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

August 22, 2013

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.