Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

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At Stake in Syria: The Chemical Weapons Taboo

by Stewart M. Patrick
August 21, 2013

A man, affected by what activists say is nerve gas, breathes through an oxygen mask in the Damascus suburbs of Jesreen August 21, 2013. Syrian activists accused President Bashar al-Assad's forces of launching a gas attack that killed nearly 500 people on Wednesday, in what would, if confirmed, be by far the worst reported use of chemical arms in the two-year-old civil war. The Syrian armed forces strongly denied using chemical weapons. Syrian state television said the accusations were fabricated to distract a team of U.N. chemical weapons experts which arrived three days ago (Ammar Dar/Courtesy Reuters).


Syrian opposition activists allege government forces launched a devastating poison gas attack yesterday that killed hundreds of civilians in suburban Damascus. If true, it would be the war’s worst atrocity—and would mock the “red line” warning that President Obama issued Assad exactly a year ago. The claims also reinforce the urgency of bolstering the chemical weapons inspection regime in Syria. Five months after their first alleged use, the world has no clear picture of how often or by whom chemical weapons have been employed, nor about the security of remaining weapons depots.

The reports emerge at a time when a UN investigative team is already in Syria, charged with assessing past reports of chemical weapons use by both the Syrian army and rebels.The team is led by Ake Sellstrom, a talented Swedish scientist who previously served as an inspector for the UNSCOM and UNMOVIC inspection regimes in Iraq. As in the past, Damascus has denied the reports, insisting that although it has such weapons, they would be used only to defend the country from external attack—never “inside Syria”. Given the presence of weapons inspectors, some outside observers may be tempted to dismiss the attacks as fabrications. But as Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commander of the UK’s Joint Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Regiment told the BBC, the scenes emerging on Youtube and other social media, including children having convulsions, would be “very difficult to stage-manage.”

Because Syria is a non-party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the treaty’s implementing arm—the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)—is technically not allowed to conduct inspections in that country. But UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon has gotten around that formality by invoking a special authority established in 1987 following chemical weapons use by Iraq,  the cumbersomely titled “Secretary General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons.” This dispensation allows the UN SG to conduct investigations of any alleged use if a UN member state requests it. Fortunately, French President Francois Hollande and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague have delivered, insisting UN inspectors be granted access to the area and that the issue be raised promptly in the UN Security Council. The Arab League has backed these demands. It’s high time for the United States to join this chorus—and provide the weapons inspectors with all the diplomatic and logistical support they need to conduct a credible investigation.

The investigation of a chemical weapons allegations is a highly technical undertaking that requires specialized expertise and protocols. Getting experts to the scene promptly is essential, since residue from chemical agents can dissipate within a few days. Investigators will want to seal off the area, to protect it from further contamination (or manipulation), and collect samples of soil, rubble or vegetation. They will conduct interviews with witnesses and medical examinations of survivors, taking urine, blood and other biomedical samples that may contain telltale markers. They will also need to negotiate with families to obtain samples from the deceased (as well as from dead animals).  Initial chemical analysis of these can be conducted in a mobile field laboratory. But more definitive conclusions will require sending samples to an international network of accredited laboratories maintained by the OCPW, based in the Hague.

Putting an end to chemical weapons use in Syria—and holding its perpetrators accountable for war crimes—has implications far beyond the current conflict. At stake is nothing less than the preservation of one of the most important global norms to have emerged over the past century. Although self-styled “realists” often dismiss the power of ethics in world affairs, the global prohibition on the possession and use of chemical weapons provides one of history’s most impressive examples of collective self-restraint by sovereign nation-states. It is a norm that merits defending.

During World War I, the Allies and Central Powers used nearly 125,000 tons of chemical agents on the battlefield, causing the deaths of 100,000 soldiers and permanently wounding or disabling another million. Moral revulsion at the horrors of the Great War helped generate global support for a taboo against such weapons. In negotiating and signing the CWC, governments were declaring the use of chemical weapons to be—like the institution of slavery—“beyond the pale.” In recent decades, dozens of countries have reduced or entirely eliminated their stockpiles according to the treaty’s provisions. The civil war in Syria marks the first documented use of such weapons since the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein employed them against Iran and the Kurdish minority in his own country. Holding the line on their further use is essential to preserve an invaluable prohibition regime.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by scallywag

    With the latest violence and the use of social media to publicize the atrocities at hand, the world is once again reminded of the bitter unresolved tensions being played out via an often under reported proxy war courtesy of neighboring states and that of the US and regional super powers,Israel and Russia….

    Of course the question now is who’s hand will be forced now? Can we really believe the latest assertions or is this just another episode of a publicly fought war using any propaganda to exert pressure…?

  • Posted by Phillip Bolster

    So, how far have we come as humans?
    What will we choose to do or not do at this juncture?
    How much debating and thumb twiddling shall we all do before the inevitable next chemical attack happens as we watch in catatonic apathy?

    Shame on us all.

    Here’s another question… what are the chances that somebody was watching that attack happen in real time on some screen somewhere in Langley etc ? Surely huge resources have been invested in keeping on eye on Syria, endless sat feeds and high alt drone surveillance and surveillance of all radio chatter? Somebody saw this happen, I’d almost bet on it and that is disturbing, albeit conjecture. That’s something for 25 years down the road I suppose.

    This is a watershed moment in human history. In a world devoted in large part to avoiding world war 3 by connecting us all together through commerce and institutions so that we never see death and chaos as we saw in world war 2 we now stand at a unique moment in human evolution where we can stop anybody form doing anything if we really want to by working together under moral obligation… and now we have this man, seemingly evil to the core, willing to burn children’s lungs with chemicals and we can as a global society bring our combined force to bare upon him and his people and secure those chemical stockpiles to avoid him using them en masse to kills tens of thousands as he slips further and further into desperation-mode.

    We MUST do something or what is all this worth? All this evolution, this wisdom learned from past evil and tyranny? Is this not now a very simple question?

    The US has the physical ability to secure the chemical weapons in Syria.

    Is the US going to do that now? No BS realist-talk can avoid answering this question now – Yes or No?

    It would cost less than 5 billion dollars.
    It would require less than 10,000 troops
    The support of a carrier group
    1 land base in the vicinity
    Take less than 3 months.
    There would most likely be casualties no matter what plan or scale of force was employed, such is the nature of conflict.

    A combination of clever diplomacy behind doors, clever toys, a clever plan and a few hundred devoted bad ass special force guys could secure a large portion of, if not the vast majority of, chemical weapons in Syria and that action may save tens of thousands of people from being massacred some day in the near future as Assad becomes more and more desperate and disconnected to reality.

    The message to Assad should be very simple: We’re going in and we’re securing, destroying or otherwise putting out of action all chem weapon stocks in your country so clear away from those sites. If you attempt to defend those sites then your time is up.

  • Posted by Phillip Bolster

    The message to Assad should be very simple:

    ” We’re going in and we’re securing, destroying or otherwise putting out of action all chem weapon stocks in your country so clear away from those sites. If you attempt to defend those sites, your time is up. “

  • Posted by James

    What do you mean “high time for the US to join the chorus”? Didn’t they support the UN team many times in public and private? Any louder a voice and the chorus will be a solo and it doesn’t seem that would help the UN convince Assad to agree to more inspections.

  • Posted by Manuel Blanco, Chile

    What is the moral authority of the US , having used the A Bomb
    In Japan and napalm in south East Asia ?

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