government was to blame for chemical attacks in Syria. For starters, common sense alone points to the only combatant in the country with aircraft—the Syrian military, which operates Mi8 and Mi17 helicopter gunships as well as Mi24/25 attack helicopters. The Syrian Air Force has conducted countless conventional barrel bombings using helicopters. One need only tap “Syria + barrel bombs” into a search engine to produce copious photographs of helicopters, including ones with the circular red, white, and black insignia of the Syrian military visible, and videos of them dropping barrel bombs on hapless Syrian towns.

In September 2014, despite its inspectors’ convoy being attacked while trying to gather evidence in Syria, a fact-finding mission from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found “compelling confirmation” of helicopters dropping chlorine on the villages of Talmenes, Al Tamanah, and Kafr Zeta, killing and injuring civilians. Human Rights Watch has also tracked and reported on chlorine attacks, interviewing physicians who treated victims and other eyewitnesses and reviewing photographic and video evidence of many attacks. One of the group’s reports covering attacks that occurred in April 2014 includes an image of yellowish clouds rising from a barrel-bomb strike in the town of Kafr Zeta (yellow-greenish coloration being a telltale mark of chlorine gas). The same report said barrel-bomb remnants found in Kafr Zeta and Talmenes included yellow cylinders bearing the chemical symbol for chlorine, “CL2.”

Syria’s fingerprints on the 2013 sarin attacks. On August 21, 2013, a joint team from the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was in Damascus to investigate several previous chemical incidents in Syria when multiple rocket attacks hit the suburbs of the capital city, striking the neighborhood of Zamalka between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. and the neighborhood of Moadamiyah just after 5 a.m. prayers. Death tolls from these attacks vary, but generally it is agreed that hundreds died and scores more were injured from the nerve agent sarin. The investigators confirmed the cause of death and injury by examining survivors, consulting medical records, conducting interviews with medical personnel, and analyzing biomedical and environmental samples from the attack areas.

Patients examined still had classic symptoms of sarin exposure—loss of consciousness, labored breathing, disorientation, vision problems, vomiting, convulsions—up to seven days after the attacks. Two certified laboratories analyzed samples without knowing anything other than the type of sample taken, such as whether it was a biomedical, soil, or wipe sample. One laboratory found 81 percent of the plasma samples to be positive for sarin; at the other lab that result was 91 percent positive. The labs returned a total of 12 positives for sarin from samples of weapons fragments and other metal, with another 13 sarin positives from environmental samples taken at the attack sites. The laboratories identified 41 samples as positive for chemicals well-known to occur when sarin begins to break down after it is released. They also found another 145 environmental samples positive for “interesting chemicals,” meaning known chemical additives to sarin, more chemicals associated with the breakdown of sarin in the environment, chemical impurities from sarin likely to have been produced by mixing the final chemicals (in this case of low purity) just before the weapons were fired, and explosives.

Inspectors from the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons also photographed and identified the rockets used in the August 21 attacks. The ones that hit Moadamiyah were a variant of the 140-millimeter M-14, made during the Soviet era and known to have a chemical warhead capacity for 2.2 kilograms of agent. Custom-made 330-millimeter rockets with a warhead capacity estimated at 50–60 liters of chemical agent were used at Zamalka. The conventional version of this rocket was apparently produced in Syria to be used with the Falaq-2 rocket launcher. Prior to the sarin attacks, Syria was known to possess both the Falaq-2 launcher and the conventional 330-millimeter Volcano rocket, and the Syrian military’s use of the Volcano was seen and recorded earlier in the conflict. (Members of the Syrian Army posted images online posing with the Volcano, and videos of the Syrian Army firing it are easy to find online.) The M-14 rocket is also in the Syrian arsenal. In August 2013, the meagerly equipped Syrian rebels possessed smaller-caliber 107-millimeter and 128-millimeter rocket launchers and crude, homemade rockets—nothing of the size and sophistication used in the sarin attacks.

All told, international inspectors collected ample evidence of well-organized chemical attacks in Moadamiyah and Zamalka involving a fairly large quantity of sarin and sophisticated delivery systems. The assaults were executed according to chemical warfare doctrine, which recommends releasing chemicals in the early-morning hours since still air and falling temperatures allow the sarin aerosol to stay close to the ground to achieve maximum casualties. Samples cannot lie, and videos capturing the Syrian military previously using the same weapons employed in the sarin attacks make it a matter of common sense to connect the dots to attribute the 2013 sarin gas attacks to Assad’s military.

Syria’s false declaration about its chemical-weapons capabilities. In addition to violations involving the use of chemical weapons, the Assad regime also seems to have broken the chemical convention’s bans against production and stockpiling. On July 4, 2016, the Declarations Assessment Team of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reported to the treaty’s day-to-day governing body, the 41-member Executive Council, that it had considerable evidence challenging the veracity of Syria’s declaration about its chemical-weapons facilities. The declarations came as part of Syria’s obligations to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which it joined after the 2013 sarin attacks brought international pressure on the Assad regime. The treaty’s inspectors classified the July report as “highly protected,” but details went public when the organization’s director, Ahmet Uzumcu, sent a two-page summary and a redacted version of the report to the UN Security Council over the protests of Russia’s Executive Council representative. Among other things, the report stated that inspectors have quietly met with Syrian officials and inspected Syrian facilities numerous times since April 2014, taking 122 samples that often directly refute Syria’s declaration.

In the 1990s, Saddam Hussein used inaccurate and incomplete declarations about his nuclear, chemical, biological, and missile programs to try to dupe UN inspectors and the international community into believing he was relinquishing his unconventional capabilities. Fortunately, the UN inspectors did not fall for this ploy; with dogged perseverance they dug out facts contradicting those declarations and eliminated the weapons capabilities Hussein was trying to hide. In a move right out of Saddam’s hide-and-seek playbook, the Syrians told inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that they had destroyed all records of their program, purportedly fearing the documents would fall into the wrong hands. The absence of records makes it much more difficult for inspectors to verify what they are told about a weapons program but Assad’s government further complicated matters by refusing to let inspectors speak with senior officials in Syria’s chemical-weapons program. At the facilities that Syria declared as being involved in developing and making poison gas, inspectors noted that none had the “appropriate capabilities” for such tasks.

To get to the bottom of things, the inspectors instead went to sites associated with the Syrian Defense Ministry’s Scientific Studies and Research Center. Western intelligence agencies identified this hush-hush outfit decades ago as the core of Syria’s chemical-weapons program. Samples taken from the research center’s Institute 3000 in May 2014 and January 2016 produced multiple positive results for pinacolyl alcohol, while samples taken in September 2015 at an undeclared facility of the research center, in Jamraya, were positive for DIPAE sulfonic acid and DIPA ethanol, which are present when the nerve agent VX has begun to break down chemically. The organization’s July report noted that pinacolyl alcohol, a precursor chemical for synthesizing the nerve agent soman, has no peaceful uses. Syria at first denied it had made soman, then confessed that it had but asserted that Institute 3000 was performing chemical defense work. The chemical treaty permits defensive research but deploys inspectors to verify its strict limits, which begs a question: If the soman work was defensive, then why did Syria not declare it at the outset?

The more the inspectors looked at Syria’s sites, the more inconsistencies they found with Syria’s declarations about mustard gas, the toxin ricin, and the nerve agents sarin, soman, and VX, not to mention Syria’s declarations about 2,000 bombs it tailored to disperse chemical warfare agents. Again, Syria had no paper trail or other physical evidence to back up its claim that these bombs were instead dropped with conventional explosive payloads.

After joining the chemical convention, Syria declared 23 sites with 43 facilities as being associated with its chemical-weapons program and in possession of roughly 1,300 tons of bulk mustard and nerve agent precursors. On June 23, 2014, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced that these chemicals had left the war-torn country for destruction. Otherwise, much of Syria’s declaration was hogwash, though the organization’s chief put it in more technical terms. Uzumcu characterized Syria’s misleading and conflicting explanations for the detection of several undeclared warfare agents as “not scientifically or technically plausible.” With missing chemical munitions and the majority of 122 samples from several undeclared sites pointing to falsehoods in Syria’s declaration, evidence indicates Syria, a serial violator of the chemical convention, may still harbor a chemical-weapons program.

Will there be justice? In February 2016, the Damascus-based Syrian Center for Policy Research put the death toll in war-ravaged Syria at an appalling 470,000, making the Syrian American Medical Society’s estimate of nearly 1,500 fatalities from the use of chemical weapons seem meager by comparison. No matter what the means, the carnage is deplorable.

Yet injury and death from poison gas can be agonizing. Sarin victims struggle to breathe, foam at the mouth, convulse, and may die within minutes unless antidotes are administered. Videos of the August 21, 2013, attacks are gruesome, showing a hospital floor littered with casualties, including a child with eyes and arms all twitching uncontrollably at different rates. Chlorine gas first burns the eyes, then irritates the respiratory tract, constricts the chest, and causes vomiting, painful breathing, and a feeling of suffocation. Inhalation of enough chlorine can bring death in minutes or, without quick medical treatment, the victim may slowly drown in fluids accumulated in the lungs. Chlorine barrel bombs continue to rain on Syria’s civilians, including in multiple attacks in Idlib Province in March 2015 and Aleppo in August and September 2016.

The ugly truth is that the Syrian government has occasionally used chemical weapons not just to kill but also to terrorize and help break the Syrian resistance; people generally find the idea of suffocating to be more frightening than death by bomb or bullet. So long as Syria does not go overboard with poison gas, Assad is banking that the benefits of killing and terrorizing civilians to abandon desired territory will outweigh the risks of punishment from the international community.

Likewise, UN Security Council members will calculate their words and votes carefully. The prospects for Syria to pay a penalty for its atrocious behavior hinge on China, which has veto power, was a victim of chemical weapons use by Japan during World War II, and stalwartly defends the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs. Next, Assad’s strongest political and military ally, Russia, nonetheless partnered with the United States after the August 2013 sarin attacks to propel Syria to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and forfeit much of its chemical-weapons capability, as well as to negotiate cease-fires in the conflict to enable humanitarian aid. For Moscow to use its veto and remain in Assad’s corner, despite Syria’s track record of breaching the chemical convention, would be an obvious, self-serving disgrace.

How willing other nations are to stand up for the chemical convention, possibly against Russia, remains up in the air in view of Moscow’s actions in Crimea, Ukraine, and other global hot spots. The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, has already called Russia out for recent acts of “barbarism,” including the current campaign of airstrikes laying waste to Aleppo and the September 19 bombing of a UN aid convoy. With international inspectors finding that Syria has repeatedly used poison gas and falsified declarations to try to retain illicit chemical-weapons capabilities, the time seems right for a showdown. No government that commits horrific war crimes while flouting international law should get a pass from the nations of the world.

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