The chemical question

Last updated 1 May 13 @ 11:27 |
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Syria stands accused of using chemical weapons against its people. But how reliable is the evidence, asks John Chisholm


According to some recent news reports and the Syria Watch blog, President Assad has authorised the use of chemical weapons on his own people. Other reports claim that elements of the Syrian army have used chemical weapons on their own authority; others still say the weapons were deployed by rebels. To the victims, of course, this is a pointless distinction.

There is, as yet, no absolute proof. The ghost of Iraq haunts the Western intelligence services and their political masters. There, decisions were made based on reports that later turned out to be false or misleading; decisions that ultimately led to war and then several years of counter-insurgency and civilian deaths. So the UK and the US are wary of declaring that the Syrians (and which Syrians is another question) have used some of their considerable stocks of chemical weapons against their own population. Such a declaration would be a game changer. The Syrian government has been repeatedly warned that the use of such weapons would have a major impact on the country’s relations with the world at large.

So what are the accusations? The US Department of State has been somewhat vague, citing two potential incidents but giving no details. The British have been a bit more specific, citing three potential uses in Syria: one at Homs, one near Damascus and a third at Khan al Assal, near Aleppo. In all three cases, the number of alleged victims is small – less than 100. The alleged attacks are not on the scale of the Halabja poison gas attack in 1988, in which an estimated 3,200 to 5,000 people died.

The Syrian government has claimed that the incident on 19 March at Khan al Assal was an attack by rebel forces, not government forces. The British government seems to have accepted that Syrian troops suffered some symptoms that appeared related to a chemical attack, but has taken the position that this was caused by “friendly fire”. Perhaps this is because full acceptance of the Syrian government’s case would also mean accepting that some elements of the disparate and increasingly radicalised rebel forces have access to some form of weaponised chemical agent. This would open up further concern about the Syrian government’s ability to control its stocks.

There are two further reasons why the Syrian government’s argument has not gained traction. Firstly, the whole story is pretty implausible. And secondly, believing it would mean admitting that both sides were willing and able to use weaponised chemical agents against each other; a whole new degree of awfulness in an already awful civil war.

The primary guilty party is supposed to be sarin. Developed in Germany in the late 1930s as a pesticide, sarin and its sister tabun were further developed during the Second World War at Spandau Fortress, although there is no evidence that the Germans ever used them, despite persistent rumours of incidents on the Eastern Front. Sarin is colourless, odourless and can cause death in very small quantities. Symptoms of sarin exposure include sweating, blurred vision, vomiting, nausea and a runny nose. A small drop on the skin can cause sweating and muscle twitching, whereas larger doses can cause convulsions, paralysis, loss of consciousness and death. Sarin evaporates quickly so it poses an immediate threat, but one that can dissipate fairly quickly, making it ideal for weaponisation.

Is the Syrian government guilty? In the current climate, even if the allegations of use are proven, it does not necessarily follow that the Syrian leadership authorised the use of these weapons. It is perfectly possible that isolated and desperate local commanders used sarin in small quantities as part of their operations. To an extent, this would explain why the alleged use was in such small quantities. It is also true that the Syrian military has been moving its stocks to more secure locations, which may have allowed small quantities to slip out of sight and into the hands of local commanders.

It is also hard to see why the Syrian government would risk the use of such weapons. If the alleged action was ordered by the Syrian military, with the express approval of the government of President Assad, this really would be the last act of a desperate regime. If proven, it would put Assad’s erstwhile supporters – notably Russia and China – in a very uncomfortable position. No one wants to be seen backing a regime that uses chemical weapons on its own people.

The evidence that sarin itself was used is unreliable. Samples allegedly held and analysed have been described as “minuscule”, and eyewitness accounts of an attack in which six rebels died described “white smoke” pouring from shells that “smelled… like hydrochloric acid”. These observations are not normally associated with sarin – the white smoke conjures up images of phosphorous, while the hydrochloric smell sounds more like chlorine.

If it is proved that sarin was used in the attacks, however, this would support the theory that the Syrian government has been gradually upping its use of chemical weapons to test the reaction of the West. There have been consistent leaked reports of the use of chlorine, an asphyxiating agent, by the Syrian armed forces for more than a year. These have been matched by allegations of the use of mustard gas. Neither have gained a great deal of traction in the West as there has been no evidence other than claims by opponents of the regime. But the argument runs that Assad was gradually escalating his use of chemical weapons, starting with the very primitive chlorine, moving on to mustard and now graduating to sarin. This is certainly the fear of several Israeli commentators as well as rebel supporters: that the Assad regime is not testing its capability with chemical weapons, but rather the reaction of the international community.

Of course, it is not impossible that the Syrian incidents involved a mixture of agents. It is, for example, common to use a mild irritant to get people to remove uncomfortable protection, only to expose themselves to a more deadly agent also present. That people may have been affected by chlorine does not mean that sarin was not present as well. Without proof that sarin was used, the international community is refusing to get involved. But this sidesteps the question of whether the use of chlorine is somehow more “acceptable” than the use of sarin.

One argument put forward by opposition supporters is that Western governments are ready to dismiss all claims regarding the use of chemical weapons because to accept them would involve doing something. The “something” the critics often have in mind is military intervention, usually in the form of air strikes. They are convinced that the West will look for any excuse to wriggle out of intervention. If Damascus had authorised the use of a lethal nerve agent like sarin, and it could be conclusively proven, it is true that Western governments would be put on the spot, and Moscow and Beijing would risk looking callous if they continued backing Assad. The critics argue that the West has no interest in looking for evidence that would compel it to do what it does not wish to do: intervene. Such evidence would have to be stuffed down its throat with the co-operation of the international media. As the West has consistently refused direct military intervention, and been less than forthcoming in terms of indirect military intervention, the critics may have a point.

One country that has directly intervened, of course, is Israel. Jerusalem does not want any chemical weapons to fall into the hands of Hezbollah or any rogue Syrian commander with an anti-Israeli bent. Also, any weapons of this type falling into the hands of anti-Israeli rebel groups would be of grave concern to Israel. Assad may be hostile, but he is also stable in his hostility and has shown no inclination to pull his house down on his head by going it alone against the Israel Defense Forces. This may not be the case with another actor, desperate to create unity by striking at the traditional enemy. With these scenarios in mind, it is not surprising that Israeli Special Forces have guided Israeli aircraft to targets in Syria.

There is an international protocol for events like the alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria involving an investigation by the United Nations. UN investigators must come from neutral third party countries and, crucially, need access to witnesses and “scenes of crimes” in order to come to their conclusions. The Syrian government has said it will co-operate with any UN investigation regarding the alleged attack at Khan al Assal, but the UN also wants to include the Homs allegations and any more that come to its attention. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, has stated that he does not want to embark on a “partial investigation” and all allegations need to be investigated. At time of writing, Damascus had yet to respond.

It is possible that this will never bottom out. The ability of the UN to conduct such an investigation against the backdrop of an increasingly bitter civil war has to be called into question. Damascus may have nothing to hide, but the ability of Saddam Hussein to fox and beguile UN weapons inspectors when the country was at peace bodes ill for the credibility of a structured UN investigation carried out against such a chaotic background.

The critics may be right, but the evidence needs to be clear, unambiguous and impossible to ignore. Any gambit by Damascus to use chemical weapons will probably be cloaked in such a fog of uncertainty that it will never be found guilty.


John Chisholm is intersec’s international affairs correspondent