OPCW Confirms Chlorine Attacks in Syria

By Daniel Horner

Evidence gathered by an investigative team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) forms a “consistent and credible narrative” of use of a toxic chemical as a weapon in Syria in recent months, the team said in a report issued Sept. 10.

The group concluded “with a high degree of confidence” that “chlorine, either pure or in mixture, is the toxic chemical in question.”

The team did not assign responsibility for the attacks, which the Syrian government and the rebels fighting to overthrow it have blamed on each other. But the OPCW investigators reported that “witnesses invariably connected the devices to helicopters flying overhead.” 

In a Sept. 21 statement commenting on the report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that because helicopters constitute “a capability the opposition lacks,” the evidence “strongly points to Syrian regime culpability.”

The forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad frequently have used helicopters to drop conventional explosives. The report described one incident in which a child standing near the landing point of a bomb dropped from a helicopter “died later because of exposure to the toxic chemical, while showing none of the obvious physical trauma as that usually inflicted by a conventional explosive device.”

The OPCW launched the fact-finding mission in April after allegations of chlorine use near the Syrian village of Kafr Zita. (See ACT, May 2014.) In May, a convoy carrying members of the OPCW team to Kafr Zita came under attack and had to turn back. For the report, the investigators interviewed witnesses from Kafr Zita and two other villages in northern Syria, Al Tamanah and Talmenes. The report said it also drew on documentation such as medical records.

According to the report, there was a “marked reduction” in allegations of chlorine use in May, June, and July. But in August, there was “a spate of new allegations, with accounts of the incidents bearing strong resemblance to those that are now confirmed as having been chlorine attacks.”

The United States is “gravely concerned” about the investigative team’s findings, which “point to” a CWC violation, Kerry said in his statement. Chlorine is not one of the toxic chemicals specifically listed in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), but its use as a weapon would constitute a violation of the treaty. 

Syria joined the CWC a year ago as part of an agreement hammered out by Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. That agreement formed the basis for actions by the OPCW Executive Council and UN Security Council under which more than 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons material were removed from Syria for destruction elsewhere.

Kerry also expressed “deep concerns regarding the accuracy and completeness” of Syria’s declaration of its arsenal to the OPCW when Damascus joined the CWC. 

During a Sept. 4 press briefing at the United Nations, Sigrid Kaag, the head of the OPCW-UN joint mission that has been overseeing the chemical disarmament work in Syria, said the discrepancies fall into several categories. She listed paperwork and documentation, areas “where the [Syrian] authorities have indicated that chemical materials have been destroyed” but the destruction “happened a long time ago [and] the records are not up to date,” and “areas where there are concerns over possible discrepancies in volume and other such matters.” There has been “close dialogue and cooperation” with the Syrians on these questions, she said.

Another issue that bears close watching, U.S. officials and others have said, is the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons production facilities. After protracted negotiations, the OCPW on July 24 announced an agreement on a plan for destroying 12 facilities. They comprise seven hangars and five underground structures, which are part of a system of tunnels. (See ACT, September 2014.)

At the UN briefing, Kaag said the tunnels would be destroyed by a method of “mix and fill.” It is “not high tech, and the equipment that’s going to be used is available in [Syria],” she said. The hangars are to be destroyed by chemical implosion, which is a little more complicated but “can be done,” she said.

Under the timetable in the July 24 OPCW decision document, the destruction of the hangars was to begin in late September and destruction of the underground structures a month later. But the document also says that the timelines for destruction “are estimates and could be refined after further consultation with technical experts and on the basis of initial experience in implementing this decision.” The Executive Council “shall review the timelines” to ensure that they “remain practical and realistic,” the document stated.

At a Sept. 10 event at the Center for Security and International Studies, Laura Holgate, senior director for weapons of mass destruction terrorism and threat reduction at the U.S. National Security Council, said meetings were taking place on issues such as “contracting and the methodologies involved and exactly when the [OPCW] inspectors will be where to observe what part of the destruction.”

In a Sept. 15 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a State Department official cited the OPCW as saying that the “start of the destruction of the hangars will fall in October.” The department has no information on a “specific start date” for the tunnels, the official said.

The OPCW did not respond to a request for information on the start dates.

In her Sept. 4 comments, Kaag estimated that the destruction activities would be completed by the end of March. Four of the 12 facilities are in “security-affected areas,” she said.

Regarding Syria’s adherence to the schedule, the State Department official said, “There are no guarantees[,] and we recognize that the work is both complex and unprecedented[,] but the United States will insist that the Syrian government provide the required support and assistance to enable the timely destruction of its remaining chemical weapons production facilities.”