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Chemical Weapons

Interview: Why Did Syria Still Have Chemical Weapons?

This op-ed originally appeared in NYMag.com. Late on Thursday night, Donald Trump launched the first military strike of his presidency, hitting a Syrian government air base with 59 missiles. It was the same air base from which Syria had dispatched a chemical-weapons attack against its own people earlier this week. Foreign-policy experts are only now beginning to debate whether the U.S. is at war with Syria; what happens next remains totally unclear. However, one thing is certain: Syria’s chemical weapons were supposed to be gone as of 2014, thanks to a removal plan the U.S. and Russia had...

Timeline of Syrian Chemical Weapons Activity, 2012-2017

April 2017

Contact: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, 202-463-8270 x107; Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy, 202-463-8270 x102.

April 2017

In July 2012, Syria publicly acknowledged that it possesses chemical weapons. For a number of years preceding this announcement, the United States intelligence community assessed that Syria has a stockpile of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, blister agents, and nerve agents such as sarin and VX. Syria has the capability to deliver these agents using aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets.

Below is a timeline of significant events related to Syria’s chemical weapons program from July 2012 to the present.


July 23, 2012: Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi confirmed for the first time that Syria has chemical weapons, stating that these weapons would never be used against the Syrian people, but only against “external aggression.”

August 20, 2012: President Barack Obama articulated his red-line regarding  the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Obama said his calculations on a military response would change significantly if the United States sees “a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

August 23, 2012: An official in the State Department confirmed that “Syria has a stockpile composed of nerve agents and mustard gas” and that the U.S. government monitors Syria’s chemical weapons activities “very closely.”

December 23, 2012: The first allegation of  chemical weapons use was reported.  Seven people were allegedly killed in Homs by a “poisonous gas” used by the Assad regime. The coverage included the report of side effects such as nausea, relaxed muscles, blurred vision, and breathing difficulties.



January 15, 2013: A secret State Department cable from the U.S. consul general in Istanbul said there was compelling evidence that the Syrian military had used a chemical weapon known as Agent 15 in Homs on December 23, 2012.

January 16, 2013: Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that the alleged incident of chemical weapons use in December was not consistent with information that the White House has about Syria’s chemical weapons program.

March 19, 2013: Alleged chemical weapons attacks were reported in Syria’s two main cities, the Khan al-Assel neighborhood of Aleppo and the Damascus suburb of al-Atebeh. About 25 people reportedly were killed and dozens more injured. The Assad regime claimed that Syrian opposition forces used chemical weapons in the fighting there.

March 20, 2013: The Syrian government requested the United Nations conduct an investigation of the March 19 attack on Aleppo, claiming that opposition forces used chemical weapons and killed 25 people.

President Obama said in a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that “the use of chemical weapons is a game changer,” in Syria.

March 21, 2013: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the United Nations will conduct an investigation on the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, in conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Prior to the announcement, France and the United Kingdom sent letters to the Secretary-General, calling for investigations into three alleged incidents of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

March 24, 2013: Syrian opposition activists reported that Syrian forces used chemical weapons from multiple rocket launchers at the town of Adra, northeast of Damascus, alleging two deaths and 23 injuries. Doctors described that the weapons used were phosphorus bombs that harm the nervous system and induce imbalance and loss of consciousness.

April 13, 2013: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that the Syrian army dropped two gas bombs on rebel-controlled Aleppo, killing two people and wounding 12. Opponents of the Syrian governmen accused the army of using chemical weapons.

April 17, 2013: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that Syria has impeded the UN investigation by failing to agree to the scope of the UN inquiry on chemical weapons use.

April 25, 2013: A letter sent to Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) from the U.S. intelligence community said that the Assad regime may have used the nerve agent sarin “on a small scale” in Syria, but that the United States needs more evidence to provide “some degree of certainty” for any decision-making on further action. The letter also said that the Assad regime maintains custody of the chemical weapons in Syria.

April 26, 2013: President Obama remarked that the United States and the international community will work together to gain “strong evidence” of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.

April 29, 2013: A helicopter dropped canisters allegedly containing chemical weapons on the town of Saraqeb. Eight people claimed symptoms such as nausea and breathing problems, and one of them later died.

June 4, 2013: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius asserted that there was “no doubt” that the Syrian regime used sarin in multiple cases. Fabius said that the French government confirmed the use of sarin by testing specimen taken from Syria. A UN report also said that there are “reasonable grounds” to have confidence in Syria’s use of chemical weapons four times in March and April, although the report cannot specify the chemical agents or verify who used them.

June 13, 2013: The White House said that the U.S. intelligence community has “high confidence” that the Assad regime attacked opposition forces by using chemical weapons multiple times over the past year. In the statement, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said that physiological samples from multiple sources show exposure to chemical weapons. The evidence of use is recognized as “credible” in the statement.

August 14, 2013: Assad agreed to allow the UN inspection team into Syria to investigate three possible uses of chemical weapons. The team’s mandate only allows it to establish whether or not chemical weapons were used, not who used them.

August 21, 2013: Syrian opposition activists claimed that a large-scale chemical weapons attack occurred at the suburbs of the Ghouta region, where Syrian forces had been attempting to expel rebel force. Reports said that thousands of victims of the attack have been counted in the Damascus suburbs, whose symptoms were typically body convulsion, forming from mouths, blurry vision and suffocation. Although the number of victims has not been clarified yet, it is estimated to exceed 1,000 people, many of whom were non-combatant.

The United Nations Security Council also held an emergency meeting regarding the attack. The meeting produced a statement demanding further clarity of the incident.

August 23, 2013: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson expressed the intention of the UN to conduct “a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation” on the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria on August 21.

The OPCW Director General, Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, expressed grave concerns about the latest attack in Syria, and said that the OPCW experts were already in Syria with the UN investigation team.

August 25, 2013: The Syrian regime announced that it will let the UN inspection team investigating past incidents of chemical weapons use visit the Damascus sites in the following days.

August 26, 2013: The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in his press briefing that all information the U.S. has, including reports of the number of victims, their symptoms, and the firsthand accounts from humanitarian organizations, strongly indicate that chemical weapons were used in Syria. He also said that Syria attempted to cover-up the incident in the days following the attack.

Syrian President Bashar Assad announced that his army did not use chemical weapons in the August 21 attack in Damascus. Assad recognized the allegation of his use of chemical weapons as “politically motivated," in his meeting with Russia's Izvestia daily.

A convoy transporting the UN investigation team of chemical weapons was attacked by snipers in Syria. No UN personnel were injured, but they were unable to visit all of the sites affected by the attack.

August 28, 2013: The United States has concluded that the Assad regime conducted chemical weapons attacks against civilians, President Obama said in “PBS NewsHour.” Obama said he had not yet made a decision whether to take a military action in Syria.

A second UN Security Council meeting was held.

August 29, 2013: The British Parliament voted against supporting military action in Syria. Before the vote, a report from the Joint Intelligence Committee released a report which stated that chemical weapons were used in the August 21 attach, and that it was "highly likely" that the Assad regime was responsible.

August 30, 2013: The White House released the U.S. Government Assessment on the use of chemical weapons in Syria on August 21. The report says that the intelligence community has "high confidence" that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against the opposition elements in Damascus. Secretary Kerry, in an address, also said that the regime used chemical weapons "multiple times" over the past year. Kerry said discussions on military action are underway. The U.S. Government Assessment included this map of Damascus and the areas impacted by the alleged August 21 chemical weapons attack.

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August 31, 2013: President Obama made a statement saying that he would seek an authorization for the use of force from Congress for a limited military strike in Syria. Given the evidence of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime in the August 21 attack, Obama said he supported limited action in order to deter further chemical weapons use and uphold international norms.

September 2, 2013: France released its declassified intelligence assessment, which concluded that the Assad regime used Sarin gas in the August 21 attack, and in two earlier attacks in April. The report also said France assessed that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime violated the 1925 Geneva Protocol.

September 9, 2013: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced a Russian proposition whereby Syria would agree to place its chemical weapons under international control and dismantle them and the United States would agree not to conduct a military strike on the country. Prior to the Russian announcement, Secretary of State Kerry, speaking in the United Kingdom, suggested that if the Assad regime turned over all of its chemical weapons to the international community "without delay", a miltiary strike could be averted. Speaking to media outlets after Secretary Kerry, President Barack Obama said that the United States would consider the plan.

September 10, 2013: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said that the Assad regime welcomed discussion on Russia's plan to give up Syria's chemical weapons and join the Chemical Weapons Convention. President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, and British Prime Minister David Cameron discussed how to implement the plan through the UN Security Council, with France beginning to draft a resolution based on the Russian proposal, but with stipulations that force be authorized if Assad fails to implement the provisions of the resolution.

President Obama, in an address to the nation, also requested that Congress postpone a vote on the use of force while the diplomatic path proposed by the Russians is pursued in the UN Security Council. However, he also reiterated his commitment to pursue miltiary action if a deal on securing Syria's chemical weapons is not reached.

September 12, 2013: The Assad regime sent a letter to the United Nations Secretary General which said that Assad signed a legislative decree providing the accession of Syria to the Chemical Weapons Convention. In the letter, Assad said Syria woud observe its CWC obligations immediately, as opposed to 30 days from the date of accession, as stipulated in the treaty.

In Geneva, Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, to begin discussions of the Russian proposal for securing the Assad regime's chemical weapons.

September 14, 2013: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reached an agreement on a detailed plan for the accounting, inspection, control, and elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. The plan requires Syria to provide a full declaration of its stockpile “within a week” and provide the OPCW and the UN access to all chemical weapons sites in Syria. The plan calls for the OPCW inspectors  to complete their initial inspections by November and calls for the destruction of the stockpile of chemical weapons and chemical agents by the first half of 2014. The United States and Russia will now seek to secure approval of the plan by the OPCW executive council and then a UN Security Council resolution. The agreement outlined states that “in the event of non-compliance, including unauthorized transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

September 16, 2013: UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon delivered a report on the UN investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The report concluded that chemical weapons were used against on August 21 on a "relatively large scale", and that the victims included civilians. The report cited evidence of the nerve agent sarin both in the environment and present in victims of the attack. It was outside of the report's mandate to assign blame for who used the chemical weapons.

September 20, 2013: In accordance with the terms of the agreement negotiated by the United States and Russia, Syria submitted a declaration of its stockpiles of chemical weapons to the OPCW.

September 27, 2013: The Executive Council of the OPCW adopted a timeline for destroying Syria's chemical weapons. Hours later, the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted to adopt a resolution that endorses the OPCW timeline for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. The Security Council Resolution says that the body will impose measures under Chapter VII of its charter if Syria does not comply with the resolution, or uses or authorizes the transfer of any chemical agents.

October 1, 2013: A joint team of OPCW and UN officials arrived in Syria to begin destruction of the country's chemical weapons stockpiles and facilities.

October 6, 2013: Officials from the OPCW and UN team said that destruction of Syria's stockpiles of chemical weapons began. The officials confirmed that the Syrians will actually complete the destruction work, while the UN and OPCW team will monitor and verify the activities.

October 27, 2013: Syria submitted the details of its plans for "total and verified destruction" of its chemical weapons stockpile and production facilities to the OPCW. This declaration follows an initial declaration submitted on Sept. 20.

October 31, 2013: The OPCW confirmed that Syria destroyed, or rendered inoperable, all of its declared facilities for mixing and producing chemical weapons. The OPCW was able to inspect 21 of the 23 sites where these facilities were housed. The remaining two sites could not be visited due to security concerns, but inspectors said that the equiptment was moved out of these sites and destroyed.

November 15, 2013: The OPCW Executive Council approved a plan for the elimination of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons. The plan call for transporting the weapons outside of Syria and destruction of the chemical agents in a country that has yet to be identified. The "most critical" chemicals are to be transported out of Syria by December 31, 2013 and the remainder by February 5, 2014. The plan calls for the destruction no later than June 30, 2014, and the destruction of certain priority chemicals by March 15, 2014.

The Executive Council also announced that the OPCW was able to verify that 60 percent of Syrian declared, unfilled, munitions for chemical weapons delivery had been destroyed. Syria committed to destroying all of its unfilled munitions by January 31, 2014.

November 30, 2013: The OPCW announced that Syria's chemical weapons will be destroyed on a U.S. ship using hydrolysis. Hydrolysis is a process that breaks down chemical agents using hot water and other compounds to neutralize the agents.

December 12, 2013: The UN team led by Ake Sellstrom investigating incidents of chemical weapons use in Syria issued its final report to UN Secreatary-General Ban Ki Moon. The report found that chemical weapons were likely used in five of the seven attacks investigated. The nerve agent sarin was likely used in four of the attacks, one of which was the large scale attack on a Damascus suburb in August.

December 31, 2013: Syria missed the deadline for sending all of its chemical weapons out of the country. This deadline was set by a UN Security Council Resolution approved in September.


January 7, 2014: Syria delivered the first load of chemical weapons to its port city Latakia. The chemical weapons were then loaded on a Danish ship that sailed out into international waters. China and Russia are providing protection for the ship, which will eventually transer the cargo to the US ship, the MV Cape Ray, to be neutralized using hydrolysis.

January 9, 2014: The German government announced its willingness to assist in the disposal of the chemical waste byproduct that will be created from the hydrolysis process.

January 16, 2014: Italian Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi said that Gioa Tauro, a port in southern Italy, will be used to transfer Syrian chemical weapons to the US ship, the Cape Ray, that will neutralize the chemicals using hydrolysis.

January 27, 2014: A second shipment of Syrian chemical weapons was loaded onto Dannish and Norwegian ships at the Syrian port of Lattakia. The U.S. ship that will receive the chemical weapons and then neutralize them using hydrolysis, the Cape Ray, left port. The chemicals will be transfered to the Cape Ray at the Italian port Gioa Tauro.

February 6, 2014: Sigrid Kaag, head of the UN/OPCW mission for destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, addressed the UN Security Council a day after Syria missed a second deadline for handing over its critical chemicals and said that she did not believe that the Assad regime was deliberately stalling the removal process. However, she urged Syria to speed up the shipments in order to meet the destruction deadline of June 30.

February 10, 2014: A third shipment of Syrian chemical weapons was loaded on a Norwegian cargo ship. In total, 11 percent of Syria's chemical weapons were shipped out of Syria.

February 14, 2014: The OPCW announced that two companies, one in Finland (Ekokem OY AB) and one in Texas (Veolia), were awarded contracts to dispose of the effluent created during the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons.

February 21, 2014: The OPCW executive committeed met to consider the Assad regime's new proposal for shipping out its chemical weapons. After failing to meet a Feb. 5 deadline to remove all of its chemical weapons and precursor chemicals out of the country, the regime proposed a 100 day extension. The OPCW executive committee, however, said that it an be accomplished more quickly. The 100 day extension also will not allow the the Cape Ray enough time to destroy the chemical weapons by the June 30 UN Security Council deadline.

February 25, 2014: The Assad regime delivered a shipment of mustard gas to the Syrian port of Latakia to be loaded onto ships.

March 4, 2014: The Assad regime submitted a revised proposal to remove its chemical weapons from Syria by the end of April 2014. Two additional shipments of chemical weapons also reached the port of Latakia and were loaded onto ships. In total, more than 35% of the country's chemical weapons have been removed.

March 7, 2014: The Executive Council concluded its 75th Session and noted in its report the “increasing pace” of removal of Syria’s chemical stockpile and requested the Syria continue “systematic, predictable and substantial movements” to complete the shipments.

Another shipment of priority 1 chemicals was reached the port of Latakia, bringing the total amount of chemical agents removed from Syria to 29 percent of the total stockpile.

March 19, 2014: The OPCW said that two additional shipments of Priority 1 and Priority 2 chemicals were delivered to the port of Latakia and loaded onto cargo vessels during the past week. Syria has now shipped out more than 45 percent of its stockpile.

April 4, 2014: The 12th shipment of Syrian chemical weapons reached the port of Latakia, according to the OPCW.

April 11, 2014: Reports emerged of an attack using chlorine-gas bombs in Kafr Zita, a village controlled by oposition forces in northwestern Syria.

April 14, 2014: The Syrian government delivered its 13th consignment of chemicals to Latakia, which was removed today from the port on cargo ships. As of this delivery, the OPCW said that the Assad regime has shipped out 65 percent of its total stockpile of chemical weapons, including 57 percent of the Priority 1 chemicals.

April 18, 2014: Additional shipments of chemical weapons reached the port of Latakia between April 14-18. The OPWC said in an April 18 statement that in total, the 16 shipments constitute about 80 percent of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons.

April 22, 2014: Another shipment reached Latakia port, bringing the total of the chemical weapons stockpile removed from Syria to 86 percent.

April 24, 2014: An additional shipment to Latakia brings the total to 92 percent.

April 29, 2014: The OPCW announced that it would send a team to investigate the April 11 attacks that the Assad regime used cholorine gas.

May 1, 2014: Syria missed the revised deadline to remove all of its chemical weapons stockpile from the country by the end of April. Approximately 8 percent of the stockpile, largely sarin precursor chemicals, remains in Damascus.

June 8, 2014: The Norwegian ship Taiko departed for Finland and the United States to deliver Syrian chemical weapons for destruction.

June 17, 2014: The OPCW's fact finding mission in Syria to investigate the use of chlorine gas concluded that it was used in earlier attacks. The team was unable to visit all of the locations due security issues.

Click image to enlarge.

June 23, 2014: OPCW Director General Uzumcu announced that the last 8 percent of Syria's chemical weapons was shipped out of the country from the port of Latakia on the Danish ship Ark Futura. Uzumcu says the chemicals should be destroyed within four months.

July 2, 2014: Over 600 metric tons of chemical weapons were loaded on to the Cape Ray at the port of Gioia Tauro in Italy.

July 21, 2014: The OPCW announced that all of the chemical weapons have reached the various facilities in Finland, the United States, the United Kingdom, or the Cape Ray for destruction. At the time of the announcement nearly 32 percent of the total stockpiles had been destroyed.

July 24, 2014: The executive council of the OPCW also announced that seven hangars in Syria that were part of the country's chemical weapons will be destroyed and five bunkers will be permanently sealed.

August 13, 2014: The OPCW announced that 581 metric tonnes of a precursor chemical for sarin gas have been neutranlized on the Cape Ray. Operations to neutralize the blister agent sulfer mustard have now begun.

August 19, 2014: The Cape Ray completed destruction of 600 metric tons of Syrian chemical weapons and precursor chemicals. The OPCW announced that the ship will now transport the effluent to Finland and Germany for disposal at land-based facilities.

September 10, 2014: The OPCW confirmed that chlorine gas is being used in Syria. While the OPCW did not assign blame for the attacks, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the use of helicopters to drops the chlorine gas "strongly points" to the Assad regime as the perpetrator.


March 6, 2015: The UN Security Council adopted a resolution March 6 condemning the use of chlorine as a weapon in Syria’s civil war and threatening action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter if chemical arms are used again.

April 16, 2015: Doctors testified at the UN Security Council about recent chlorine gas attacks in Syria. Human Righs Watch estimated that over 200 were killed by recent chloring attacks.

May 8, 2015: Reuters reported that the OPCW confirms traces of sarin and VX gas at a military facility in Syria that were not declared. The samples were taken in December and January.

August 7, 2015: Security Council Resolution 2235 was adopted, creating an investiagtive unit to determine the responsible parties for reported chemical weapons attacks in Syria.


November 6, 2015: A press release from the OPCW fact-finding team claimed with "the utmost confidence" that the Islamic State used sulfur mustard in an attack on August 21, 2015 in Marea, in northern Syria.

January 4, 2016: The OPCW announced in a press release that the last of the Syrian chemical weapons material, 75 cylinders of hydrogen fluoride, had been destroyed by Veolia Environmental Services Technical Solutions.

August 10, 2016: Hospital officials reported a chemcial weapons attack using chlorine gas in Aleppo.

August 24, 2016: The third report of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism was realeased, finding that the Syrian government was responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Talmenes in April 2014 and in Sarmin in March 2015. The report found that the Islamic State was responsible for an attack using sulfur mustard in Marea in August 2015.

September 7, 2016: Allegations were made that toxic chemicals, likely chlorine gas, were used in Aleppo. 

October 21, 2016: The OPCW-UN Joint Investigate Mechanism issued a report finding that the Syrian regime was responsible for a third attach using chlorine gas in Idlib province on March 16, 2015. 

November 11, 2016: The OPCW Executive Council adopted a decision that condemns the use of chemical weapons in Syria and calls upon parties responsible for use, as identified in the OPCW-UN Joint Investigate Mechanism reports, to desist from further attacks using chemicals. The decision called for additional investigations at Syria at sites identified by the UN-OPCW reports and inspection of facilities in Syria. 

December 13, 2016: Allegations were made that chemical weapons were used in the Islamic State controlled areas of the Hama Governate, northwest of Palmyra. 


April 4, 2017: Chemical weapons were used in an attack that killed dozens of people in Syria's northern Idlib province. Initial reports suggest the attack used sarin gas, a nerve agent. The attack is believed to have been perpetrated by the Syrian government, due to the type of aircraft in the area at the time. The OPCW announced that it is investigating the reports. 

April 5, 2017: The UN Security Council called an emergency meeting to discuss the chemical weapons attack in Idlib. 

April 6, 2017: The United States used Tomahawk cruise missiles to target an air base in Syria. The Assad regime believed to have conducted the April 4 chemical weapons attack from that base.  

-Researched by Yuta Kawashima, updated by Alicia Sanders-Zakre

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Posted: April 7, 2017

VX Use in Assassination “Reprehensible”

The Executive Council of the (OPCW) expressed “grave concern” March 10 about the apparent use of VX nerve agent to assassinate Kim Jong Nam.

April 2017

The Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) expressed “grave concern” March 10 about the apparent use of VX nerve agent to assassinate Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of North Korea’s dictator, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The OPCW called the use of VX, as announced by the Malaysian Foreign Ministry on March 3, “reprehensible and completely contrary to the legal norms and standards of the international community,” amid speculation that dictator Kim Jong Un was behind the Feb. 13 attack. Kim Jong Nam died about 20 minutes after two women, one Indonesian and the other Vietnamese, applied VX on his face, according to Malaysian authorities, who said the women had been recruited by a team of North Koreans. The OPCW offered to provide technical assistance to Malaysia’s investigation. Ri Tong Il, a senior North Korean diplomat who flew to Kuala Lumpur to collect the body, attributed the death to a possible heart attack due to a history of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Malaysian officials said they would delay the transfer of the remains temporarily while awaiting word from immediate family living in Macau and China.


Posted: March 31, 2017

Iraqi Forces Take Chemical Weapons Site

Iraqi forces retook the University of Mosul, where the Islamic State group reportedly produced chemical weapons. 

March 2017

Iraqi pharmaceutics student Abdesatar al-Hamdany, 21, carries his books in front of the destroyed buildings of Mosul University on January 22, a week after Iraqi government forces retook the campus from the Islamic State fighters. (Photo credit: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi forces retook the University of Mosul, where the Islamic State group reportedly produced chemical weapons. The terrorist organization produced sulfur mustard agent at the university, which also served as the group’s Mosul headquarters, a Pentagon official said Feb 7. The intended use of so-called mustard gas by the group was “primarily as [a skin] irritant and something to scare people,” not as a lethal weapon, according to U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

Since 2014, the group has used chemical weapons, including chlorine and sulfur mustard agents, at least 52 times in Iraq and Syria, the IHS Conflict Monitor said in November 2016. Many of those attacks were in and around Mosul. In August 2016, a joint investigative panel of the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found that the Islamic State group used sulfur mustard in an August 2015 attack in the northern Syrian town of Marea. The Syrian regime used chlorine gas in multiple attacks in 2014 and 2015. (See ACT, November 2016.)

Posted: March 1, 2017

UN Extends Syria CW Investigation

The UN Security Council remained deadlocked last month over sanctioning the Syrian regime due to objections from Russia. 

December 2016

By Daryl G. Kimball

In response to the first documented finding that a state-party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) used prohibited chemical weapons, the UN Security Council remained deadlocked last month over sanctioning the Syrian regime due to objections from Russia. However, it extended the mandate of a special investigative team to continue its work for another year.

Separately, a majority of the 41 member states on the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) formally condemned the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, but also stopped short of sanctioning the guilty party.

Virginia Gamba, head of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism, briefs the press on October 27 following presentation of the group’s fourth report to the Security Council. (Photo credit: Amanda Voisard/UN)A special UN-OPCW investigative team briefed the Security Council on Oct. 27 on its determination of groups responsible for conducting chemical attacks in Syria. It found Syrian government forces responsible for the use of chlorine, a choking agent, three times during 2014 and 2015, and blamed the Islamic State group in Syria for using sulfur mustard gas, a blistering agent, in August 2015. (See ACT, November 2016.)

Russia’s UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, disputed the findings of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) as “unconvincing” and argued that no sanctions should be imposed on the Syrian government. Russian-supplied helicopters were found by the investigators to have been used by Syrian army units to drop barrel bombs containing chlorine.

Following a massive sarin gas attack in August 2013 in the suburbs of Damascus, the United States and Russia brokered a plan requiring Syria to join the CWC and allow for the removal and destruction of its large chemical weapons stockpile and associated production and delivery capacity. The Security Council unanimously voted in September 2013 to adopt Resolution 2118 endorsing the U.S.-Russian plan and agreed that the body would impose measures under Chapter VII of its charter if Syria did not comply or if it used or authorized the transfer of chemical agents.

Since the 13-month JIM investigation into subsequent chemical weapons incidents was completed, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States have been pushing the Security Council to impose punitive sanctions on the Syrian regime for its continued use of chlorine as a weapon. But Russia, which is allied with the Syrian regime, would likely have vetoed such a measure, according to diplomatic officials who spoke with Arms Control Today.

Instead, the Security Council on Oct. 13 unanimously adopted Resolution 2314 to extend the mandate of the JIM to Nov. 18 to allow time to negotiate a one-year renewal of its mission. 

“We consider this renewal as a necessary step, but only a first step,” French Ambassador to the UN Francois Delattre told Agence France-Presse on Oct. 31. “There are more cases of chemical weapons use in Syria, and so it is absolutely critical that the JIM gets later a one-year mandate to continue its investigation.” 

On Nov. 17, the council voted unanimously to authorize the JIM to continue its investigations for a year. 

“There is credible evidence of many more chemical weapons attacks carried out by the Assad regime,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said in a statement following the vote. “The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime is a clear violation of Syria’s obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and under Security Council Resolution 2118.”

OPCW Seeks Accountability  

In a resolution adopted Nov. 11, the OPCW Executive Council, meeting in The Hague, called on all parties identified in the JIM reports as culpable to desist immediately, and it authorized additional inspections at sites and facilities in Syria. 

The resolution, which was advanced by Spain, stated that “every actor involved in these chemical weapons attacks should be held accountable” but did not sanction any Syrian government entities involved in the chlorine attacks. U.S. officials told Arms Control Today that a number of countries said the UN Security Council, not the OPCW Executive Council, should be the body that mandates punitive measures when a state is found to be in violation of the chemical weapons ban.

“The United States would have preferred an even stronger statement against those responsible for chemical weapons use in Syria,” according to a State Department official who spoke with Foreign Policy on Nov. 11.

The resolution, which was supported by 28 states, including France, Germany, the UK, and the United States, according to Reuters, also expressed grave concern that gaps, inconsistencies, and discrepancies in the Syrian government’s initial declaration have not been resolved. Russia, China, Sudan, and Iran voted against the compromise Spanish resolution, Reuters reported, and nine countries abstained. 

The resolution also demanded that the Syrian government comply fully and authorized OPCW inspectors to visit two sites identified in the most recent JIM reports as having been “involved in the weaponization, storage, delivery and use of toxic chemicals as weapons.”

U.S. officials argue that all perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks must be held accountable. “If we want to deter the use of chemical weapons and other types of prohibited weapons in the future, accountability matters,” according to remarks delivered Nov. 16 in Washington by Thomas Countryman, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

Posted: November 30, 2016

Syria Blamed for Chlorine Attack

The latest report by a UN Security Council panel found that the Syrian regime is responsible for a third attack involving chlorine gas, a finding largely overshadowed by the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo. 

November 2016

By Kelsey Davenport

The latest report by a UN Security Council panel found that the Syrian regime is responsible for a third attack involving chlorine gas, a finding largely overshadowed by the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo. 

The panel, charged by the Security Council in August 2015 with investigating and identifying groups that used chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, concluded in an Oct. 21 report that the Syrian government was responsible for using a toxic substance consistent with chlorine gas in an attack on the village of Qmenas, in Idlib province, on March 16, 2015.

A wounded woman is placed in an ambulance as rebel fighters and their families arrive on the outskirts of Idlib following their evacuation from rebel-held neighborhoods of the Syrian capital on October 14, 2016. (Photo credit: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)The Syrian government is prohibited from using chlorine gas, a choking agent, under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Damascus acceded to the CWC in 2013, giving up its major stocks of chemical weapons and precursors in a Russian-brokered deal to avoid threatened U.S. airstrikes against the regime headed by Bashar al-Assad. Syria’s weaponization of chlorine, a chemical with many nonmilitary uses, has exposed a major gap in that deal. (See ACT, November 2013.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said that the United States condemns in the “strongest possible terms the Assad regime’s defiance of the longstanding global norm against chemical weapons use.” 

In an Oct. 22 statement, Price said the United States will work with international partners to “enforce accountability” for the attacks through “appropriate diplomatic mechanisms,” including the UN Security Council and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversees the CWC. Price called on Russia and Iran, two countries that support Syria’s military operations, to “unequivocally support these efforts and sustain our shared commitment” to the norm against chemical weapons use. 

The 15 members of the UN Security Council received the panel’s report on Oct. 21, and the council is expected to consider a resolution imposing sanctions on Syria for the continued use of chemical weapons. But the record of the Syrian regime, bolstered by Russian aircraft and protected by Russia’s Security Council veto, show the difficulty in imposing meaningful pressure or punishment. 

This is the third attack using chlorine gas attributed to the Assad regime occurring between April 2014 and August 2015. 

On Aug. 24, the panel issued a report that assigned blame to the Syrian regime for using toxic substances consistent with chlorine gas in a March 2015 attack on Sarmin and an April 2014 attack on Talmenes. The Aug. 24 report also found the Islamic State group responsible for the use of sulfur mustard in Marea in August 2015. 

In the Aug. 24 report, the panel found insufficient evidence to determine responsibility in three additional cases and found that several others, including the Qmenas attack, required additional investigation to assign blame.

Posted: October 31, 2016

Hold Syria Accountable on the CWC

Assad’s industrial chlorine barrel bomb attacks require a strong and unified international response from the UN Security Council and the OPCW. 

November 2016

By Daryl G. Kimball

Over the course of the horrific five and a half years of Syrian civil war, the government of Bashar al-Assad, his Russian allies, and extremist fighters, have committed numerous war crimes. Some 500,000 people have died, and more than 10 million have been displaced. There is no military solution to the conflict, yet the killing continues.

Among the most heinous aspects of the war has been the repeated use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime beginning in late 2012, including the massive August 2013 sarin gas attack that killed more than 1,400 civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

Screenshot from a video posted to YouTube on April 11, 2014 shows substantial yellow coloration at base of the cloud over Keferzita, Syria, drifting with main cloud. (Via Human Rights Watch)The Ghouta attack led the United States to threaten the use of force to try to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal. This threat prompted Moscow to work with Washington to develop and to help compel Assad to accept an ambitious agreement mandating the expeditious and verified removal and elimination of Syria’s massive arsenal of 1,308 metric tons of chemical agents, storage and production facilities, and associated equipment under the auspices of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). 

The UN Security Council unanimously approved the OPCW timeline for destroying Syria’s chemical arsenal under Resolution 2118 and allowed for measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter if Syria does not comply or otherwise violates the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

The complex, multinational disposal operation was a major milestone that effectively eliminated the threat of further large-scale chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime against the Syrian people and neighboring states.

But in October, after a 13-month-long investigation, the fourth report of the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) confirmed what has been suspected for some time—that the Assad regime has continued to drop barrel bombs filled with chlorine from Russian-supplied military helicopters on civilian areas. The JIM reported that the helicopter flights originated from two bases where the 253rd and 255th Syrian Army air squadrons belonging to the 63rd helicopter brigade are located. 

Although less destructive and deadly than sarin nerve agent, Assad’s industrial chlorine barrel bomb attacks violate the CWC and are war crimes. These are the first-ever documented cases that a CWC member state has used chemical weapons. 

This serious matter concerns all states and requires a strong and unified international response from the UN Security Council and the 192 states-parties of the OPCW. Russian diplomats will try to shield the Syrian regime from tough UN sanctions, but other states must act with clarity and conviction.

For example, under Chapter VII the Security Council could demand the immediate grounding of the Syrian Army helicopter units involved in the attacks and a halt to all forms of assistance to these units, including Russian military support. Individuals involved in authorizing and conducting the chlorine attacks should be prosecuted for war crimes. Entities providing such assistance should be subjected to sanctions. 

The OPCW Executive Council should revoke Syria’s rights and privileges within the body until such time that it is determined to be in full compliance with its CWC obligations. To help deter additional barrel bomb attacks, the mandate for the JIM should be extended as requested to investigate additional reported chemical weapons attacks in Syria further.

The OPCW Declaration Assessment Team must be authorized to continue to press Syrian government officials to fill in the large gaps in their 2013 official declaration to the OPCW in order to ensure that Syria fully eliminates its chemical warfare capacity, including any more production of barrel bombs. 

An inadequate international response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime will only increase the risk that the world’s most dangerous, indiscriminate, and inhumane weapons will be used to commit atrocities in the future, erode the integrity of the CWC, and undermine the authority of the Security Council.

Russia, which has backed the Syrian regime and become directly involved in aerial bombardments of civilians itself, has a special responsibility to support and not block a strong response at the OPCW and on the Security Council. After all, Syria has brazenly violated the terms of the 2013 agreement that Moscow helped broker. 

Likewise, Iran, which was a victim of horrible gas attacks during its war with Iraq in the 1980s but now backs Assad, must also support strong action or lose credibility as a defender of chemical weapons victims.

Unfortunately, there are no international laws against war itself, but there are rules about how wars can and cannot be conducted. Holding the line against further chemical weapons use is a core U.S. and international security interest because chemical weapons produce horrible effects and because the erosion of the global taboo against chemical weapons use can lead to more and more significant use of weapons of mass destruction in the future.

Posted: October 28, 2016

Much more needed from top presidential candidates on arms issues

This guest post is written by Jeff Abramson, organizer for the Forum on Arms Trade and nonresident senior fellow with the Arms Control Association. The assessments here are not endorsed by other experts, the Arms Control Association, the Forum on the Arms Trade, nor the candidates. The next U.S. president will need to make many decisions that are fundamental to how the United States provides weapons and training to other parties, supports (or disregards) agreements to responsibly trade arms and in some cases ban those the international community has deemed unacceptable , as well as how it...

More Chemical Weapons Use in Syria: The Need for Accountability

It is important for the international community to determine culpability for the chemical attacks in Aleppo and to hold the attackers accountable to preserve the global abolition of these weapons of mass destruction.

OPCW Pressing Syria on Declaration Gaps

The policymaking body of the international organization that oversaw the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons expressed concern last month...

April 2016

By Daniel Horner

The policymaking body of the international organization that oversaw the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons expressed concern last month about problems with Syria’s formal accounting of its chemical stockpile and urged resolution of the problems in the next few months.

In a March 23 decision document, the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) cited a report to the council by OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü. The report has not been publicly released, but the council document described it as saying that the OPCW Technical Secretariat “is unable at present to verify fully that the declaration and related submissions of the Syrian Arab Republic are accurate and complete.”

Countries are required to submit a declaration of their stockpiles when they join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria did in 2013. Questions about the declaration emerged almost immediately and have persisted since then.

At a meeting in Washington last month, a U.S. official said the council action and the request for the Üzümcü report on which the decision was based were part of a U.S. initiative stemming from a feeling that the issue required higher-level political attention. Under the resolution, Üzümcü is to meet with Syrian officials and report back to the council before its next meeting, scheduled for July 12-15.

Üzümcü’s meetings are to proceed in parallel with those of an OPCW unit known as the Declaration Assessment Team, which has had primary responsibility for probing the Syrian accounting and had made 15 visits to the country as of late March.

In a March 15 statement to the council on behalf of the European Union, Pieter van Donkersgoed of the Netherlands said the list of unresolved questions “has been increasing during the last two years and is still growing.” Among the issues he cited as examples were “the fate of the 2000 aerial bombs [designed to carry chemical agents] that Syria claims to have converted” into conventional weapons and the discovery by the Declaration Assessment Team of “traces of chemicals directly linked” to the production of the nerve agents sarin, VX, and soman.

Posted: March 29, 2016


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