This morning the UN Human Rights Council published the report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (ICI).
While detailing the horrors of the escalating civil war and the atrocities committed by both sides, the document was eagerly awaited after Commissioner Carla del Ponte had claimed on Swiss-Italian television four weeks ago that the ICI has evidence of rebel use of chemical weapons (CW). She added that it still had to see direct evidence of government chemical warfare. The next day the ICI clarified that ‘it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict. As a result, the Commission is not in a position to further comment on the allegations at this time’. Despite its terseness, it did not exactly refute del Ponte’s asseveration.
The 29-page ICI report, however, supports none of the details in her television interview. The introductory summary notes that ‘there are reasonable grounds to believe that chemical agents have been used as weapons’, but ‘the precise agents, delivery systems or perpetrators could not be identified’. CW are addressed in more detail in Part IV(D) on Illegal Weapons:
136. As the conflict escalates, the potential for use of chemical weapons is of deepening concern. Chemical weapons include toxic chemicals, munitions, devices and related equipment as defined in the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and Their Destruction. Also applicable is the 1925 Geneva Protocol which Syria has ratified. The use of chemical weapons is prohibited in all circumstances under customary international humanitarian law and is a war crime under the Rome Statute.
137. The Government has in its possession a number of chemical weapons. The dangers extend beyond the use of the weapons by the Government itself to the control of such weapons in the event of either fractured command or of any of the affiliated forces gaining access.
138. It is possible that anti-Government armed groups may access and use chemical weapons. This includes nerve agents, though there is no compelling evidence that these groups possess such weapons or their requisite delivery systems.
139. Allegations have been received concerning the use of chemical weapons by both parties. The majority concern their use by Government forces. In four attacks – on Khan Al-Asal, Aleppo, 19 March; Uteibah, Damascus, 19 March; Sheikh Maqsood neighbourhood, Aleppo, 13 April; and Saraqib, Idlib, 29 April – there are reasonable grounds to believe that limited quantities of toxic chemicals were used. It has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator. Other incidents also remain under investigation.
140. Conclusive findings – particularly in the absence of a large-scale attack – may be reached only after testing samples taken directly from victims or the site of the alleged attack. It is, therefore, of utmost importance that the Panel of Experts, led by Professor Sellström and assembled under the Secretary General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons, is granted full access to Syria.
Is there anything new?
The strongest refutation of del Ponte comes in §138: insurgents ‘may access and use’ CW refers to a future possibility, not events in a recent past. The 430 interviews and other evidence collected between 15 January and 15 May 2013 yielded ‘no compelling evidence that these groups possess such weapons or their requisite delivery systems’.
Although the next paragraph states that ‘allegations have been received concerning the use of chemical weapons 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 the UN Secretary General, the formal requests to Ban Ki-moon by Syria, UK and France to launch a formal investigation of alleged use, or the many media reports. It does not assert, as del Ponte did, that ‘Our investigators have been in neighbouring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report of last week which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated.’ As a matter of fact, the ICI document does not mention sarin a single time. The mere assumption that no UN member would submit to the Secretary general a frivolous request for an onsite investigation allows the Commissioners to write in the introductory summary that there are reasonable grounds to believe that CW have been used, possibly by both sides. In §140 the ICI nonetheless comes to the obvious conclusion that confirmation or refutation of the allegations will be possible only after samples retrieved directly from victims or the site of the alleged attack by an independent international expert team have been tested.
Much ado about nothing?
It is a plain shame that Carla del Ponte has felt the need to join the global chorus of blabberati. Commentaries will invariably focus on her statements, or on whether the ICI document buttresses the Obama Administration’s position that its self-proclaimed red line has not yet been crossed.
Yet, despite the brevity of the section on CW allegations, the report adopts some remarkably thinking in §136:
- It accepts the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) as a foundation of international criminal law. In particular, it embraces the wide-ranging definition of a CW, which means that for criminal prosecution no discrimination between warfare agents based on an ill-defined lethality criterion is acceptable. The CWC applies to incapacitants and irritants (such as riot control agents, for instance, tear gas), as well as to industrial chemicals such as chlorine (a warfare agent of World War I vintage). Whatever toxicant any belligerent may choose to use, it will fall under the remit of an international criminal court for Syria. This statement may well be a first! (See, for example, Yasemin Balci’s discussion of criminal law in Future of the CWC in the Post-Destruction Phase.)
- It also refers to the applicability of 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons in armed conflict and emphasises Syria’s ratification. The phrasing is interesting, because it juxtaposes rather than cascades both international agreements, thus implying that the scope of the CWC definition of a CW also applies to the Geneva Protocol.
- It declares CW use as prohibited in all circumstances under customary international humanitarian law and determines that it is a war crime under the Rome Statute. Most significantly, it does so in a separate sentence and without specific referral to the Geneva Protocol. Usually, scholars, lawyers and officials will assert that the Geneva Protocol has entered customary international law. According to their phrasing, the ICI Commissioners strongly suggest that the CWC equally informs the customary norm, which is not without consequence given their emphasis on the CWC definition of a CW. It definitely sharpens the boundaries of a war crime as defined under the Rome Statute.
These points will be and have to be the subject of legal debate to bolster the CW prohibition under any and all circumstances.
The Guardian newspaper has made available the text of a discussion paper by the Foreign Ministry of Austria circulated on 13 May 2013 to EU member states, forcefully rebutting British and French arguments for amending the European embargo on Syria to allow weapons shipments to the rebels.
The document, entitled ‘SYRIA: Austrian Position on Arms Embargo’, first puts forward several political and security arguments, among them the following (summary only):
– Lifting the EU arms embargo undermines the EU-Russia understanding that opens a window of opportunity towards a renewed political process.
– The ‘Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC)’ does not have full authority and control over all armed opposition groups and cooperates with groups which include various extremist and terrorist fighters.
– There are more than enough weapons in Syria.
– The supply of arms to the opposition by EU member states constitutes an additional threat to the security of UNDOF [United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, which supervises the implementation of the 1974 disengagement agreement and the ceasefire between the Israeli and Syrian forces] peacekeepers, including from Austria.
But the most interesting part of the paper argues that the supply of arms to the Syrian opposition would be in breach of international law and EU law.
The main arguments developed in that respect deserve being quoted in full (I have only made minor typographical changes to the text and omitted certain developments):
1. The supply of arms to the Syrian opposition would amount to a breach of the customary principle of non-intervention and the principle of non-use of force under Art. 2 para. 4 of the UN Charter.
The principle of non-intervention is firmly established in international law. In 2007, former UK Legal Adviser Sir Michael Wood put it in a nutshell: “Intervention on the side of those opposing the Government […] is clearly prohibited” (The Principle of Non-Intervention in Contemporary International Law, Speech by Sir Michael Wood at a Chatham House International Law discussion group meeting held on 28 February 2007). In the 1984 Nicaragua Case the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rejected any alleged right for States to intervene in support of an internal opposition in another State, whose cause appeared particularly worthy for political or moral reasons: “The Court therefore finds that no such general right of intervention, in support of an opposition within another State, exists in contemporary international law” (para. 209). The ICJ also stated that acts constituting a breach of the customary principle of non-intervention would also, if they directly or indirectly involve the use of force, constitute a breach of the prohibition not to use of force in international relations, as embodied in Art. 2 para. 4 of the UN Charter. The continuing relevance of the Nicaragua Case was confirmed by the ICJ in its 2005 judgement in the Case concerning Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo: “In the case concerning Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America), the Court made it clear that the principle of non-intervention prohibits a State “to intervene, directly or indirectly, with or without armed force, in support of an internal opposition in another State” (para. 164).
2. The supply of arms to the Syrian opposition would violate EU Council Common Position 2008/944/CFSP on the control of arms exports by EU Member States.
All EU Member States have agreed to abide by Common Position 2008/944/CFSP defining common rules governing the control of exports of military technology and equipment when assessing applications to export items listed in the agreed EU Common Military List. An objective assessment of the Criteria in Art. 2 of Common Position 2008/944/CFSP according to the agreed guidance of their interpretation and implementation in the EU’s User’s Guide (User’s Guide to Council Common Position 2008/944/CFSP defining common rules governing the control of exports of military technology and equipment, Doc. 9241/09, 29 April 2009) must lead to a denial of any export licence applications for the envisaged supply of arms to the Syrian opposition:
- Criterion 2(c) (human rights and humanitarian law): Member States shall deny an export licence if there is a clear risk that the equipment might be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law. The UN Commission of Inquiry reported that “war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial killings and torture, were perpetrated by anti-Government armed groups” (Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, A/HRC/21/50, 16 August 2012).
- Criterion 3 (internal situation): Member States shall deny an export licence for military technology or equipment which would provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions or conflicts in the country of final destination. The User’s Guide does not foresee that arms would be supplied to opposition groups involved in an armed conflict and places particular attention on the role of the end-user in a conflict.
- Criterion 4 (regional peace, security and stability): Member States shall deny an export licence if there is a clear risk that the intended recipient would use the military technology or equipment to be exported aggressively against another country or to assert by force a territorial claim. Despite the 1974 cease-fire agreement, Syria and Israel remain in a state of war, which was recently reignited by Israeli air and missile strikes. The Syrian opposition has not declared to respect the cease-fire, the disengagement agreement or the area of separation.
- Criterion 5(b) (national security of Member States): Member States shall take into account the risk of use of the military technology or equipment concerned against their forces or those of Member States and those of friendly and allied countries. […]
- Criterion 6 (behaviour of the buyer as regards its attitude to terrorism, the nature of its alliances and respect for international law): […]
- Criterion 7 (risk of diversion): […]
3. The supply of arms to the Syrian opposition would amount to a violation of Security Council resolution 2083 (2012) establishing an arms embargo against individuals and entities associated with Al-Qaida. […]
4. Member States supplying arms to the Syrian opposition would incur State responsibility for aiding and assisting in the commission of internationally wrongful acts.
According to Art. 16 of the ILC Articles on State Responsibility a State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act is internationally responsible if (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act ; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State. The Commentary inter alia states “a State may incur responsibility if it […] provides material aid to a State that uses the aid to commit human rights violations. In this respect, the UN GA has called on member States in a number of cases to refrain from supplying arms an other military assistance to countries found to be committing serious human rights violations” (para. 9). When applying these principles to the envisaged supply of arms to the Syrian opposition, it is to be considered that war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial killings and torture, are perpetrated by anti-Government armed groups in Syria, as reported by the UN Commission of Inquiry, as well as suicide bombings and attacks against and hostage-taking of UNDOF peacekeepers, as is known from the daily news. Should supplied arms be used by armed opposition groups in Syria in the commission of internationally wrongful acts, the States who had supplied these arms and had knowledge of these acts would incur State responsibility for their aid an assistance in the commission of such acts.
[end of document]
A comment on the Austrian position
The arguments set out in the Austrian paper are in my view well-founded and persuasive, particularly those based on the principle on non-intervention and the relevance of the Nicaragua Case (see on the topic the articles on the Nicaragua Case 25 years after published in 2012 in the Leiden Journal of International Law), and deserve being taken into account very seriously by the decision-makers of countries which advocate allowing weapons shipments to the Syrian rebels.
There is another point that was not mentioned by the paper. Regarding the responsibility issue raised in para. 4 of the document, I would add that if the proposed amendment to the arms embargo is adopted in the framework of the EU CFSP, the 2011 Draft articles on the Responsibility of International Organizations (DARIO) would also be relevant. Indeed, in that situation, international responsibility might also be incurred by the EU itself, in addition to the responsibility of EU member States. Article 17(1) DARIO provides that
[a]n international organization incurs international responsibility if it circumvents one of its international obligations by adopting a decision binding memberStates or international organizations to commit an act that would be internationally wrongful if committed by the former organization.
The ILC’s commentary on that provision refers to a statement of the legal counsel of WIPO according to whom
[. . .] in the event a certain conduct, which a member State takes in compliance with a request on the part of an international organization, appears to be in breach of an international obligation both of that State and of that organization, then the organization should also be regarded as responsible under international law.
It appears thus that in the event that arms supplied to armed opposition groups in Syria be used by the latter in the commission of internationally wrongful acts, the international responsibility of both the EU as an international organization and of the EU Member States might be simultaneously incurred.
In any case, it will be interesting to follow the matter, and in particular to see whether proponents of arms supply to opposition armed groups in Syria will put forward international legal arguments supporting their position.
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  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?
On this day, 22 April at 5 p.m. CET the first major chemical attack in modern warfare began 98 years ago, when German Imperial Forces released between 150–168 tonnes of chlorine gas from almost 6000 cylinders along a 700-metre front near the Belgian town of Ieper.
In a study for SIPRI published in 1997, I summarised the opening of the 2nd Battle of Ypres as follows:
Modern chemical warfare is regarded as having begun on 22 April 1915. On that date German troops opened approximately 6000 cylinders along a 7-km line opposite the French position and released 150–168 tonnes (t) of chlorine gas. Tear-gas (T) shells were also fired into the cloud and at the northern flank, the boundary between French and Belgian troops. Between 24 April and 24 May Germany launched eight more chlorine attacks. However, chemical warfare had not been assimilated into military doctrine, and German troops failed to exploit their strategic surprise. Chemical weapon (CW) attacks in following weeks were fundamentally different as they supported local offensives and thus served tactical purposes. In each case the amount of gas released was much smaller than that employed on 22 April, and crude individual protection against gas enabled Allied soldiers to hold the lines.
Prior to the April 1915 use of a chlorine cloud, gas shells filled with T-stoff (xylyl bromide or benzyl bromide) or a mixture of T-stoff and B-stoff (bromoacetone) had been employed. In addition, as early as 14 February 1915 (i.e., approximately the same period as CW trials on the Eastern front) two soldiers of the Belgian 6th Division had reported ill after a T-shell attack. In March 1915 French troops at Nieuwpoort were shelled with a mixture of T- and B-stoff (T-stoff alone had proved unsatisfactory). In response to the British capture of Hill 60 (approximately 5 km south-east of Ypres), German artillery counter-attacked with T-shells on 18 April and the following days. In the hours before the chlorine attack on 22 April the 45th Algerian Division experienced heavy shelling with high explosive (HE) and T-stoff.
Such attacks continued throughout the Second Battle of Ypres. Although Germany overestimated the impact of T-shells, on 24 April their persistent nature appears to have been exploited for the first time for tactical purposes. Near Lizerne (approximately 10 km north of Ypres) German troops fired 1200 rounds in a wall of gas (gaswand) behind Belgian lines to prevent reinforcements from reaching the front. The park of Boezinge Castle, where Allied troops were concentrated, was attacked in a similar manner.
Just a small thought that almost a century later we are still worrying about the possibility of the use of gas in war.
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.
16 March marks the 25th anniversary of the chemical warfare attacks against the Kurdish town of Halabja. Since the First World War it was one of the few cases wherein chemical weapons (CW) were deliberately used against a civilian target. Human Rights Watch documented over 3,200 deaths and many times that number of other casualties. Since then, thousands more of people have succumbed to their injuries or preventable infections affecting organs damaged by exposure to gas. Many women also suffered extensive genetic damage, thus passing the consequences of the gas attacks down the generations.
The town of Halabja in northeast Iraq has become a modern-age symbol condemning chemical warfare. Together with Ieper, a medieval town in the Belgian province of West Flanders. On 22 April 1915, the day on which scientific research, industrial production and military art finally found each other, German Imperial troops released a chlorine cloud from thousands of canisters buried in the trenches on the northern flank of the Ieper salient. Two years later, in the night of 12–13 July 1917, the town became associated with the first use of a new chemical warfare agent—mustard gas (which the French subsequently called ‘Yperite’). Mustard was also one of Iraq’s agents of choice against both the Iranians and the Iraqi Kurds.
The Iran–Iraq war lasted twice as long as the First World War: from 1980 until 1988. Iraqi use of toxic chemicals against Iranian soldiers was first reported in 1982, but by the end of 1983 press outlets told of widespread usage of mustard gas and tabun, a nerve agent. In April of the next year, a UN team of experts confirmed chemical warfare. From then onwards, Iraqi chemical attacks escalated, reaching a first peak in 1986 in the southern marshes. Two years later Iraqi forces had also assimilated CW for offensive operations and employed them with increasing effectiveness until Iran’s capitulation on 8 August 1988.
Possibly earlier, but definitively from 1987, Saddam Hussein opened a second chemical front against the Iraqi Kurds in the north. Names of towns such as Erbil (Hewlêr in Kurdish) in the north of the country or Penjwin, east of Sulaymaniyah, recurred frequently in interviews I had with Kurdish Peshmergas coming for a break to Belgium. They recounted chemical strikes against agrarian communities in north and east Iraqi Kurdistan. They described how eating the vegetables from their fields poisoned women and children many weeks after a CW attack. Unwittingly, they ingested the mustard agent that had settled on the bottom side of the leaves. The Peshmergas also depicted bombing raids high in the mountains, after which the mustard gas rolled down the mountain sides, penetrating deep into any cave sheltering Kurdish fighters.
About two years later, when listening again to my recordings from 1987, I recognised another town being referred to—Helebce, since then better known in the West as Halabja. The local population had risen up against Saddam Hussein, who brutally crushed the revolt. Half of the city fled to Iran, about 15 kilometres to the east, according to the interview. When Kurdish guerillas fighting alongside Iranian troops ‘liberated’ Halabja on 15 March 1988, supreme vengeance against an insurrectionary town came the next morning in the form of a gas cloud. Attacks were to continue until the 18th. Privately I have always been convinced that the 1987 uprising together with the ‘betrayal’ of the Iraqi Kurds seeking to break Baathist control over northeast Iraq with Iranian help in 1988 provoked the extraordinary escalation of chemical warfare against Kurdish guerillas and civilians alike. From that perspective, Saddam Hussein’s campaigns against the Kurds through August and September 1988 merely systematised the Halabja method on an even grander scale.
A few weeks after the attacks against Halabja, members of the Kurdish community in the Leuven area (where many Iraqi Kurds stayed with relatives and local acquaintances for a breather from combat) took me to the Erasmus hospital in Anderlecht, just outside Brussels. It had accepted four or five victims of chemical warfare for treatment. One was an Iranian soldier badly affected by mustard gas; one was a boy aged around five recovering from the chemical attacks on Halabja; the remainder were farmers from a wide area surrounding the town. Iraqi chemical strikes had neither been limited to 16 March, nor to the town of Halabja, it became clear to me. Joost Hiltermann later confirmed this impression in his detailed study ‘A Poisonous Affair’ (2007).
Two things struck me during that visit. The local Kurdish community treated the young boy as one of their own. He was slowly recovering from a low red blood cell count (possibly from a cyanide breakdown product after tabun exposure), and by the time I visited him he was already sitting up surrounded by pretty expensive toys. Most striking was a large replica with moving wings of an F-14 jet, with which the child was playing most of the time I was there. The treating physician told me of his incomprehension of why the boy had been given so many war-related presents. He also remarked on how the boy winced whenever a commercial jetplane flew over, an observation that added to his puzzlement. Three years later, when I was intensely following developments in the war over Kuwait, my son was both restless and agitated. After asking in a supermarket for a small, but accurate metal model of the A-10 close air support aircraft, which he recognised from TV newscasts, he settled down markedly. It seemed as if by holding the object of his anxiety, he was able to control the source of his angst. The Kurdish boy had definitely seen Saddam’s fighter-bombers up close.
The second lasting impression was how my Kurdish hosts tore me away from the Iranian soldier. He was by far the worst victim of gas exposure in the hospital (he was to die not too long after my visit). His skin looked blackened where white ointment did not fully hide it. Lesions from the vesicles covered parts of his body and his difficult, assisted breathing betrayed internal injuries. A faint, but unforgettable smell of decayed flesh penetrated the dominant odour of disinfectants. He had fallen victim to mustard gas outside of Halabja, possibly being one of the soldiers along whose side the Peshmergas were fighting against Saddam Hussein. The Kurds, however, did not spare a thought for him. This somehow offended my unconscious belief that victims of chemical warfare are all equal. At least, I knew of no such distinctions being drawn between Allied and German gas casualties of the First World War. In Belgium, common cause is against chemical warfare, full stop. And 25 years ago, the suffering in the trenches was all still part of national living memory.
The other face of Halabja
This incident was my first concrete exposure to the deep ethnic, cultural and religious cleavages in the Middle East, difficult to bridge and a perennial source of misunderstanding and hostility. It also shows why Halabja can never be a symbol for Iran’s suffering from CW in the way Ieper does for all chemical warfare during the First World War. For a while Halabja stood for all atrocities committed during Saddam’s reign of terror; the new Iraqi regime now commemorates the Halabja attacks as a national tragedy. Iran widely publicised the gassing in the weeks and months after the air raids. Halabja, however, lay in occupied territory. UN experts could not enter the town without Iraq’s authorisation. Although access to the victims transferred to Iranian hospitals was possible, lack of onsite verification diminished the value of the findings. Moreover, most victims were not Iranians, but Kurds—an ethnic group whose members living inside Iran also suffered from violent oppression by the theocratic rulers.
Iran’s own Halabja is called Sardasht, a municipality without much military significance across the border north of Sulaymaniyah. Saddam’s air force hit the town on 28 June 1987, almost nine months before Halabja. Although initial reports of CW victims were low, it soon emerged that almost three quarters of a population of 12,000 had been exposed to the toxicants. Some 130 people died, most of them civilians. The international press barely noticed this strike on a target with hardly any military significance.
Sardasht emblemised Iran’s predicament. The Islamic revolution of 1979 bought the country few friends. With the hostage taking in the US embassy, pent up anger over Washington’s unwavering support for the Shah’s repressive regime exploded into the open. The new leadership also refused rapprochement to the Soviet Union. Meanwhile it called for Islamic uprisings against the corrupt, autocratic leaders in the Gulf and beyond. When Iraq invaded its neighbour, Saddam Hussein presented himself as the bulwark against Persian territorial designs and Islamic revolutionary fervour. Although the United States and the USSR found themselves on the same side of the war; having lost a major regional ally, Washington nevertheless sought to pry Iraq away from the Soviet sphere of influence. The tide soon turned against Iraq, but the international community could not afford to let it lose the war. Such geostrategic calculations were to clash with international law.
When Saddam Hussein ordered the first chemical attacks, he breached the 1925 Geneva Protocol. Both Iran and Iraq had been party to the agreement for many decades. To Iraq, CW were a force multiplier that arrested the incessant Iranian human wave attacks when it was about to lose the war. National governments expressed their outrage, but the UN Security Council, while condemning the chemical attacks, never specified Iraq as the perpetrator for the duration of the war with Iran.
Countries adopted national sanctions and restricted access to certain chemical warfare agents and their precursors, but, absent a specific designation of responsibility under international law, applied them to both belligerents. The Geneva Protocol did not deny Iran the right to retaliate in kind, but international ‘evenhandedness’ certainly precluded it from achieving a CW capacity before the war’s end. The international stance had its moral merit. This, however, did not apply to the refusal to assist Iran with defensive countermeasures, including gasmasks, decontamination equipment, other types of individual and collective protection or prophylaxis. In 1985–86 an Iranian delegate to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva even had to travel to several European countries (including Spain) to procure active charcoal in order to develop chemical warfare defences in Iran. (I have detailed Iran’s defensive and offensive CW efforts in a study published by the Swedish Defence Research Agency in December 2003.) Often the Iranians were conned, leaving no option for the country to start developing its indigenous capacities—for CW defence as well as offense.
Just like Trotsky concluded after Russia’s capitulation to Germany in 1917, those experiences convinced Iran of the need to overcome technological backwardness in order to survive. They also taught the country that international law does not guarantee international justice, and it harbours deep misgivings about international promises for assistance. Adding insult to injury, from 1989 onwards US officials indicated several times that Iran rather than Iraq had gassed Halabja, a claim so preposterous that its motive remains a mystery to me until today. Self-sufficiency, self-reliance, autarky in all security-related matters drives today’s political leadership. Most Iranian politicians of all persuasions, as well as much of the population, belong to the generation that grew up on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war. War is therefore not necessarily a state of affairs they will seek to avoid in the pursuit of national interests. Nor do international confrontation or the threat of war particularly frighten them. Layer upon layer of fresh economic and political sanctions only confirm convictions that had eight long years to take root in the blood-soaked trenches along the Iran-Iraq border.
Halabja therefore also symbolises the long-term fallacy of short-term interests. It is the one lesson the world does not seem to have learned.