Chemical Warfare allegations in Syria – An initial assessment

Reports are coming in about the use of chemical weapons (CW) near Aleppo in Syria. The source is the Syrian government, who alleges a rebel attack. Up to 25 people may have been killed; scores more injured.

Russia confirms the reports in a strong-worded statement; the US denies the attacks, but is waiting for further analyses of the reports. The Director-General of the OPCW expressed his grave concern over the reports.

I just saw images from a hospital, where a lot of people wearing surgical masks attend to people having infusions, on BBC World. Sana-Syria has published pictures.

My quick take on these developments:

  •  I am not convinced that the footage and pictures I have seen prove a CW attack;
  • There are no images of the site of the attack; just of some affected people. These people do not show outward symptoms of a CW attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent.
  • There are far too many people, including non-medical staff, around the affected persons. Apart from a surgical mask, nobody wears any protective garment or gas masks. If there would have been a CW attack with one of the agents known (or believed) to be in Syria’s arsenal, then most of the people present would have been fatally or seriously contaminated.
  • I am deeply sceptical of allegations that the insurgents would have resorted to CW. There would have far greater propaganda benefits if they were to demonstrate to the world that they had overrun one of the storage or production facilities. In addition, insurgent spokespersons were very quick to deny the government allegation.
  • Regarding a case of a transfer to (and, hence, use by) surrogates of the Syrian government, I have already expressed my views on such a scenario.
  • Present-day battlefields are extremely toxic. Many materials may be propelled into the air and inhaled by bystanders. If some (toxic) chemical container were hit by a shell, then bystanders could be badly affected, as we have seen in a variety of recent internal conflicts (former Yugoslavia; Sri Lanka; Iraq; etc.). Bhopal reminds us of the large-scale effects of an industrial accident. Any investigation of the allegation must first exclude plausible alternative explanations.

Possible developments I do worry about include:

  • Is the Syrian government allegation the type of statement often heard in the past to justify ‘retaliatory’ chemical attacks? If so, the next days and weeks may become very nasty indeed. Not just because of chemical warfare, but also because of the various red lines Western states, and the US in particular, have drawn if such an escalation with CW were to take place.
  • Why has Moscow confirmed the Syrian allegation so quickly and in such strong words? What is the motive behind this? Just contradicting the West again? If not, why is it so tied to Bashar al-Assad? What can it gain from this position? Of course, Syria got most of the technology and expertise to set up and run its CW programme from the former Soviet Union. Did the former head of the Soviet CBW forces, Anatoly Kuntsevich, not die on his return from Syria in 2003? Furthermore, if Syria were ever to become a party to the CWC, it would have to declare the origins of its CW programme. Whatever we wish to believe, it potentially sets up Moscow against any country that might intervene militarily because of CW use.
  • In three weeks time the States Parties to the CWC will convene for the 3rd Review Conference. Confirmation of the allegations or escalation described in the bullets above would have a most serious impact on the proceedings.

Anyway, this is just a quick take on an unfolding story. I am sure to follow up if anything further happens.

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46 Comments on “Chemical Warfare allegations in Syria – An initial assessment”

  1. My suspicion is that since the insurgents have in the past attempted to claim that the Syrian military had used “chemical weapons” on them that it is possible the Syrian government is returning the favor.

    The problem with this for the Syrian government, however, is that ANY reference to chemical weapons is going to up the probability that either Israel or more likely the US and NATO will resort to a foreign military intervention, regardless of who used the weapons or even regardless of whether there is any proof the weapons were actually used.

    This makes the Russian statement problematic as well. It doesn’t help defuse the situation to blame the insurgents. Any indication that the insurgents have access to chemical weapons will lead to the claim that they are Syrian military weapons and that will bring Israel into the war using the excuse that either radical Sunnis among the insurgents or Hizballah might have access to them.

    Since I believe both the US and NATO have been trying to gin up an excuse for foreign military intervention, it would behoove both Syria and Russia to tamp down any such reports.

  2. Naser says:

    Many of the affected persons reported chlorine smell and complained of difficulty breathing , nausea and headache, which is consistent of Cl poisoning, which still considered a CW though not as fatal as nerve agents.

    • JP Zanders says:

      I agree that chlorine would be a CW if used with the intent of exploiting its toxic properties to harm humans. It was the first agent to be used on a mass scale in World War 1. Chlorine, however, also has large scale industrial and commercial application. For instance, for water purification.

      Now as to the story:
      * Chlorine has not been mentioned as a CW in Syria’s arsenal. In fact, it would have made little sense, because of the enormous quantities that one would need to achieve a lethal dose. The first German attack near Ieper on 22 April 1915 involved 150-168 tonnes over a 7km front. Syria’s climate is much warmer, meaning that the volume to achieve lethal doses would be relatively higher.
      * While people may have been exposed to some irritant, there is also the claim that 25 persons died. One may assume that the insurgents got hold of an industrial stock of chlorine, but how would they manage lethal doses even in an restricted area? We all know the effects if the dosage in a swimming pool goes wrong, and people get hospitalised, but rare are the instances when somebody dies. In Iraq there were reports of chlorine being relased by means of explosive detonation (which destroys much of the agent), but fatalities resulted from flying debris. The chlorine had a minor and passing irritating impact on persons in the vicinity of the explosions. To the best of my knowledge, no such incident has been reported as part of the allegation.
      * This leaves us with the possibility that a chlorine storage facility was hit, and it assumes that the chlorine would be in a liquid state (rather than tablets) to evaporate. Again, exposure might justify some of the complaints, but how can it account for the fatalities? Even in a large release, it takes a certain amount of time before the total volume of the toxicant would have been released, so the dose would never equal the total volume. The cloud, which would expand (and thus dillute), would go up and in different directions before following the wind at the time of the incident. Wind speed would consequently have a major impact on dosage at a particular location and the time a person (assuming he/she does not flee the scene) would be exposed to that dosage. All taken together, the cloud would dissipate quite fast.

      So, unless new information becomes available about what provoked the alleged incident, I stand by my position that this was not a case of chemical warfare.

  3. Johnboy says:

    “Why has Moscow confirmed the Syrian allegation so quickly and in such strong words?”

    Maybe it’s because they know that Assad is telling the truth?

    Crazy idea, sure, but sometimes Occum’s Razor comes in right on the money.

    “What is the motive behind this?”

    Why the need to find an ulterior motive?

    The Russians have a well-deserved reputation from plain-speaking so maybe – juuuuust maybe – the reason that they are talking so bluntly is because They Know What They Are Talking About.

    “Just contradicting the West again?”

    At the risk of labouring the point: why must you ascribe an ulterior motive to the Russian statements? Isn’t it ALSO possible that the Russians are so adamant that the rebels have used these weapons because The Rebels Were The Ones Who Used These Weapons?

    “If not, why is it so tied to Bashar al-Assad?”

    Well, gosh, maybe they don’t think much of an “opposition” that uses chemical weapons against Syrian civilians?

    You know, just puttin’ the possibility out there…..

    “What can it gain from this position?”

    The truth, maybe?

    Sorry, I know I’m repeating myself, but some things just never get old: you start from the proposition that The Rebels Didn’t Do This, and then mull why the Russians are accusing the rebels of doing this.

    Well, heck, maybe that’s because The Rebels Did Do This, and the Russians know that even if you can’t bring yourself to believe it.

    Food for thought….

  4. […] of a CW (chemical weapon) attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent,” wrote Jean Pascal Zanders, senior research fellow at the European Union Institute of Security […]

  5. […] of a CW (chemical weapon) attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent,” wrote Jean Pascal Zanders, senior research fellow at the European Union Institute of Security […]

  6. ” If not, why is it so tied to Bashar al-Assad? What can it gain from this position?”

    As I’ve said before, the entire point of the Syria crisis from the point of the US, NATO and Israel is to eliminate Syria’s missile arsenal – along with Hizballah’s arsenal in Lebanon – as effective actors in an Iran war.

    Russia knows this – or they should. Aside from the Assad regime itself, they have no desire to see Syria beaten down in order to enable the West to initiate an Iran war. They also have no desire to see their one remaining outpost in the Middle East turned over to Salafi radicals who will use Syria to arm Muslim radicals in Russia as well, probably cut off Russian arms sales, and generally harm the region and strengthen the West’s and Israel’s position in the region.

    And as Johnboy said, well, maybe it was true. There’s always that.

    Today I read a story that says a US military commander in the Europe said that several countries in the EU – no doubt notably France and the UK – are planning foreign military intervention in Syria. The US reiterated its intention to be involved if Syria “uses chemical weapons.” There is a clear intent to bypass the UNSC – and now probably even the NATO Charter – if necessary to get that intervention.

    I fully expect the US, NATO and Israel to be attacking Syria before end of the year, using the twin excuses that Salafist radicals are a threat to the region and that they have access to Syria’s chemical weapons – and of course that “Assad is a Bad Guy”…

  7. […] a senior research fellow at the Paris-based European Union Institute for Security Studies, on the Arms Control Law blog. “There are no images of the site of the attack; just of some affected people. These people […]

  8. […] The U.S. ambassador to Syria says there’s no evidence that chemical weapons were used yesterday. Via NRO, Israel’s minister of intelligence says it’s “apparently clear” that they were used. As you’ll see below, Mike Rogers, who’s probably the best informed Republican pol in the government right now on intel matters, agrees with him. But at least one weapons expert does not: […]

  9. […] of a CW (chemical weapon) attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent,” wrote Jean Pascal Zanders, senior research fellow at the European Union Institute of Security […]

  10. […] of a CW (chemical weapon) attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent,” wrote Jean Pascal Zanders, senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security […]

  11. […] of a CW (chemical weapon) attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent,” wrote Jean Pascal Zanders, senior research fellow at the European Union Institute of Security […]

  12. […] a senior research fellow at the Paris-based European Union Institute for Security Studies, on the Arms Control Law blog. “There are no images of the site of the attack; just of some affected people. These people […]

  13. […] of a CW (chemical weapon) attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent,” wrote Jean Pascal Zanders, senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security […]

  14. […] of a CW (chemical weapon) attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent,” wrote Jean Pascal Zanders, senior research fellow at the European Union Institute of Security […]

  15. […] of a CW (chemical weapon) attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent,” wrote Jean Pascal Zanders, senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security […]

  16. […] symptoms of a CW (chemical weapon) attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent,” wrote Jean Pascal Zanders, senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security […]

  17. […] Israel confirms the attack, Dr. Jean-Pascal Zanders, European Union Institute for Security Studies questions whether the images we see reflect a chemical attack:   ·         There are no images of […]

  18. Don Bacon says:

    On Mar 20, 2013 Bashar Ja’afari, Permanent Representative of the Syrian Arab Republic descrobed a Syria government request to the United Nations which requested the UN SecGen to form a technical mission to investigate the use by terrorist groups of CW on Mar 19 in two towns of Aleppo.

    http://webtv.un.org/watch/bashar-jaafari-syria-on-syria-security-council-media-stakeout-20-march-2013/2240151782001/

    Mar 20: West stalls Syria chemical attack probe in U.N.: Russia

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/sns-rt-us-syria-crisis-chemical-unbre92j0re-20130320,0,6271830.story

    • So if the insurgents use chemical weapons, Obama couldn’t care less – except to argue that means the US should attack Syria to prevent “terrorists” from getting a “safe haven”. Whereas if Syria uses them, then the US should attack Syria.

      Notice how both options end up with the US attacking Syria.

  19. […] of a CW (chemical weapon) attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent,” wrote Jean Pascal Zanders, senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security […]

  20. […] of a CW (chemical weapon) attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent,” wrote Jean Pascal Zanders, senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security […]

  21. […] of a CW (chemical weapon) attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent,” wrote Jean Pascal Zanders, senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security […]

  22. […] symptoms of a CW (chemical weapon) attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent,” wrote Jean Pascal Zanders, senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security […]

  23. […] of a CW (chemical weapon) attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent,” wrote Jean Pascal Zanders, senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security […]

  24. […] of a CW (chemical weapon) attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent,” wrote Jean Pascal Zanders, senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security […]

  25. […] of a CW (chemical weapon) attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent,” wrote Jean Pascal Zanders, senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security […]

  26. […] still unclear whether chemical weapons were used earlier this week in attacks in Syria’s Aleppo province, and if so who’s […]

  27. yousaf says:

    Pillar on why Chem. warfare allegations even if true wouldn’t be a “game changer”:

    http://nationalinterest.org/blog/paul-pillar/why-game-changer-8258

  28. Denis says:

    @Dan: Why has Moscow confirmed the Syrian allegation so quickly and in such strong words?

    Funny how the first concern that came to my mind was 180 degrees the other way: Why the US knee-jerk reaction denying that it was the so-called rebels that were using the CW.

    This scares me more than the Russians b/c the excuse for US military intervention is going to be Assad’s use of CW, not the rebels’ use of it. The US will look the other way and continue to deny that the rebels would be so nasty. Of course, anonymous Israeli “intel” will be driving public opinion to goad Obama to get his drones and start taking out another of Israel’s arch-enemies as the beat goes on. . .

  29. […] a site visit, it would be impossible to conduct an investigation, says Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders, a chemical weapons expert at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris. Blood samples could […]

  30. […] a site visit, it would be impossible to conduct an investigation, says Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders, a chemical weapons expert at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris. Blood samples could […]

  31. […] a site visit, it would be impossible to conduct an investigation, says Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders, a chemical weapons expert at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris. Blood samples could […]

  32. […] a site visit, it would be impossible to conduct an investigation, says Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders, a chemical weapons expert at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris. Blood samples could […]

  33. […] a site visit, it would be impossible to conduct an investigation, says Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders, a chemical weapons expert at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris. Blood samples could […]

  34. […] a site visit, it would be impossible to conduct an investigation, says Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders, a chemical weapons expert at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris. Blood samples could […]

  35. […] a site visit, it would be impossible to conduct an investigation, says Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders, a chemical weapons expert at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris. Blood samples could […]

  36. […] rose to 31. Rebel forces quickly put the blame on the Syrian armed forces. As written in an earlier Arms Control Law contribution, pictures and film footage did not support the […]

  37. […] in the press just did not add up. (Recall how the initial reports on the March attack referred to chlorine, while today everybody seems to insist that it was sarin.) While there were indicators of exposure […]

  38. […] a senior research fellow at the Paris-based European Union Institute for Security Studies, on the Arms Control Law blog. “There are no images of the site of the attack; just of some affected people. These people […]

  39. […] called for an investigation under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General. I was one of the people calling for more details to ascertain that the incident actually involved CW use as the narratives conflicted with the […]

  40. […] because of the agent’s chemical properties and physiological action. At the time, descriptions did not fit the claimed agents, whichever these might have […]

  41. […] because of the agent’s chemical properties and physiological action. At the time, descriptions did not fit the claimed agents, whichever these might have […]

  42. […] that would eventually rise into the low thirties, and scores of otherwise harmed individuals. I was not convinced that the observed effects correlated with claims about the agents used. In a March 2013 brief for […]

  43. […] that would eventually rise into the low thirties, and scores of otherwise harmed individuals. I was not convinced that the observed effects correlated with claims about the agents used. In a March 2013 brief for […]


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