Chemical Weapons in Syria: National and International Responses


Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, more than 470,000 people had been killed, of whom 1,500 (0.3%) were killed after being subjected to various attacks using chemical agents. This means that using chemical weapons is not the only nor the major method of killing, but it is rather among the other types of weapons used. However, chemical weapons have much more destructive and devastating consequences on both the physical and psychological status of the people subjected to them.

img_0467When talking about the use of chemical agents as weapons against civilians in Syria, the “one” chemical attack in the Damascus countryside, which killed nearly 1,400 people, is not the only one being addressed here, but rather the 160+ strikes using three different types of chemical agents, causing at least 1,500 deaths and 14,500 casualties including people exposed to either primary or secondary contamination by chemical agents.

UNSC Resolution 2118 was adopted after the attack that targeted the Damascus countryside in 2013. However, in regards to the Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons, 80% of all the chemical attacks occurred after that resolution. Various provinces were targeted using chlorine gas, which was not included in the list of substances which would be destroyed.

That means one of two things: either the inability to properly document such violations locally, or the lack of desire, among the international community, to intervene and put an end to the use of such illegal weapons in order to avoid another similar attack to the one that occurred in the Damascus countryside on 21 August 2013.

OPCW and its Role in Syria

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced on January 4th 2016 the end of the destruction process of Syria’s chemical arsenal. However, during this time, chemical agents were still being used as weapons. The Fact Finding Mission (FFM) investigated the possibility that chlorine gas was used against civilians in Kafr Zita and Telmns between the 11th and 21st of April 2014, and issued a report that confirmed these allegations in September of the same year.

img_0474After that, new investigations began under Security Council Resolution 2235 to determine who was responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, through the Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM), which issued its report on August 30th 2016. It proved the involvement of both the Syrian Government and ISIS in using chemical weapons in three incidents at least, one of which happened in Telmns (chlorine) in the Idlib countryside in 2014 and two events in 2015, one in Srmin (chlorine), in the Idlib countryside, and the other in Mare’ (Sulphur-Mustard), in the governorate of Aleppo.

Therefore, if examining the work done by the OPCW retrospectively and the time-frame it took to identify the perpetrators for only a few dated attacks, this would indicate that to investigate all of the reported incidents and to identify the perpetrators, it might take at least another 100 years of work to achieve that.

Chemical Attack Threats and National Responses

Hospitals, in non-government controlled areas, are not prepared to respond to any attack using chemical agents in terms of medical personnel, specialized equipment and medications due to the inability to procure specific antidotes or protective equipment from any governmental or non-governmental organization. Preparedness measures and activities are focused only on public awareness of people and medical staff. After the attack that targeted the Damascus countryside on August 21st 2013, the lack of proper measures to deal with such chemical attacks led to the large number of injuries and deaths due to secondary contamination among the victims, medical personnel and rescue teams.

On August 31st 2013, twenty-five medical relief organizations operating inside Syria met in order to form a response team called the Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Task Force (CBRN-TF). Their mission was to improve the response to such chemical attacks and provide the needed services at healthcare facilities which would enable them to respond to the threats of chemical attacks through public awareness and medical training, as well as by providing accredited centers with the necessary equipment, medication and properly trained medical staff, to face such attacks.

During the period between September 2013 and December 2014, 526 workers within the medical field were trained during 22 different training courses conducted in northern Syria. Seventeen decontamination points were equipped with protective equipment and medications.

However, the adoption of Security Council resolution 2118 played a negative role in terms of quality of response and preparations, as it decreased interest among CBRN-TF member organizations as well as the facilities and medical staff inside Syria.  This led – with the absence of a follow-up mechanism – to a return to the starting point in terms of human resources because of a lack of good technical preparations.

CBRN-TF and Criminal Documentation

img_0472For the first time, the CBRN-TF managed, after receiving field reports of a series of attacks using chemical agents in Kafr Zita in the Hama countryside and in Telmns in the Idleb countryside between the 11th and 21st of April 2014, to respond by leading a systematic documentation process by collecting evidence in order to support investigation that aims at confirming the incidences and determine responsibilities for them. This was partly possible thanks to the experience of its human resources and the relative ability of having safe access. The CBRN-TF cooperated with governmental and non-governmental agencies – JIM and FFM are considered the most important among all.

FFM cited in its report, issued in September 2014:

“Independently of the individuals from the three villages who were interviewed, the FFM interviewed and received information from members of the” CBRN Task Force “, who had performed a systematic collection of data in the field following reported attacks in Talmenes and Kafr Zita”.

This was done despite the challenges that the CBRN-TF faced and continues to face regarding its legal status as well as its inability to have formal direct cooperation with governmental agencies with no official status to rely on when working on criminal documentation of violations of Security Council resolution 2209.

Thus, it can be said that all the efforts that have been made, or are being made so far, are inadequate when facing one of the challenges that violate the right to live for people in Syria.

This requires stopping all sorts of violations against human rights, including the use of chemical weapons as a first priority. It also requires creating a legal mechanism to coordinate with official institutions and agencies to support criminal documentation processes, as well as re-evaluating what has been done previously in terms of preparedness.

And of course, it’s important as well to plan for responding to further attacks based on recent field updates coming from hot conflict areas. Inside besieged Aleppo City, people were targeted during the second half of 2016 with 5 chemical strikes, with the most recent on Wednesday November 20th which caused a whole family to suffocate to death, both parents and their four children.

Photos courtesy of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.

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Houssam Alnahhas was born in Syria in 1988. He worked as the Local Coordinator for the CBRN Task Force of the International Union of Medical Relief and Care Organizations (UOSSM) and is now the research and information management officer for UOSSM. As such, he has extensive first-hand experience of the chemical attacks in Syria and their treatment. Dr. Alnahhas studied clinical medicine at Aleppo University, but the Syrian Civil War prevented him from completing his education. He is now studying at the Cerrahpaşa Medical School of Istanbul University. During the Syrian Crisis, he led a medical team people to treat casualties and coordinated efforts between various NGOs to direct humanitarian efforts. During his career as a doctor, Dr. Alnahhas was responsible for developing preparedness and response protocols and manuals in case of chemical attacks.