Difficult Task: Hunting Assad’s chemical weapons
BEIRUT - The unanimous decision by the UN Security Council on August 7th to track down the perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria that have caused thousands of casualties is likely to be difficult to enforce since both the Damascus regime and those fighting to bring it down have been accused of using the weapons.
US intelligence says the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which is widely believed to have amassed a vast arsenal of such weapons over the last 30 years, will resort to using them on a large scale if it believes it is about to be overwhelmed by its enemies.
The regime’s chemical arsenal came under intense international scrutiny following the slaughter of hundreds of people, almost all of them civilians, in large-scale chemical attacks by the regime in the eastern outskirts of Damascus in August 2013 to repel an offensive against the Syrian capital by rebel forces.
The most inflammatory attack, on August 21st, was on the suburb of Eastern Ghouta, where up to 1,400 people were killed and thousands more hospitalised. It was the worst chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein wiped out the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988, killing up to 5,000 people, mainly civilians, in the largest such attack on a civilian target in history.
The rebels and Western powers blamed the regime, which from the start of the uprising against Assad’s regime, dominated by the minority Alawites, an esoteric offshoot of Shia Islam, had shown no compunction about bombing civilians in areas about to be overrun by the disparate rebel forces.
The regime blamed its Islamist enemies for Ghouta. By all accounts, rebel forces have limited access to chemical weapons. Those they have fashioned themselves are pretty rudimentary but crudely effective.
The Assad regime, on the other hand, has a vast arsenal of chemical weapons, toxic agents, blistering agents such as mustard gas and deadly nerve agents such as sarin, tabun and VX, acquired over the years from the former Soviet Union or manufactured at heavily guarded military facilities.
They also have the delivery systems, primarily designed for use against Israel or other hostile states, which include several thousand Scud B and C missiles, 200mm and 300mm artillery rockets and air-launched bombs that can deliver payloads of 100-300 litres of toxic agents.
But a widely used tactic is dropping “barrel bombs”, oil drums packed with explosives and chemical agents, mostly chlorine or mustard gas, from helicopters or transport aircraft. These have done enormous damage and are widely feared.
Amid the international outcry after Ghouta, the regime admitted to having 1,300 tons of chemical weapons (CW), including several hundred tons of sarin and VX.
Under an agreement with the United Nations, largely formulated by Russia, Assad’s key ally along with Iran, Syria was supposed to dismantle its entire CW programme by mid-2014 in return for the United States not launching air strikes against the regime because of the chemical attacks.
But that has not stopped the chemical attacks. Both sides have been blamed for repeated CW strikes. In recent months, the Islamic State (ISIS) has been repeatedly accused of using chlorine gas against the Kurds who have driven ISIS out of a wide area of north-eastern Syria with the help of US air strikes.
This operation to break down the regime’s CW arsenal, the first of its kind to be undertaken in the middle of a war, was supervised by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) under a binding Security Council resolution. While it has achieved much, it is impossible to determine whether the Syrians have surrendered their entire CW arsenal. If reports of continued chemical attacks by both sides are correct, the regime has clearly held onto an undetermined amount of CW.
Not surprisingly, given the secretive nature of a regime built and sustained on fear and force. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London reported that there were serious challenges in dismantling Syria’s CW network.
“Firstly, lessons from efforts to disarm Iraq and Libya clearly demonstrate that eliminating 100% of a country’s proscribed weaponry in a verifiable manner is impossible,” it said.
“Incomplete record-keeping at chemical-weapons production plants, sloppy accounting and handling of weapons at logistics hubs and storage facilities and the loss of unrecorded use of munitions on the battlefield, are but a few of uncertainties that bedevil efforts to verify the contents of Assad’s arsenal.
“Portions of the Syrian programme will likely go undiscovered… There would remain a risk that a small but possible exploitable fraction of the stockpile could surface and be used in the future.
“For example, artillery shells containing degraded nerve agent were acquired and used — unknowingly — by insurgents in Iraq to construct roadside bombs in 2004… Finally, the war adds to the complexity and danger of the OPCW inspection, verification and destruction effort. International inspectors have never operated in hostile conditions,” IISS explained. “Much scepticism surrounds the current disarmament effort… Critics have noted that when dealing with authoritarian regime, inspectors have been misled, obstructed, delayed and manipulated. A further caveat is that Assad may relocate portions of the stockpile and critical infrastructure so as to retain a secret capability.”