Let’s Get Syri-ous About Chemical Weapons

A few days ago Robert Serry, the UN Middle East peace envoy, informed the Security Council of increasing reports on chemical weapon (CW) use in the Syrian civil war. He was right of course: in the first four months of 2013 the total number of alleged incidents had already risen by 500% compared to the whole of 2012. Last year there was one claim of CW use with a specific place and time: an attack with an incapacitating agent—sometimes referred to as BZ, other times as (the non-existent) Agent 15 (part of the Iraq invasion lore) near Homs.

Up to 30 April 2013 five such site- and time-specific reports emerged:

  • 19 March: The Syrian government accused the insurgents of a chemical attack in Khan al-Assal, Aleppo province. The chlorine (which incredibly turned into sarin over time, and ultimately became bleach) in the rocket killed 16 people according to early reports, a figure that eventually 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 allegation.
  • 19 March: Rebel allegation of CW attack at Al-Otaybeh, east of Damascus, involving organophosphates. This incident yielded the image of man with foam around the mouth. Foaming is typical of drowning, so the accusation might have had some foundation if the rebels had alleged phosgene use. (Phosgene causes the lungs to be filled with fluid, producing a condition known as ‘dry land drowning’.) However, it is not characteristic of exposure to a nerve agent. A morgue allegedly held six CW fatalities, but not all victims came from Al-Otaybeh.
  • 24 March: Rebels allege the use of ‘chemical phosphorus’ bombs at Adra, near Douma. As they did not report burns, the term could have been a misuse for organophosphates. The reports also referred to poisonous gas of some variety producing convulsions, excess saliva, narrow pupils and vomiting.
  • 13 April: Two women and two children reportedly died from a chemical agent in a bomb dropped by the Syrian air force in Sheikh Maqsoud, Aleppo District. The death toll, however, varied. Twelve people were also reported to have been injured after contact with the initial victims and responded well to atropine treatment.
  • 29 April: Eight people reportedly suffered from vomiting and breathing problems after helicopters had dropped canisters over Saraqeb. One woman later died. One observer presented pictures of canisters similar to one found in Sheikh Maqsoud. While apparently correct, nothing indicates what their contents might have been (some pictures appear to show a bullet exit hole in a canister).

I cannot judge from afar whether these allegations are correct or not. However, I do remain surprised by the lack of visual evidence. In these days of the Internet and when every participant in the Arab uprisings seems to own a camera-equipped smart phone, I cannot find any images or film of victims displaying outward symptoms that correspond with the claimed agent. No images of fatalities; and no images of the areas where the actual attacks took place. Yes, one [1] picture showed a purported site, but did the scattered animals really die from a CW attack?

More strikingly, the allegations lack density. One would/should expect a multitude of reports with a variety of witnesses recounting a more or less similar incident. One would/should expect them evoke different imageries to express their respective emotions and experiences. These help to reconstruct a testable reality, even from afar. For instance, based on the many television reports in the immediate aftermath of the chemical attacks against Halabja in March 1988—internet and mobile phone prehistory!—I was able to sketch a map of the affected area. The layout later proved to be remarkably similar to the drawing in the report by experts from the Belgian-Dutch Médecins sans frontières who were the first foreigners to reach the town. (As I had no sense of distance, dimensions did differ.) If I read that the US State Department is working behind the scenes to identify medical professionals with proof of CW use and planning to move them out of Syria to meet with UN investigators in Turkey, then I really begin to wonder how scant all other evidence now available to governments must be.

Let’s get serious about chemical weapons in Syria

Based on materials available so far, I continue to find it difficult to give any credence to the CW allegations. The claims do not match reported symptoms. There is no evidence-based back-up of specific allegations from different (including government) sources. Nobody has offered serious refutation of plausible alternative explanations for the described phenomena.

With the passage of time even the narrative has changed: a Midas touch has turned chlorine to sarin, the golden accusation of evil (think Saddam; think Aum Shinrikyo). Indeed, the allegations have mouldered into amorphous compost fertilising calls for humanitarian or military intervention, arming the insurgents and regime change. Particularly, US President Barack Obama’s drawing of a red line with regard to chemical warfare in August 2012 and the questioning of his willingness to follow up on his threat in the light of more recent allegations have distorted discussion of what is actually happening on the ground. More to the point: all these issues have little bearing on whether CW were used or not. If humanitarian law judges 80,000 dead in the civil war as insufficient to justify foreign military intervention, then why would a few scores of fatalities from (supposed) chemical attacks sway the international community, represented by the UN and other regional security and humanitarian institutions? Is it perhaps that ‘eighty thousand’ already represents a ‘statistic’, while politicians today are desperately looking for a ‘tragedy’?

There are serious indications—no proof—that something is amiss in Syria. That something is poisoning the air, literally and metaphorically. For this reason alone, credible and independent investigation of incidents is overdue by long. We surely do not want another Curveball knocking democracy unconscious. Or do we?

10 Comments on “Let’s Get Syri-ous About Chemical Weapons”

  1. Weird that there are no comments to this great piece!

  2. There is little in Jean-Pascal’s excellent contribution, that I am tempted to take an issue with. Maybe, his interpretation of the international humanitarian law as requiring a military intervention after casualty statistics reach 80 thousand or so, but I am not sure I understood that correctly. As far as the chemical weapons issue is concerned, I can only praise his logic and the main conclusions: that information available (to the public, at least) is not consistent with what one should expect to have in case of a real chemical attack; that there is a need for an objective and independent (from the main interested parties, I reckon) investigation, and that for the most part all those speculations about the CW use and the red lines make us think, as if someone is really trying hard to find convincing reasons to intervene (and thus to corner Obama and to overcome his strong reluctance to go down that road – SB).

    That said, I feel the need to share a couple of observations on the issue of “credible and independent investigation”. The only existing international procedure for that is the UN Secretary-General’s mechanism to investigate reports about alleged use of chemical and biological weapons. The mechanism has been activated, but it became a victim of political games in New York and, until now, is not moving forward. Without going into details of the power struggle in New York, I would submit, that the Mechanism, developed in the second half of the 1980s, requires updating – and not only in the technical sense (the need for which is widely recognized in the UN Secretariat), but also in political and legal sense. The main idea is to better protect the UNSG from undue political pressure by providing him with a new set of agreed guidelines regarding the formulation of mandates and the conduct of inspections (including the rules for taking, transportation and analysis of samples). As far as chemical weapons investigations are concerned, one should rely more on the relevant procedures developed in the the Chemical Weapons Convention and then further elaborated by the OPCW. The latter is important also because the OPCW will be expected to support the UNSG investigations (and, indeed, has been asked to do so in Syria), while the rules and procedures of the two systems do differ.

    S. Batsanov

  3. Dan Joyner says:

    Excellent and instructive post.

  4. Le Monde journalists say, they have seen the regime forces use it in the outskirts of Damascus:

    “The gas was not diffused over a broad swath of territory but used occasionally in specific locations by government forces”

  5. […] by both parties’, it does not specify from whom the ICI obtained this information. Listing the main allegations between March and mid-May, the sources may just as well have been UN Secretary General, the formal […]

  6. DDTea says:

    I’m sorry, but you don’t know what you’re talking about in regard to symptoms of nerve agent exposure.

    “Rebel allegation of CW attack at Al-Otaybeh, east of Damascus, involving organophosphates. This incident yielded the image of man with foam around the mouth. Foaming is typical of drowning, so the accusation might have had some foundation if the rebels had alleged phosgene use. (Phosgene causes the lungs to be filled with fluid, producing a condition known as ‘dry land drowning’.) However, it is not characteristic of exposure to a nerve agent.”

    Foaming at the mouth/hypersalivating is a characteristic symptom of nerve agent/organophosphate poisoning. So too are pinpointed pupils, vomiting, and convulsions. That’s what OP’s do: they inhibit acetylcholinesterase, so synapses continue to fire repeatedly.

    Phosgene poisoning does cause excess salivation, but the saliva is mixed with blood. The onset is much longer. Victims spend their final hours coughing up blood. No pinpointed pupils, no convulsions.

  7. […] of them have been independently confirmed. Although deaths and other casualties were reported, the total image never added up to one of chemical warfare. The nature of the attack on the Ghouta district differed […]

  8. […] fatalities, which would be inconsistent with a chlorine-filled rocket warhead. I have always been sceptical about those claims, precisely because of the agent’s chemical properties and physiological […]

  9. […] month later, I remained just as unconvinced. In the meantime, having reviewed all CW references I had collected since the start of the Syrian […]

  10. […] month later, I remained just as unconvinced. In the meantime, having reviewed all CW references I had collected since the start of the Syrian […]

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