Expert warns chemical weapons use in Syria ‘could lead to regional proliferation’

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a leading expert in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence.
Sunday 25/02/2018
Leading expert in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence Hamish de Bretton-Gordon. (Courtesy of Hamish de Bretton-Gordon)
Strategic concerns. Leading expert in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence Hamish de Bretton-Gordon. (Courtesy of Hamish de Bretton-Gordon)

LONDON - Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a leading expert in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence, having served as a commanding officer in the British Army. He advises governments and NGOs in Syria and Iraq on how to combat chemical attacks. He spoke with The Arab Weekly about concerns posed by Syria.

The Arab Weekly (TAW): How worried are you by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s apparent impunity in the use of chemical weapons?

De Bretton-Gordon: We’re just approaching the seventh year of the Syrian conflict and the conflict has been synonymous with two crimes against humanity. First of all, the direct targeting of hospitals and medical staff and, secondly, the use of chemical weapons. Over the 7-year period, there have been at least 1,000 documented uses of chemical weapons.

Back in August 2012, [US] President Barack Obama made his famous statement about red line use of chemical weapons [the line that should not be crossed]. Then on the 21st of August, 2013, up to 1,500 people were killed in the suburb of Eastern Ghouta by the nerve agent sarin and subsequent investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons came to the conclusion that sarin nerve agent had been used and the Syrian regime was responsible.

The international community, for a lot of very bad reasons, decided not to act after that major chemical attack and although the declared stockpile of chemical weapons of the Assad regime was removed in 2014, it is very clear that some chemical weapons were held back.

TAW: Why is Assad using chemical weapons?

De Bretton-Gordon: The widespread use of chemicals has been very successful for the Syrian regime. The siege of Aleppo, which lasted four years, was eventually broken in December 2016 with extensive use of chlorine barrel bombs. We’ve seen in Eastern Ghouta, particularly over the last few months, the widespread use of chlorine and, even more worryingly, the nerve agent sarin. We’ve also seen in the last few weeks the extensive use of chlorine in Idlib province. Ghouta and Idlib are the two areas that are still defying the Syrian regime, which in effect with their Russian allies have won the war in Syria.

The psychological effect of the use of chemical weapons has always struck me as unbelievable when I’ve seen it in Syria and Iraq. Very brave people who’ve endured so much from conventional bombs and bullets wilt in the face of chemical weapons and that’s why they’re such a good terrorist weapon.

TAW: Why do you talk about a new cold war?

De Bretton-Gordon: The strategic concern is that although the Russians, I do not believe, are directly involved in the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, they’re certainly aware of this. The jets that took off from the Russian air base on the 4th of April, 2017, and dropped a nerve agent on the town of Khan Shaykhun were under the noses of the Russians.

I think from a strategic perspective with the new cold war between Russia and the West, the Russians, who in the past have always relied on chemical weapons and nuclear weapons as their defence against the West, could well reintroduce chemical weapons into their arsenal in any conflict with the West.

I think from the West’s perspective and particularly from NATO’s, most NATO countries have paid lip service to chemical weapons since the Cold War and have what we call in military terms taken a capability holiday with chemical weapons defence.

TAW: What can governments in the Middle East and North Africa do?

De Bretton-Gordon: We know in Libya, for instance, there was a vast stockpile of chemical weapons that was destroyed very effectively by the international community and the United Nations but, undoubtedly, as we’ve seen in Syria, elements of the stockpile will have been proliferated elsewhere. I think it is that region and particularly the ungoverned space where these things could expand.

Governments and the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] have a very key role to play here. It is most likely that chemical weapons are going to be used in the GCC region. I’m not sure that GCC countries are particularly well configured to defend against this. With their combined weight to put pressure on the United States, United Kingdom and France to do more, it will be critical to bring this to book because if we don’t stop chemical weapons usage in Syria now, it’s going to lead to proliferation. If the GCC can speak with a unified voice, they will hopefully exert pressure.