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More Chemical Weapons Use in Syria: The Need for Accountability
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Arms Control NOW

Authored by Paul F. Walker on August 18, 2016

Hospital officials and observers on the ground in Syria reported August 10 still another attack with chlorine gas, killing ten or more civilians and injuring over 75 people.  This happened in Aleppo, a large northern Syria city split between rebel- and government-held parts, and the attacks took place in the rebel-held areas of Aleppo apparently as part of air-dropped barrel-bombs from helicopters.

Syrian citizens receiving treatment after an alleged poisonous gas attack. (Photo: Local Committee of Arbeen via AP)Although Syria officially joined the international Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), banning any use of chemicals as weapons, in September 2013, this latest report only adds to the hundreds of alleged attacks with toxic chemicals over the past three or more years. (A recent Arms Control Association factsheet documents these.)

The major question is who is responsible for these blatant, inhumane, and illegal attacks and how can they be stopped?

Limited use of chemical weapons in rebel-held areas of Syria was first reported in 2012. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the multilateral agency tasked with implementing the CWC, issued a statement July 18, 2012, noting that Syria was a party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical and biological weapons. The OPCW also warned that it was authorized to work with the United Nations to investigate any alleged use of chemical weapons, even in non-member countries. This was followed by several more OPCW statements in 2012 and 2013, warning of the illegality of use of chemical weapons, and by a March 21, 2013 announcement by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the UN and OPCW would investigate reports of chemical weapons use in Syria.

A major attack with sarin nerve agent weapons in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus  in August 2013, killed over 1,400 civilians and sparked international outrage at the use of weapons of mass destruction in the ongoing and tragic Syrian conflict.

Under pressure from Russia, an ally of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, and the United States, an opponent of Assad, Syria agreed to join the CWC in September 2013 and formally became the 192nd state-party to the 1993 treaty regime in October, thereby banning all development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons.  OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu welcomed Syria into the abolition regime and stated that an “accelerated program to verify the complete destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, production facilities and other relevant capabilities” would be undertaken immediately.

Syria declared 1,308 metric tons of chemical agents which were moved out of Syria over the coming year and safely destroyed on board a U.S. Merchant Marine ship, Cape Ray, in the Mediterranean and in four countries – Germany, Britain, Finland, and the United States.  Syria has also destroyed 24 of 27 declared chemical weapons production facilities (CWPFs), verified by the OPCW, and is waiting for improved security to destroy the remaining three.

But the continued alleged use of chlorine, mustard, and possibly other chemicals in Syria (and Iraq) remains very disturbing.  While chlorine is not specifically banned by the CWC, as a dual-use toxic chemical it still can be used for nefarious purposes.  The CWC, however, bans the use of any chemical as a weapon and therefore prohibits the use of any toxic chemical in warfare.

The OPCW’s several Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) reports over the last two years have continually documented with “grave concern” the use of chemical agents in Syria, but have not sought to attribute responsibility for the attacks.  The Joint Investigative Mission (JIM), established last year by the UN and OPCW, is now in the process of analyzing several reported chemical attacks in 2014 and 2015 and is due to issue its final report in September.

At the same time, the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team (DAT), established in 2013 to work on clarifying the required Syrian declaration to the OPCW under CWC Article III, appears to be stalled on answering many outstanding questions. U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Ward stated at the OPCW Executive Council July 12, 2016 that “…the [OPCW] Secretariat is not able to resolve all identified gaps, inconsistencies, and discrepancies in Syria’s declaration, and therefore cannot verify that Syria has submitted a declaration that can be considered accurate and complete…The Director-General’s report also contains some specific findings that directly challenge the veracity of Syria’s declaration and raise serious doubts about Syria’s intentions.”

While it remains unclear who is still dropping barrel bombs filled with chlorine gas in the Syrian conflict, the bulk of evidence points to the Syrian government and military, only magnified by the ongoing stonewalling by Syrian government officials of questions from the OPCW.  The forthcoming JIM report in September will hopefully help in determining culpability for these chemical attacks, but it will be very important for the OPCW, its 192 states-parties, and the UN to hold these attackers accountable and to help preserve the global abolition of a whole class of weapons of mass destruction.

Paul Walker is director of the environmental security and sustainability program of Green Cross International, and vice-chair of the board of the Arms Control Association. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulWalkerGG.

Paul F. Walker