Reports of chemical weapons use in Syria are worrying

If chemical weapons are proved to have been used in Syria, the conflict is likely to further escalate.
Sunday 04/03/2018
A Syrian child and an adult receive treatment for a suspected chemical attack at a makeshift clinic in the Eastern Ghouta, on February 25. (AFP)
A Syrian child and an adult receive treatment for a suspected chemical attack at a makeshift clinic in the Eastern Ghouta region, on February 25. (AFP)

Reports that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime recently carried out a chlorine attack in the besieged enclave of Eastern Ghouta are cause for serious concern.

If confirmed, this would be at least the ninth instance since December 23, 2012, that the international community has been alerted to alleged chemical weapons use by the Damascus regime.

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), is said to have opened an investigation into the alleged recent chlorine attack in Eastern Ghouta.

As has happened many times in the past, the Syrian government and its Russian allies vehemently denied chemical weapons use. Even as he described the accusations as “false,” Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Hussam Edin Aala said his country “cannot possibly be using chemical weapons because it very simply has none in its possession.”

Under a 2013 deal between the United States and Russia, Assad’s government was supposed to have shipped out of the country its stockpile of chemical weapons. However, the agreement did not include chlorine because of its industrial uses.

In September 2014, just weeks after Syria dispatched the last of its chemical arsenal overseas, the OPCW confirmed that chlorine gas was being used in Syria.

Four years on, Damascus still claims its innocence. As before, its government has shifted blame for the alleged chlorine attack on Eastern Ghouta to “terrorist groups.”

It’s true that extremist groups fighting in Syria have been accused of chemical weapons use and are likely to have been involved in such activities. In November 2015, for instance, an OPCW fact-finding team determined with “the utmost confidence” that people were exposed to sulphur mustard in an attack in Marea, in northern Syria, where the Islamic State (ISIS) was fighting another rebel group.

That said, almost every neutral inquiry has found much to dispute in the systematic denials put out by Damascus (and Moscow) regarding chemical weapons use by Syrian government troops. An investigation by the United Nations and OPCW concluded in 2016 that Syrian government forces used chlorine gas on several occasions. The investigative report accused Syrian government forces of perpetrating a sarin nerve gas attack that killed more than 80 people.

Some media outlets recently said the United Nations is examining a report, yet to be released, according to which Syria may have found a source for stockpiling chemical weapons all over again. The New York Times and the Associated Press said the report contains “substantial new evidence” about cooperation between Syria and North Korea on ballistic missile and chemical warfare since 2008.

Amnesty International said the United Nations should publish its report. Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty’s director of research for the Middle East, said the report would be “an ominous marker,” if accurate, of the suspected crimes of the Syrian government and of its suppliers. To help “replenish its supplies would be a particularly egregious betrayal of humanity,” she said.

Several Western countries warned they will consider evidence of the use of chemical weapons as ample reason for military retaliation against the Syrian regime.

The issue of weapons of mass destruction has, of course, become overly politicised. It was the pretext for the US-led military invasion of Iraq in 2003, with all its disastrous consequences.

However, if chemical weapons are proved to have been used in Syria by the regime or by any other party, further escalation of an already-bloody conflict is to be expected.