Andy Oppenheimer looks at how chemical weapons became centre stage in the Syrian Civil War

On 21 August, more than 1,400 Syrian civilians, many of them children, died in a multiple chemical attack on areas surrounding the Syrian capital, Damascus. Confirmation by a UN report published on 16 September that they were killed by weapons-grade sarin nerve agent followed an investigation by an inspection team sent in five days before the attacks to collect evidence on 13 other alleged uses of chemical weapons (CW). While the inspectors’ report does not apportion blame, it stated that the rockets used to carry the sarin were shown to be Russian-supplied, and that 122mm munitions used in the Damascus attack were associated with “previous regime attacks.”

CW takes centre stage

By the time the inspectors’ report emerged, a tentative deal to disarm Syria of CW by summer 2014 had already been brokered, following a frenetic chain of events on the international diplomatic stage which has no precedent. Under a six-point plan being thrashed out in the UN, the Syrian regime – which has provisionally agreed to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and put its CW under international control – has to provide a full inventory of around 1,000 tonnes of chemical warfare agents, as well as precursors and munitions, by the third week in September, for the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) to begin decommissioning work in November. It is the first time that CW was used by a nation state followed by agreement only days later to put them beyond use.

No doubt the devil will be in the detail. Many expect obfuscation, nondisclosure and broken UN resolutions, along with the difficulties of accounting, verification, movement and dismantlement of often unstable weapons in the midst of a civil war. According to US and Israeli intelligence, Syrian military units attached to the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre – the heart of the CW programme – have been moving CW stocks and munitions to as many as 50 sites. Future CW use in the region also cannot be ruled out if any have found their way into jihadist hands both inside and outside the country.

 

…or sideshow?

In the world of CBRN defence, response, and readiness, the importance of CW or any other nonconventional weapon use – by nation states or terrorists – is unquestionable. And the UN inspectors’ report confirms the worst CW attack in a generation. But in the wider world, after an estimated 100,000 deaths in one of the most brutal civil wars in modern times, commentators, politicians and the public debated the importance granted to CW as a form of killing over and above other, conventional methods in the conflict – shelling, bombing with ballistic missiles, and also possibly, napalm. There is scepticism about why CW possession and use should be treated differently, taken in the overall context of 100,000 deaths from conventional ordnance and the consequent displacement of over 2 million citizens. In presenting the evidence to the UN Security Council, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said that the use of CW, while being a war crime, constituted a small portion of the violence that has overwhelmed the country.

A special UN Commission of Inquiry presented detailed evidence on 11 September of both government and pro-government forces having committed war crimes and crimes against humanity – murder, extrajudicial executions, torture, hostage-taking and indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighbourhoods by all sides.

Many observers also believe that the CW deal will enable Assad and his Russian backers to buy time to use more conventional weapons against the rebels and civilians, and lead most states to concentrate on CW rather than the overall impact of the civil war – and that reliance on Assad’s compliance in putting his CW beyond use could increase his authority in Syria. It also appears that a CBRN weapon has been used with no apparent impunity for the perpetrators, although we ‘know where they live’.

But it can be seen as a major setback for Assad as it means inspectors will have to be granted access to multiple sites – as well as having to give up an entire arsenal of weapons. Without the threat of military action, presently the source of UN wrangling, no such disarmament plan could have begun, and if Assad does not comply with the plan, there could be greater support for military action in the near future. But for now, it has been averted and will likely not be possible while inspectors are dealing with the weapons in the coming months.

 

Why CBRN is different

The Damascus sarin bombardments killed more than 1,400 in one strike. Conventions and protocols to declare CW illegal were introduced in the 20th century as an international response to their use as the first true weapons of mass destruction – which not only killed thousands, but also had indiscriminate and lasting effects on injured survivors – both civilian and military. Those effects are likely to be seen in the Syrian victims for years to come.

If the challenges of disarming Syria’s CW are overcome, and Syria’s entire CW capability is destroyed by mid-2014 as planned, it could set yet another precedent – the ridding of an entire class of CBRN weapon from a rogue state in the midst of tumultuous change. The use of chemical weapons inadvertently propelled a diplomatic offensive which for the time being, has prevented outside military action and possibly, further suffering for Syria. But the coming weeks and months will show if the disarmament of the regime’s CW can be carried out without outside military intervention being necessary – and if all the weapons can be accounted for to prevent further use and proliferation to other groups.