The Syrian Chemical Attack – Reconstructing the 21st of August and its Aftermath

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Almost a year has passed since August 21, the day that chemical weapons were used on the Damascus countryside in the fight between the Syrian government and armed opposition forces. Following the international repulsion, one major question rose: is there convincing evidence of a war crime, and if: who is to be blamed?

On 21 August at 02:45 local time, the first reported use of chemical weapons struck Ein Tarma, which is located in about 6 km (3.7 miles) east of the center of Damascus. The second attack took place in Zamalka, a district close to Ein Tarma at 2:47. Muadhamiya, a town that is located about 20 km (12 miles) west of Zamalka was struck by rockets at about 05:00 local time. A few hours later, the world received dozens of shocking videos of citizens who did not have external signs of injury but nevertheless were lying on the ground and appeared to be struggling for life.

A UN Security Council emergency meeting called for ‘clarity’ and prompt investigation by a UN inspection team which already arrived in Syria on 18 August.[i] Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stated that he was considering to urge the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syrian chemical stockpiles to safe places within Syria where they can be stored and removed, and to urge Syria to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention.[ii] The Secretary-General requested the assistance of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), but since Syria was no State Party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, OPCW operated under a different mandate in order to deal with allegations against Non State Parties.[iii]

The evidence

Following fast-track procedures, on 13 September, the UN presented its report. During its on-site visits, the UN officials spoke to survivors and nurses, who reported a common range of symptoms, namely: nausea, excessive salivation, rhinorrhea, shortness of breath, blurred vision, vomiting, eye irritation, general weakness and eventually loss of consciousness[iv]. The nurses endeavored to be of assistance by decontaminating the patients with water and supporting them to the nearest health care facility. Furthermore, 36 patients have been selected by the UN for further investigation on the basis of blood, urine and hair samples. The blood and urine samples were tested positive on sarin.

The weather conditions, as examined by the UN investigators, show a falling temperature between 02:00 and 05:00 in the morning. The conclusion can thus be drawn that the air was not moving from the ground upwards, but in the opposite way. This maximizes the use of chemical agents since the heavy gas can stay close to the ground and disperse itself into buildings and shelters, where many civilians were hiding.

Several surface to surface rockets capable of delivering substantial chemical payloads were identified and recorded at investigated sites. Samples from the rockets tested confirmed the allegations of used sarin gas. 30 environmental samples have subsequently been taken from the impact sites and surrounding areas and have been tested at OPCW laboratories. Sarin has been found on a majority of the samples.

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(Source: BBC)

Assigning blame and consequences

The evidence presented shows that there is no room for discussion regarding whether a chemical attack had taken place that particular morning, but question changes from whom. The UN investigators were not asked to ascertain who was behind the attack and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon refrained from pointing a finger at anyone.

When examining the debris field and the impact area where the rockets fell in Muadhamiya and Ein Tarma, inspectors received enough evidence to calculate angular measurements in order to see what the route of the rockets was. All routes seem to converge to a large military base on Mount Qassioun, where, according to Human Rights Watch, the Republican Guard 104th Brigade is located.[v]

After the attacks had taken place, various individual states were convinced that Bashir Al-Assad, President of Syria, was the culprit. The USA convincingly stated that the Assad regime was behind the attacks and added that ‘the red line’ had been crossed.[vi] Human, signals and geospatial intelligence revealed that 3 days prior to the attack, personnel prepared chemicals weapons in a suburb of Adra in Damascus. France argued that the launch zone of the rockets was under Syrian rule and the target area was held by the rebels. In the meantime, the Syrian regime opposed the allegation and argued that the Western states had to come up with ‘incontrovertible proof’, while Russia also demanded proof.

According to HRW, the Syrian military was believed to have M-14 rockets whereby one of the three rockets assembled for them can carry 2.2kg (4.8lb) of sarin. The opposition was not believed to have these M-14 rockets nor the launching system BM-14. A second type of weapon used during the attacks, but also during earlier fights against the opposition was the 330mm rockets that correspond to the Falaq-2 launcher assembled in Iran. The Syrian regime is known for possessing these materials. Whereas there is footage existent that shows the use of Falaq-2 launchers by the Syrian troops, it is not known whether the Syrian opposition had access to these systems. Furthermore, the opposition was not believed to have that much quantity of sarin in its possession, since hundreds of kilograms of sarin were used in the attack nor did they have the expertise to load the rockets with sarin.

Eventually, Russia and the US agreed on having Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile removed by June 2014.[i] UN Security Council Resolution 2118 covers this decision and gives explicit mandate to the OPCW to implement a program for destroying chemical weapons sites in Syria and to ship chemical weapons stockpiles abroad for destruction, starting on 6 October 2013.

Conclusion

While the evidence of a war crime seems to be as firm as a rock, the big question is: who is to blame? While for some (the US, France) this is not a question anymore and there seems to be quite convincing evidence pointing towards the regime, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister said that the UN report was one-sided and based on insufficient information. While Assad tops the list of Syria war crimes suspects to be handed over one day to the ICC for prosecution, the Security Council has to refer the case to the ICC.[ii] This creates a situation where the prosecution of the ones responsible for the deadly attack will most likely be an illusion.

 

[i] CNN. Framework for elimination of Syrian chemical weapons. Retrieved 7th of August, 2014, from

http://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/15/politics/us-russia-syria-framework-text/index.html

[ii] Human Rights First. 5 things you should know about chemical weapons and international law. Retrieved 7th of August, 2014, from

http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/HRF-Chemical-Weapons-Factsheet.pdf

[i] Reuters. Syria Gas ‘kills hundreds’, Security Council meets. Retrieved 7th of August, 2014, from

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/21/us-syria-crisis-idUSBRE97K0EL20130821

[ii] OPCW. Statement by the OPCW Director-General on Syria Proposal. Retrieved 7th of August, 2014, from https://www.opcw.org/news/article/statement-by-the-opcw-director-general-on-syria-proposal/

[iii] OPCW. Statement by the OPCW’s Director-General on Syria. Retrieved 7th of August, 2014, from

https://www.opcw.org/news/article/statement-by-the-opcw-director-general-on-syria-1/

[iv]UN. Report of the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August. Retrieved 7th of August, 2014, from

http://www.un.org/disarmament/content/slideshow/Secretary_General_Report_of_CW_Investigation.pdf

[v] BBC. Syria Chemical Attack: What We Know. Retrieved 7th of August, 2014, from

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-23927399

[vi] CBSNEWS. Obama: ‘I have not made a decision’ at Syria military strike. Retrieved August 7th, 2014, from

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/obama-i-have-not-made-a-decision-on-syria-military-strike/

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