Investigation of alleged CW use in Syria: The reports 2013–15

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Investigations under the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism

Investigations by the OPCW Fact-Finding MIssion

The Trench blog comments

Syrian soldiers exposed to ‘sarin or a sarin-like substance’

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

In November I presented the main findings of the preliminary Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) report of 29 October. This particular investigation of alleged use by the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had been requested by Syria. Government officials had transmitted four Notes Verbales alleging  26 chemical weapon (CW) events resulting in 432 casualties. The preliminary report focussed primarily on incidents at Jobar (northeast of Damascus) on 29 August 2014. While the investigators believed that government soldiers had been exposed to an irritant, they could not confirm that the chemical had been used as a weapon. They as good as ruled out chlorine or a neurotoxicant, such as sarin, as the causative agent.

However, the investigative team also looked into five other events reported by the Syrian government: Al-Maliha on 16 April and 11 July 2014, al-Kabbas on 10 September 2014, Nubel and al-Zahraa on 8 January 2015, and Darayya on 15 February 2015.

On 17 December the Technical Secretariat circulated the final report on those allegations by the Syrian government. Whereas the interim report of 29 October comprised 59 pages, the final report almost doubled in size to 106 pages.

The final report repeats the findings about Jobar. With respect to the five other incidents, it reaches similar conclusions. However, as regards Darayya it summarised:

From the results of blood sample analyses, the FFM is of the opinion that there is a high degree of probability that some of those identified as being involved in the alleged incident in Darayya on 15 February 2015 were at some point exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance. In order to determine how, when, or under what circumstances the exposure occurred, further investigation would be required to complement the interviews carried out and the documents reviewed.

It does not say that those individuals were exposed to the neurotoxicant at Darayya, nor does it confirm that such exposure was the consequence of combat operations.

Investigating possible use of irritant chemicals as a weapon

With regard to the alleged incidents in Jobar on 29 August 2014 (for details, see my earlier posting), al-Maliha on 16 April 2014 and 11 July 2014, al Kabbas, Damascus on 10 September 2014 and Nubel and al-Zahraa on 8 January 2015, the report offers parallel conclusions. These are:

  • The affected soldiers ‘may have been exposed to some type of non-persistent, irritating airborne substance, secondary to the surface impact of the launched objects’.
  • The investigators could not determine with any degree of confidence as to whether exposure was the consequence of the irritant being delivered as the payload of a projectile, or whether the irritant had another source of origin (combustion product of a propellant, detonation of a conventional or improvised explosive device on a stored chemical already in-situ, some combination of substances mixed with surface soil and dust, or a combination of all mentioned factors).
  • The affected soldiers in question present clinical symptoms that are ‘consistent with a brief exposure to any number of chemicals or environmental insults’. Furthermore, ‘the visual and olfactory description of the potential irritating substance does not clearly indicate any specific chemical’.

In each of the five cases, the investigators pointed out that the lack of hard evidence precluded them from gathering facts in a definitive way. Little ‘objective evidence’ was made available to the team to complement the materials given by the Syrian authorities, ‘either because it was unavailable or because it was not generated in the first place’. The report lists the types of evidence that would have been crucial to establishing facts with a higher degree of confidence:

  • Photographic or video recordings of the incident;
  • A visit to the site where the incident took place;
  • Detailed medical records including, inter alia, X-rays, pulmonary function tests, and timely blood laboratory values;
  • Timely biomedical samples from the patients;
  • Remnants of any ordnance, launching system, or other forensic evidence retrieved from the location of the incident;
  • Unfired ordnance similar to that used in the incident;
  • Environmental samples from the surroundings of the location of the incident, including background samples;
  • Comprehensive contemporaneous incident reports generated by the chain of military command and the medical system; and
  • Comprehensive witness testimonies generated at the time of the incident.

Concerning some alleged incidents, the investigators would have also welcomed:

  • A greater sample of witness testimonies (al Maliha, 11 July 2014; Nubel and al-Zahraa, 8 January 2015); and
  • Samples from remnants of cylinders or other containers alleged to have been used in the incident and retrieved from the incident location (al Kabbas, 10 September 2014; Nubel and al-Zahraa, 8 January 2015).

Exposure to a nerve agent-related substance

According to Note Verbale 41 (29 May 2015), a follow-up to the initial document submitted by the Syrian government on 15 December 2014 that led to the FFM investigation, eight military personnel became casualties in an alleged CW incident on 15 February 2015. It provided a brief description of the incident, signs and symptoms, a more precise location, the hospital where casualties received treatment, and the names of the victims. The incident appeared sufficiently grave for the FFM to investigate it.

The FFM conducted interviews with medical staff and casualties relevant to the allegation and visited hospitals and research laboratories where tests on victim blood samples had been conducted. It also visited the Centre for Studies and Scientific Research Institute in Barzi, Damascus, on 12 and 14 August 2015. On the first day, team members had a discussion with the head of the research institute on the storage and research methods for blood collected for acetyl-cholinesterase (AChE) analysis and were made aware of the existence of several blood samples stored onsite related to the Darayya incident. Two days later the FFM revisited the institute to seal the selected blood samples.

In the course of the investigation the FFM received a variety of documents, including battlefield and medical reports, video footage and images from GoogleEarth indicating exact locations. These documents included the medical records of the eight reported casualties and the AChE analyses of six alleged victims. In several cases the investigators were granted access to requested documents, albeit without being provided with photocopies. Four of the reported casualties were given HI-6 (asoxime chloride) and dematropine, both nerve agent antidotes.

The retrieved blood samples were forwarded to OPCW-certified laboratories for analysis and a certified laboratory conducted DNA analysis to link the samples to the casualties.

In its medical review the FFM report draws a sharp distinction with the other investigated Syrian allegations:

The Darayya incident was the only reviewed incident wherein the alleged victims had a prolonged recovery phase of 10-12 days. This departed from all other alleged incidents wherein recovery was rapid and rarely resulted in hospital observation for more than two nights. Darayya is also the only alleged incident wherein antidotes and specific treatments such as oximes and atropine were employed, or were even mentioned. Finally, and perhaps most notably, this was the only incident wherein blood analysis was performed with quantitative results noted in the medical records. Though such results are precisely the type of objective evidence the medical team would have preferred to have had in the aforementioned incidents, in the case of Darayya the presented test results proved more confounding than helpful, as they were significantly outside of the expected range for such a scenario.

As a consequence, the report notes, the recovered blood samples had to be forwarded to an independent laboratory for further assessment. The final results were still pending when the report was issued. In its absence the medical evaluation necessarily rests on the interviews and provided documents, but given the shortcomings of the methodology and gaps, these merely contribute to the uncertainties that permeate the entire report on the allegations by the Syrian authorities. (It should be noted that Appendixes 8 and 9 provide detailed results of the analyses of the blood samples suggesting exposure to neurotoxicants in all tested samples collected from casualties, so that paragraph 90 of the report may either indicate failure to delete language from an earlier draft or point to additional laboratory testing.)

As with the investigation of the other incidents, the FFM noted that the Syrians could have supplied more documentary evidence or undertaken certain actions to  corroborate the testimonies of the casualties and witnesses it interviewed and establish the value of the evidence supplied:

  • Immediate notification to the OPCW that a suspected chemical attack had occurred would have allowed the prompt deployment of the FFM to gather primary evidence and establish the facts surrounding this incident;
  • Photographic or video recordings of the incident;
  • Visit to the site where the incident took place;
  • Detailed medical records including, inter alia, X-rays, pulmonary function tests, as well as timely and complete blood laboratory values;
  • Remnants of any ordnance, launching system, or forensic evidence retrieved from the incident location;
  • Unfired ordnance similar to that used in the incident;
  • Environmental samples, including animal tissue, from the surroundings of the incident location as well as background control samples;
  • Comprehensive contemporaneous incident reports generated by the chain of military command and the medical system;
  • Comprehensive witness testimonies generated at the time of the incident; and
  • A greater sample of witness testimonies.

On the basis of the evidence collected, the FFM concludes that:

there is a high degree of probability that some of those involved in the alleged incident in Darayya on 15 February 2015 were at some point exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance. However, the FFM could not confidently link the blood sample analyses to this particular incident nor determine how, when, or under what circumstances the exposure occurred.

The one sarin-like substance the report mentions is chlorosarin (O-isopropyl methylphosphonochloridate), a final precursor to the manufacture of sarin. However, the analysis did not indicate a specific date of exposure, nor a specific time that the blood was drawn. The FFM was also unable to verify the chain of custody between the time the blood was drawn from the casualties and the time it sealed the samples. In addition, blood sample analyses indicated that four of the eight individuals were at some point exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance, but the investigators were unable to link these results to the Darayya incident of 15 February 2015 as reported by the Syrian government. It is in this context that the report observes that the immediate notification to the OPCW of the suspected chemical attack would have allowed the prompt deployment of the FFM to gather primary evidence and establish the facts surrounding this incident.

Some observations

A striking feature of the general debate at the 20th Session of the Conference of States Parties (30 November–4 December 2015) was that not a single country referred to the preliminary FFM report on the allegations put forward by the Syrian government. As one participating diplomat put it to me, conclusions were not yet definite. He added that ‘the Executive Council had kicked the can down the road’ and that the findings would make for a difficult meeting early in 2016. Indeed, a week earlier, on 23 November, the Executive Council had noted the FFM’s inability to confidently determine whether or not a chemical was used as a weapon. It further noted that the FFM report was an interim report and that other incidents under investigation are pending final analysis and will be included in the final report.

The paragraph stands in stark contrast to the previous one addressing the FFM reports on alleged CW use in Marea and Idlib province, where the Executive Council

Expresses grave concern regarding the findings of the Fact-Finding Mission that chemical weapons have once again been used in the Syrian Arab Republic, and in this regard:
(a)     underscores that, with respect to the incident in Marea, Syrian Arab Republic, on 21 August 2015, the report of the Fact-Finding Mission confirmed “with the utmost confidence that at least two people were exposed to sulfur mustard” and that it is “very likely that the effects of sulfur mustard resulted in the death of a baby” (S/1320/2015); and
(b)     further underscores that, with respect to several incidents in the Idlib Governorate of the Syrian Arab Republic between 16 March 2015 and 20 May 2015, the report of the Fact-Finding Mission concluded that they “likely involved the use of one or more toxic chemicals—probably containing the element chlorine—as a weapon” with an “outcome of exposure [that] was fatal in six cases in Sarmin,” including those of three children in the same family (S/1319/2015).

Reading the latter two documents, I was struck by the fact that despite the difficult circumstances in which the investigations had to be conducted, the reports were still able to advance conclusions with fair to very high degrees of confidence that toxic chemicals had been used as a weapon. The investigators also indicated which chemicals may have been involved and proffered details about the munitions that delivered the agents. Indeed, the Idlib report contained a detailed graphical reconstruction of the barrel bombs dropped from helicopters to deliver the chlorine (see my earlier posting). All the evidence collected from Idlib province leaves little doubt that government units were responsible for those attacks. Concerning the mustard agent attack at Marea, the report does not implicate the Syrian government despite the certainty of its conclusions. Press and NGO reports have pointed the finger to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The OPCW and Iraq are collaborating on the investigation into a similar incident implicating ISIL near Mosul last summer.

During the Conference of States Parties the Syrian delegate vehemently denied that his country had ever launched a CW attack. In 2013 Damascus requested the UN Secretary General to investigate certain allegations of chemical warfare; the UN investigative team was in the Syrian capital when sarin-filled rockets hit the Ghouta suburb. The offer to accede to the CWC and have its chemical warfare capacity eliminated under international supervision averted international military strikes and ensured regime survival, at least in the short term.

The request for an investigation submitted in December 2014 was the first since Syria had joined the OPCW. One imagines that the Syrian government would have mobilised all possible resources to substantiate its allegements to the greatest possible extent. Trivial or plainly false allegations would inevitably undermine the country’s standing and the international community will tend to brush off any future accusations as a figment of a desperate government’s imagination.

Investigating false accusations also drains the OPCW’s limited budget resources. Unfortunately, no arms control or disarmament treaty currently in force envisages specific penalties for false allegations. Before entry into force of the CWC the Preparatory Commission (PrepCom) of the OPCW held consultations on the ‘costs of abuse’ detailing what direct and indirect costs should be covered by the State Party requesting a challenge inspection should the Executive Council rule that the requesting state party abused its right to request such an inspection. However, the PrepCom transferred the question as one of the outstanding issues to the OPCW and 18 years after the entry into force of the CWC this particular question remains unresolved. [Per Runn, Verification Annex, Part X, in W. Krutzsch, E. Myjer, and R. Trapp (eds.), The Chemical Weapons Convention: A Commentary (2014), p. 618.] Whichever way, since Syria claims that it cannot pay for verification and other operations for which a state party should cover the costs, the international community must cough up the money.

What Syrian objectives may lie behind the accusations? First, the government may genuinely believe that it has been the victim of chemical attacks. In that case, one would expect government officials forthcoming with evidence. Even lacking experience in dealing with such a situation, the questions and requests for further evidence they could address in such a way that either it complements initial information with supplementary evidence or demonstrates that the desired data are genuinely not available, for instance, as a consequence of war circumstances.

Second, the accusations could be part of a broader scheme to deflect responsibility for the Syrian regime’s own chemical attacks or to deny the international community evidence that later might inculpate Syrian officials for war crimes. If the allegations are indeed part of a plan to deflect responsibility for CW use, an outside observer’s impressions can only vacillate between sloppiness and sheer incompetence, on the one hand, and unwillingness to provide relevant documentation (which many or may not have been deliberately destroyed or hidden), on the other hand. Alas, the latter concern is one I have also often heard mentioned in connection with Syria’s declarations as part of its disarmament obligations.

There is a third possibility, but here one can only hope that the request for an investigation was not part of an exercise to learn how to better disguise chemical warfare attacks or to manufacture evidence in support of alleged insurgent use of toxicants.

CW incidents alleged by the Syrian government: an industrial chemical as likely cause?

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

My previous posting (16 November) presented the findings by the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concerning allegations of the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon in Syria’s Idlib Governorate. The FFM concluded that the incidents likely involved the use of a toxic chemical containing the element chlorine as a weapon.

This report was one of three that the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW transmitted to states party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) for consideration at a special session of the Executive Council on 23 November. The other two reports address allegations of mustard agent use at Marea in northern Syria and chlorine attacks against Syrian government forces around Damascus.

This contribution focusses on the latter investigation. Syria submitted four Notes Verbales alleging a total of 26 chemical weapon (CW) events resulting in 432 casualties. The first reported incident dates back as far as 19 March 2013; the most recent ones took place in May 2015.

The investigative team deployed to Syria on 1 June, 1 August and 13 October. It has not yet finalised its investigation and the interim report circulating among CWC states parties focusses primarily on one incident at Jobar (‘Jober’ as spellt in the report), a municipality northeast of the old town of Damascus, on 29 August 2014. Although the investigation is ongoing, the FFM

is of the view that those affected in the alleged incident may have been exposed to some type of non-persistent, irritating airborne substance, following the surface impact of two launched objects.

However, based on the evidence presented by the Syrian National Authority, the medical records that were reviewed, and the prevailing narrative of all of the interviews, the FFM cannot confidently determine whether or not a chemical was used as a weapon.

The FFM was unable to identify a specific irritant, but believes an industrial chemical may offer the most plausible explanation for the reviewed symptoms. It as good as ruled out use of chlorine or nerve agents in Jobar on 29 August 2014.

Conclusions about some other incidents reported by the Syrian government will be part of the final report.

Allegations by the Syrian government

The Syrian Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, who also heads the Syrian CWC National Authority, submitted Note Verbale 150 to the Technical Secretariat on 15 December 2014. The document alleges 10 separate CW incidents in four Damascus neighbourhoods between April and September 2014 that resulted in 92 casualties, all among military personnel.

Summary of allegations in Note Verbale 150

Syria’s Permanent Mission to the OPCW delivered Note Verbale 41 to the Technical Secretariat on 29 May 2015. It lists 13 separate incidents, five of which preceded Syria’s accession to the CWC, four whose dates fall within the date range of Note Verbale 150 and an additional four that took place early in 2015. These attacks allegedly occurred in the areas surrounding Aleppo and Damascus. Although this note is less explicit about the nature of the victims, it lists a minimum of 317 casualties, including at least five civilians. The document offers details on suspected chlorine use. The Syrian authorities requested members of the advance team (who deployed to Syria from 25 to 29 May 2015) that these events be included in the scope of the FFM. That, however, proved impossible without a new mandate covering additional events.

Summary of allegations in Note Verbale 41

It is interesting to note that some of the incidents predating Syria’s accession to the CWC had already been examined by the UN investigative team in August and September 2013. That investigation corroborated allegations of CW use at Khan Al Asal and described the incident as ‘a rapidly onsetting [sic] mass intoxication by an organophosphorous compound in the morning of the 19 March 2013’, but added that ‘the release of chemical weapons at the alleged site could not be independently verified in the absence of primary information on delivery systems and of environmental and biomedical samples collected and analysed under the chain of custody’.

The two other incidents alleged in Note Verbale 41 took place immediately after the infamous Ghouta attack of 21 August 2013 and had also been investigated by the UN team. Of the one at Al-Bahriya (spelt as Bahhariyeh in the UN report) on 22 August 2013, the UN team could not corroborate the allegation. Blood samples all tested negative for any known signatures of chemical warfare agents.

With respect to the incident at Jobar on 24 August 2013 the UN report confirmed a ‘relatively small scale’ use of sarin against soldiers. However, again ‘in the absence of primary information on the delivery system(s) and environmental samples collected and analysed under the chain of custody, the United Nations Mission could not establish the link between the victims, the alleged event and the alleged site’.

Note Verbale 41 is equally intriguing for the absence of several other alleged incidents between March and September 2013 investigated by the UN team. These presumably concerned the investigation requests by France, the UK and the USA included in the mandate of the investigators by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Note Verbale 41 also lists some incidents not addressed by the UN team.

It is clear that the OPCW has all but ignored the allegations prior to Syria’s accession to the CWC.

Note Verbale 43 dated 3 June 2015 reports three additional incidents in May 2015.


Summary of allegations in Note Verbale 43

Note Verbale 47 dated 15 June 2015 comprises six incidents that had already been mentioned in Note Verbale 41, but offers more background information, including greater detail on events, greater precision of sites of alleged attacks, and references to symptoms suffered by the exposed victims.


Summary of allegations in Note Verbale 47

Based on Notes Verbales 41, 43 and 47, the FFM was dispatched for a second investigative deployment.

Assessment of the alleged incidents

In view of the large number of allegations, the FFM was unable to investigate each one or had to sequence investigations based on the severity of allegations. Thus it was agreed with the Syrians that the FFM would focus initially on the Jobar event of 29 August 2014 because it involved the highest number of reported casualties in Note Verbale 150.

After receipt of the additional Notes Verbales, the FFM proposed additional investigation of two allegations in 2014 and one in 2015. Based on additional data supplied by the Syrian government, the investigative team eventually looked into five reported events during its second deployment: Al-Maliha on 16 April and 11 July 2014, Al-Kabbas on 10 September 2014, Nubel and al-Zahraa on 8 January 2015, and Darayya on 15 February 2015.

The report of 29 October indicates that the FFM completed its mandate for the Jobar investigation. It expresses considerable frustration about the dearth of additional evidence to support the allegation:

The FFM is of the opinion that it would have been able to be more precise in its findings if further objective evidence, complementing what was provided by the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic, had been made available to the team. The FFM was not able to obtain hard evidence related to this incident, either because it was unavailable or because it was not generated in the first place. The lack of hard evidence precluded the FFM from gathering further facts in a definitive way.

While interviews with soldiers point to the possibility ‘of exposure to some type of non-persistent, airborne irritant secondary to the surface impact of two launched objects’, the FFM could not confidently determine whether such exposure might have resulted from the payload of the projectiles or from another source (propellant, a chemical stored in the area of impact, detonation products, etc.) because of insufficient evidence presented by Syria, insufficient details in reviewed medical records, and inconsistencies in the narratives of interviewees. So, the FFM concluded that:

while the general clinical presentation of those affected in the incident is consistent with brief exposure to any number of chemicals or environmental insults, the visual and olfactory description of the potential irritant does not clearly implicate any specific chemical.

This particular investigation was also hampered by the delay of some nine months between the alleged incident and the start of the mission. Notwithstanding, the FFM all but ruled out chlorine and organophosphorous compounds (e.g., sarin) as agents responsible for the described symptoms. High on the list of probabilities figures diBorane, which besides use as a rocket propellant also has application in electronic industries and the vulcanisation of rubber. As the report notes, these uses make it ‘relevant to the interests of a militarized non-state actor [and it is] also readily available in the region’. Many of the reviewed symptoms appear consistent with exposure to this non-persistent and volatile chemical.

FFM Jobar chemicals probability

Jobar: Likelyhood of toxic chemicals to which victims might have been exposed (Source: OPCW)

The report on the allegations raised by the Syrian government is preliminary. The Jobar investigation is in the process of finalisation. The other mentioned incidents also remain under investigation pending final analysis. The interim report only contains an overview of activities undertaken until October 2015. These findings will also be included in the final report.

Investigation of alleged chlorine attacks in the Idlib Governorate (Syria) in March – May 2015

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

On 29 October, the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) circulated three reports on investigations of alleged chemical weapons (CW) use in Syria. On 5 November Reuters published some details from the one addressing the alleged use of sulphur mustard agent in Marea, a town to the north of Aleppo, on 21 August. The two other reports address a series of incidents between 15 December 2014 and 15 June 2015 at the request of the Syrian government and between 16 March and 20 May 2015 in the Idlib Governorate documented by a variety of non-governmental sources.

For the purpose of clarity, the OPCW maintains a single Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), which has so far produced six reports. Under the FFM, the OPCW may deploy different teams to different locations.

The most recent reports will be released as part of the monthly OPCW reports on Syria to the UN Security Council, presumbly at the end of this month following the special session of the Executive Council on 23 November called to consider the findings.

Incidents in Idlib Governorate, March – May 2015

The Idlib Governorate lies to the south-west of Alleppo. During the spring of 2015 the international press and social media reported a string of incidents suggesting the use of chlorine as a weapon.

This team of the Fact-Finding Mission received its mandate to investigate incidents involving the use of toxicants as a weapon based on open-source media, other sources of information and materials obtained from non-governmental organisations. The investigation could not take place under optimal conditions, because the OPCW inspectors were unable to visit the sites of alleged incidents shortly after their occurrence, take their own samples or review the records onsite. Instead they based themselves on interviews and supplementary materials submitted during the interview process. They were nevertheless able to conclude:

In itself, no one source of information or evidence would lend particularly strong weighting as to whether there was an event that had used a toxic chemical as a weapon. However, taken in their entirety, sufficient facts were collected to conclude that incidents in the Syrian Arab Republic likely involved the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon. There is insufficient evidence to come to any firm conclusions as to the identification of the chemical, although there are factors indicating that the chemical probably contained the element chlorine.

The report documents 17 incidents in 6 locations between 16 March and 20 May 2015. They were responsible for six fatalities.

Idlib 2015 - reported incidents

First depiction of a chemical barrel bomb dropped from helicopters

The report also included a depiction of a so-called barrel bomb, based on the various testimonials and collection of bomb fragments. It notes that the design of the improvised weapon underwent an evolution of their manufacture, probably driven by trial and error. However, only a singly type appears to have been used in the Idlib Governorate between March and May 2015.

OPCW 20151029 Barrel bomb graph

Depiction of a chemical barrel bomb (Source: OPCW)

The configuration consists of 9 gas cylinders (green) presumably filled with poisonous chemicals. The report suggests that they may have been filled with a chlorine or chloride containing compound. The flasks with potassium permanganate (pink) would then have been used to oxidise the chlorine containing compound, resulting in Cl2. The potassium permanganate may be responsible for the purple–red colour occasionally seen in pictures and video footage of impact sites.

This depiction definitely explains how high concentrations of chlorine were achieved locally, earlier assessments of improbability having been based on the assumption of the dropping or firing of single gas cilinders fitted with a light detonator.  Interestingly, the barrel bomb configuration would not have contradicted this assumption, given the individual rigging of gas cylinders (see Brown Moses’ speculation on this in 2014) and the focus of outside observers on those cylinders. To the best of my recollection, only a single report on developments in Syria in 2014 prepared by Human Rights Watch made a passing reference to the possibility: ‘evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas on three towns in Northern Syria in mid-April‘.

On the value of the evidence

As usual and for good reason, the reports by the Technical Secretariat remain careful in their conclusions. Determination of reponsibility for the violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and other legal instruments banning chemical warfare is pre-eminently a political judgement. As noted earlier, the Executive Council will consider these findings (as well as those in the other two reports) on 23 November, after which they will be transferred to the UN Security Council. They will also inform the Joint Investigative Mission established by the UNSC in August, whose principal task it is to determine responsibility for chemical warfare in the Syrian civil war.

Meanwhile, the investigators assess their findings concerning the delivery system as follows:

The description of the alleged chemical weapon and its deployment derives from several inputs, as previously described. The features of the improvised chemical bomb are consistent with its being designed for deployment from a height. As most incidents happened during darkness, it is not surprising that no interviewees claimed to have seen the means of deployment. The deformation of the remnants is consistent with mechanical impact and explosive rupture, rather than explosion causing deflagration. Witnesses also reported a lesser explosive sound than for other more conventional types of bombs. Moreover, casualties’ signs and symptoms do not include physical injuries that would be expected from the deployment of an explosive device. The craters which have been claimed to have been caused by the device are also consistent with its being dropped from a height with lesser explosive power. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the devices were not designed to cause mechanical injury through explosive force but rather to rupture and release their contents.

Innocence Slaughtered: Introduction

Innocence Slaughtered will be published in December 2015

In November 2005 In Flanders Fields Museum organised and hosted an international conference in Ypres, entitled 1915: Innocence Slaughtered. The first major attack with chemical weapons, launched by Imperial German forces from their positions near Langemarck on the northern flank of the Ypres Salient on 22 April 1915, featured prominently among the presentations. I was also one of the speakers, but my address focussed on how to prevent a similar event with biological weapons. Indeed, it was one of the strengths of the conference not to remain stuck in a past of—at that time—nine decades earlier, but also to invite reflection on future challenges in other areas of disarmament and arms control. Notwithstanding, the academic gathering had a secondary goal from the outset, namely to collect the papers with historical focus for academic publication.

The eminent Dutch professor and historian Koen Koch chaired the conference. He was also to edit the book with the historical analyses. Born just after the end of the 2nd World War in Europe, he sadly passed away in January 2012. He had earned the greatest respect from his colleagues, so much so that the In Flanders Fields Museum set up the Koen Koch Foundation to support students and trainees who wish to investigate the dramatic events in the Ypres Salient during the four years of the 1st World War. The homage was very apt: Professor Koch had built for himself a considerable reputation as an author of studies on the 1st World War. Most remarkable: The Netherlands had remained neutral during the conflagration, which adds to the value of his insights.

Death, unfortunately, also ends projects. In the summer of 2014, while doing some preliminary research on the history of chemical warfare, I came across the manuscripts of the chapters that make up the bulk of this book. They were in different editorial stages, the clearest indication of how abruptly the publication project had screeched to an end. Reading them I was struck by the quality of the contents, rough as the texts still were. Together, the contributions also displayed a high degree of coherence.

One group of papers reflected on the minutiae of the unfolding catastrophe that the unleashing of chlorine against the Allied positions meant for individual soldiers and civilians. They also vividly described German doubts about the effectiveness of the new weapon, and hence its potential impact on combat operations. These contributions also reflected on the lack of Allied response to the many intelligence pointers that something significant was afoot. In hindsight, we may ponder how the Allied military leaders could have missed so many indicators. Yet, matter-of-fact assessments of gas use by Allied combatants recur in several chapters, suggesting either widespread anticipation of the introduction of toxic chemicals as a method of warfare or some degree of specific forewarning of the German assault. Gaps in the historical record, however, do not allow a more precise determination of Allied anticipation of chemical warfare. Still, a general foreboding may differ significantly from its concrete manifestation. From the perspective of a contemporary, the question was more likely one of how to imagine the unimaginable. Throughout the 2nd Battle of Ypres senior Allied commanders proved particularly unimaginative. In the end, the fact that German military leaders had only defined tactical goals for the combat operations following up on the release of chlorine, meant that they had forfeited any strategic ambition—such as restoring movement to a stalemated front, seizing the Channel ports, or capturing the vital communications node that Ypres was—during the 2nd Battle of Ypres, or ever after. The surprise element was never to be repeated again. Not during the 1st World War, not in any more recent armed conflict.

The second group of papers captured the massive transformation societies were undergoing as a consequence of industrialisation, science and technology, and the impact these trends were to have on the emergence of what we know today as ‘total war’. Chemical warfare pitted the brightest minds from the various belligerents against each other. The competition became possible because the interrelationship between scientists, industry, politicians and the military establishment was already changing fast. But chemical warfare also helped to effectuate and institutionalise those changes. In many respects, it presaged the Manhattan Project in which the various constituencies were brought together with the sole purpose of developing a new type of weapon. In other ways the competition revealed early thinking about racial superiority that was to define the decades after the Armistice. The ability to survive in a chemically contaminated environment was proof of a higher level of achievement. In other words, chemical defence equalled survival of the fittest. Or how Darwin’s evolutionary theory was deliberately misused in the efforts to justify violation of then existing norms against the used of poison weapons or asphyxiating gases.

During and in the immediate aftermath of the war, opposition to chemical warfare was slow to emerge. In part, this was the consequence of the appreciation by soldiers in the trenches and non-combatants living and working near the frontlines that gas was one among many nuisances and dangers they daily faced as its use became more regular. Defences, advanced training and strict gas discipline gave soldiers more than a fair chance of surviving a gas attack. The violence of total war swept away the humanitarian sentiments that had given rise to the first international treaties banning the use of poison and asphyxiating gases in the final year of the 19th century. Those documents became obsolete because people viewed modern gas warfare as quite distinct from primitive use of poison and poisoned weapons or the scope of the prohibition had been too narrowly defined. By February 1918 chemical warfare had become so regular that a most unusual public appeal on humanitarian grounds by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) badly backfired on the organisation. Throughout the 1920s the choice between an outright ban on chemical weapons and preparing populations for the consequences of future chemical warfare would prove divisive for the ICRC. In contrast, peace and anti-war movements in Europe campaigned against war in all its aspects and consequently refused to resist one particular mode of warfare before the Armistice. It is instructive to learn that opposition to chemical warfare specifically first arose far away from the battlefields—northern America and neutral Netherlands—and among a group of citizens not directly involved in combat operations: women. And perhaps more precisely, women of science who protested the misapplication of their research and endeavours to destroy humans. Just like the chlorine cloud of 22 April 1915 foreshadowed the Manhattan project, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom presaged the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, who would bring together scientists, academics and political leaders to counter the growing menace of nuclear war and find solutions to other threats to peace and security.

It was clear to me that I should not remain a privileged reader of the manuscripts. They contained too much material and insights that the broader public should have access to. Piet Chielens, curator of the In Flanders Fields Museum, and Dominiek Dendooven, researcher at the Museum, could not agree more, and so a new publication project was born. However, since the centenary of the chlorine attack was only a few months away, reviving the academic product Koen Koch had been working on was initially not an option. So, the decision was to exploit modern communication technologies and produce the volume as a PDF file in first instance. However, by the time the electronic edition was ready for online publication, In Flanders Fields Museum had found a publisher willing and able to produce a formal edited volume before the end of the centenary year of the first modern gas attack. My gratitude goes to Ryan Gearing of Uniform Press for his guidance and concrete assistance in making this book a reality.

Time for preparing this publication was very short. To my pleasant surprise, every author in this volume responded favourably and collaboration over several intense weeks—both in the preparation of the original PDF version and the subsequent book project—proved remarkably gratifying and productive. Some contributors even took the time to introduce me to certain concepts widely accepted among historians, which I, with my background in linguistics and political science, had interpreted rather differently. For the experience in preparing this volume, I indeed wish to thank every single contributor.

22 April 1915 was not just the day when the chlorine cloud rolled over the battlefield in Flanders. It also symbolises the confluence of often decade-old trends in science, technology, industry, military art and the way of war, and social organisation. That day augured our modern societies with their many social, scientific and technological achievements. However, it was also a starting point for new trends that eventually led nations down the path of the atomic bomb and industrialised genocide in concentration camps. It also highlighted the perennial struggle of international law and institutions to match rapid scientific and technological advances that could lead to new weapons or modes of warfare. This volume captures the three dimensions: the immediate impact of poison warfare on the battlefield, the ways in which the events in the spring of 1915 and afterwards shaped social attitudes to the scientification and industrialisation of warfare, and the difficulties of capturing chemical and industrial advances in internationally binding legal instruments. Indeed, there can be no more poignant reminder that our insights into the trends that brought the chlorine release 100 years ago are crucial to our understanding of trends shaping our societies today and tomorrow.

Yes, the world has moved on since the 1st World War, even if the use of chlorine in the Syrian civil war one century later may seem to challenge the thought. Yet, one institution may unwittingly have come to symbolise the progression. Fritz Haber, the scientific and organisational genius who led Imperial Germany’s chemical warfare effort in 1915, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918. Typical for the day, the Nobel Committee detached scientific achievement from moral considerations. His contribution to the development of a synthetic fertiliser for agricultural use, for which he got the prize, equally enabled Germany to continue munition production in the face of an Allied blockade denying it access to foreign raw materials. Haber’s part in chemical warfare too fell entirely outside the Nobel Committee’s considerations. Ninety-five years later, in 2013, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons received the Nobel Peace Prize for its progress in eliminating the scourge of chemical warfare. The decision represented a strong moral statement, for it reflected the (Norwegian) Nobel Committee’s views that today chemistry, and science in general, should serve peaceful purposes. Therefore it is indeed painfully paradoxical that the successful elimination of the most toxic substances developed and produced for warfare has resulted in the return of chlorine, today a common industrial chemical, as a weapon of choice in the Syrian civil war that started in 2011.

We indeed still experience the consequences of 22 April 1915: this dichotomy between the application of science and technology for life and their mobilisation for war continue to characterise our societal development today. This realisation explains why I thought that the papers, initially prepared under the guidance of Professor Koen Koch, should see the light of day. Particularly now.

Jean Pascal Zanders
Ferney-Voltaire, October 2015

Chlorine: A weapon of last resort for ISIL? (Part 2)

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

From September 2014 on several reports have alleged chlorine use by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq. The claims began shortly after the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had released its first report on its investigation into the chlorine attacks in Syria earlier in the year. In a politically highly charged atmosphere in which supporters and opponents of the regime of President Bashir al-Assad use any incident to blame insurgent forces of atrocities or call for regime change, one must necessarily view accusations of chemical warfare with a healthy dose of scepticism. This is particularly the case if allegations disappear as quickly as they surface.

However, during the autumn of last year there was some consistency in the albeit irregular reports. Furthermore, on 10 February, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü confirmed that the Iraqi authorities had notified the OPCW of chlorine gas attacks against Iraqi soldiers. At present it is not known which steps, if any, the OPCW will undertake with regard to these allegations.

Last October I described how al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a precursor organisation to ISIL, applied chlorine in a campaign of car bombings between October 2006 and June 2007. While many people in the vicinity of the detonation required medical treatment for exposure to the agent, nobody was actually killed by the gas. This posting looks into the various allegations of insurgent chlorine attacks in Syria and Iraq since 2013.

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Chlorine: A weapon of last resort for ISIL?

Over the past few weeks several press reports have suggested that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have resorted to chlorine use in attacks in Iraq and Syria.

The grouping is no stranger to chlorine. In some earlier incarnation it was known as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and later it rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq when it explicitly began trying to control territory. Harsh imposition of its strict interpretation of Sharia law and extreme violence towards anybody refusing total subjugation to its rule soon had Sunni tribal leaders uniting in resistance early in 2007. They also began cooperation with forces of the US-led coalition occupying Iraq since 2003 and the Shia-dominated Iraqi government. AQI started mounting large-scale operations involving several hundreds of fighters to capture local seats of power. During the first half of 2007 suicide attacks with lorries rigged with a large quantity of explosives evolved from isolated incidents to terrorise and destabilise societies to a tool integrated in assaults against government centres and fortified positions. After an isolated attempt in October 2006, AQI launched almost 20 chlorine attacks in the first half of 2007.

This posting is a first effort to understand the dynamic behind ISIL resorting to chlorine and perhaps some other toxic chemical substances in military operations in Iraq and Syria. If current chlorine attacks can be confirmed, then some interesting parallels with the brief episode in Iraq may be discerned (but the hypotheses do require further study to be confirmed):

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Must the Belgian babies be bayoneted all over again?

August, 100 years ago: the Hun from the east invaded little, neutral Belgium. In the opening weeks of the campaign the Hun was not a good boy. He willfully executed civilians, raped women, destroyed historical monuments and burned down university libraries—all war crimes that have been extensively documented. The worst barbarian acts, however, he committed against babies. He cut off their hands, so that the grownup man could never take up arms against the Hunnic master. Worse, he tossed them in the air and caught them on his bayonet. Alas, each investigated claim proved to be a myth. Meanwhile, many a Brit had enlisted to revenge the ‘Rape of Belgium’.

Similar stories appealing to public emotion circulated before the outbreak of World War I. And they have been fabricated since. Remember the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and Nayirah’s testimony before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus? Nayirah, then 15 years old, told of Iraqi soldiers seizing incubators from Kuwaiti hospitals and leaving the babies to die on cold floors. Nayirah turned out to be the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the US, and the accusations were reportedly coached by a US-based PR company contracted by the Kuwaiti government. However, the tale received a huge credibility boost from  Amnesty International. The human rights watchdog claimed in a December 1991 report that its investigation team talked with several doctors and nurses who ‘gave details of the deaths of 300 babies removed from incubators in hospitals by Iraqi troops and left to die on cold floors’ (Douglas Walton, 1995, p. 772). (Amnesty international eventually retracted its report, unlike Human Rights Watch today, which released a dubious report on the Ghouta attacks and—in a modern version of the Vietnam-era ‘destroy the town to save it’—seized on the chemical weapon allegations to call for military strikes against Syria.)

Which brings us to current press reports of genetically malformed babies as a consequence of chemical warfare in Syria.

Deformed babies after the Ghouta attack

A few days ago, The Telegraph (London) and the Daily Star (Beirut) published testimonies and pictures of children born with genetic defects from the Ghouta district near Damascus. Other babies were reported to have been stillborn. Parents and attending physicians attributed the occurrences to the chemical attacks there last August. The UN investigative team confirmed the use of the nerve agent sarin in those attacks.

Many toxic chemicals are known mutagens. Some directly damage the DNA, resulting in replication errors. Some interfere with the replication process itself, and yet other ones can create mutagenic metabolites. Certain cancers may result from genotoxic properties of chemicals. As a matter of history, research into the physiological consequences of exposure to mustard agents after World War I and during World War II contributed to the development of chemotherapy against cancer. Chronic exposure to such genotoxicants may also lead to transgenerational genetic effects. Images of mutant fish and amphibians living in polluted water reservoirs come to mind. The severely malformed infants of Vietnamese parents and US veterans who were exposed to large doses of Agent Orange sprayed to defoliate forests during the Indochina war remain living proof of the transgenerational mutagenic and teratogenic consequences of certain chemical warfare agents. Research into the long-term health implications of the chemical bombing of the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988 has revealed similar transgenerational effects of mustard agent.

The main problem with the current claims of genetically malformed babies in the Ghouta area is that no indicators are available to conclude that the nerve agent sarin provokes cancer or leads to genetic defects.

Long-term research into the effects of sarin

As a consequence of the prevalence of illnesses related to the 1990–91 Gulf War among US military personnel, the United States conducted extensive investigations into the consequences of exposure to nerve agents. One report, published in 1996, failed to link the neurotoxicants to cancers or mutations (GB is the US military code for sarin):

Carcinogenicity, Mutagenicity, Teratogenicity
Organophosphates are not recognized as being carcinogens. No evidence was found to suggest that GB has carcinogenic potential. In a follow-up study of approximately 995 U.S. Army volunteers who participated in anticholinesterase experiments at the U.S. Army laboratories, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Edgewood, Maryland during 1955-1975, no consistent pattern of increased risk of cancer was found (NRC, 1985). The study was of relatively low statistical power, and was only able to identify large differences. The investigators concluded that, based on these findings, and the 10 lifetime studies of carcinogenicity of organophosphates sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, that anticholinesterase compounds did not induce malignancies among the Edgewood subjects.

Goldman, Klein, Kawakami and Rosenblatt (1987) concluded that GB is not mutagenic based on both in vivo and in vitro evaluations. Negative results were found in the Ames Salmonella bacterial gene mutation assay using 5 different strains exposed to a range of concentration of GB. Mouse lymphoma cell tests, Chinese hamster ovary cell tests, including sister chromatid exchange assays, and rat hepatocyte assays (for unscheduled DNA synthesis and damage) were all negative for mutagenic activity.

No evidence of teratogenicity of GB was found. Organophosphates are generally not considered to have significant reproductive effects; no studies to directly evaluate this characteristic in GB were found. In their study of the toxicity of chronic exposure of dogs to GB, Jacobsen, Christensen, DeArmon, and Oberst (1959) had the male animals bred after 25 weeks of daily moderate doses of GB; the offspring were normal.

In their one year, low-dose GB inhalation exposure study of a variety of animals, Weimer et al (1979) found no abnormalities in reproduction and fertility, fetal toxicity, or teratogenesis in Sprague-Dawley/Wistar rats. Testicular atrophy was noted in the Fischer rat, but the authors speculated other causes, since later experiments (using a different route of exposure) did not replicate the finding. In their report, the authors also cite work conducted by J. R. Denk (EB-TR-74087 Effects of GB on Mammalian Germ Cells and Reproductive Performance, February 1975) which came to the same negative conclusions.

Similarly, an Emergency Response Card, last reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control on 12 May 2011, notes:

EFFECTS OF CHRONIC OR REPEATED EXPOSURE: Limited data are available on chronic or repeated exposure to sarin. The available data however, suggest that sarin is not a human carcinogen, reproductive toxin, or developmental toxin. Limited data suggest that chronic or repeated exposure to sarin may result in a delayed postural sway and/or impaired psychomotor performance (neuropathy).

 Attribution to chlorine and mustard agent exposure

The Daily Star also offered a bizarre linkage with chlorine, the agent of recent chemical warfare allegations in Syria:

While stressing that he was not a doctor, chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon pointed to similar birth defects witnessed after the 1988 Halabja massacre, when the Iraqi government launched a chemical attack against the local Kurdish population.

De Bretton-Gordon, CEO of SecureBio, a UK-based Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear consultancy firm and former commander of the British military’s CBRN forces, said of the images of Joud: ‘Yes I think there is something in this and we saw similar from Halabja victims. I’m obviously not a doctor but chemical weapons, including chlorine, are known to be carcinogenic and mutanogenic.” (Sic)

The Center for Disease Control, the U.S. national public health institute, states that in the use of organophosphates such as sarin, ‘the possibility that birth defects could occur has neither been confirmed nor ruled out.’ Chlorine is not included in this nerve agent category, as it is a blister agent.

The Health Protection Agency (today Public Health England) published a toxicological overview of chlorine (2007) and excluded any of the above cited consequences from exposure:


No data are available on the mutagenicity of chlorine gas per se, although the mutagenicity of solutions of chlorine in water (hypochlorite and its salts) has been investigated. Sodium hypochlorite has been shown to have some mutagenic activity in vitro (both bacterial and mammalian cells) that may be due to the generation of reactive oxygen species. However, there is no evidence for activity in vivo. Negative results were obtained in bone marrow assays for clastogenicity (chromosome aberrations and micronuclei) in mice. The negative results reported in the carcinogenicity bioassays also support the view that hypochlorite does not have any significant mutagenic potential in vivo.


Negative results were obtained when chlorine (dissolved in drinking water) was investigated in a National Toxicology Program (NTP) carcinogenicity bioassay in rats and mice; concentrations of up to 275 ppm chlorine were used. Previously, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) had evaluated the carcinogenicity of hypochlorite salts and concluded that there was no data available from human studies and that the data from experimental studies in animals was inadequate. Therefore, hypochlorite salts were assigned to Group 3, i.e., compounds that are not classifiable as to their carcinogenicity in humans.

Reproductive and developmental toxicity

In general, animal studies have demonstrated no reproductive or teratogenic effects of chlorine. The effects of water chlorinated to a level of 150 mg L -1 were investigated in rats over 7 generations. No effects were observed on fertility, growth or survival.

Whether the interviewed expert actually expressed the words as recorded in the Daily Star is uncertain. The last sentence in the newspaper quote may indicate a mixup on the part of the journalist: ‘Chlorine is not included in this nerve agent category, as it is a blister agent.’ Chlorine, of course, is a choking agent, not a vesicant such as mustard gas.

As noted above, Saddam Hussein’s forces did employ mustard agent against Halabja and exposure to the agent can have genetic consequences for the survivors. However, nobody has ever alleged mustard gas use with respect to the chemical weapon attacks against Ghouta (or for that matter during the Syrian civil war). Therefore, speculating on the consequences of an agent not at issue is entirely irrelevant.

Spurious argumentation

Substantiation of the claims rests on impressions and convictions of the affected families and some doctors working in the field making straightforward linkages between an observed phenomenon and the appearance of supposed consequences a while later. The articles offer no independently verified facts on the previous incidence of malformed children in the affected area or within the families.

The mothers in question are all reported to have been pregnant at the time of the gas attacks against Ghouta. Certain chemicals are known to affect the development of the foetus, the consumption of alcohol and smoking during pregnancy being prime examples. Sarin, however, does not appear to have such an impact, although, of course, one cannot exclude that the ways in which the body responds to the poisoning and the administered antidotes may impact on foetal growth.

Instead of exploring the deeper connections between cause and effect, The Telegraph chose to refer to the testimony by Dr Christine Gosden before the US Congress (which actually took place on 22 April 1998). She described how the inhabitants of Halabja were exposed to a cocktail of chemicals. With regard to the impact of mustard gas, she noted:

Long term effects. The most serious of the long term effects arise because mustard gas is carcinogenic and mutagenic. In the respiratory system there are increased risks of chronic lung disease, asthma, bronchitis. Permanent impairment of vision may occur and eye damage may be severe, leading to blindness. Skin lesions and burns may be severe with persistent changes and hypersensitivity to mechanical injury. Carcinogenic and mutagenic effects can result in cancers, congenital malformations and infertility. Long term effects (mutagenesis, carcinogenesis, eye, skin, lung, fertility, etc.) are dose and route dependent.

She does not claim similar consequences from exposure to nerve agents. Most importantly, the remainder of her testimony details the various short- and long-term symptoms observed in the victims over a 10-year period, but does not attribute any one of them to a specific warfare agent. In other words, invoking Gosden’s report as evidence in support of the claims regarding the consequences of the Ghouta attack is misleading, more so as the only agent that might strongly suggest carcinogenic or mutagenic consequences was not used in Syria.

The Telegraph article (unwittingly?) offers a very good alternative explanation for the genetic malformations (emphasis added):

‘We are receiving pregnant women in Arsal from many areas such as Qusair, Homs, Kalamoon, and [outer] Damascus, they come across the border for giving birth but in some cases the result is tragedy.’

‘We are receiving around 100 births a month in Arsal, about 12 per cent in the average out of them are stillborn,’ [Dr Kasem al-Zein] said. ‘The problems for newborn children are mostly occurring in women who were exposed to the chemical weapons, but also we have noticed that all women who lived in areas exposed to shelling by barrels and missiles are suffering fetal diseases.’

Arsal lies to the northeast of Baalbek in Lebanon. Since the reported cases attributed to chemical attacks are all from the last week or two, it is very difficult to determine how large a part of the monthly average they (can) represent. In contrast, the numbers do hint at possible roles of prolonged extreme stress, concussion, exposure to high levels of dust, malnourishment, and so on, in the incidence of miscarriages and malformed babies.

Déjà vu

The story leaves a distinct impression of having seen it all before. The Telegraph came up with a defector, General Zaher al-Sakat, who had replaced sarin with Eau de Javel, a story that did not get much traction. Last month, it offered proof of chlorine use, which it claimed to be on a par with the methodologies applied by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And interestingly enough, as the Christian Science Monitor wrote on 6 September 2002, ‘the first mention of babies being removed from incubators appeared in the Sept. 5 [1991] edition of the London Daily Telegraph’. That was on the eve of the decision to authorise military force to eject Iraq from Kuwait.

Seeking out plausible alternative explanations for observed phenomena and then eliminating them systematically goes a long way to establishing the credibility of an allegation. Are the current claims of mutagenic consequences of the chemical strikes in Ghouta part of a concerted ploy to again build a humanitarian case for Western military intervention against the regime of Bashar al-Assad? If so, it smacks of bayoneted Belgian babies all over again.

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Green is the colour

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is about to investigate the various allegations of the use of chlorine in Syria over the past few weeks. It is the right decision. It is the only decision possible in view of the many witness accounts and footage available on internet sites. However, the hope that the announcement of the fact-finding mission on 29 April might deter the perpetrator from future chlorine attacks was quickly dashed: a new chlorine bombing took place a day later.

The symbolism of the date cannot be overstated. 29 April was the 17th anniversary of the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). 29 April is the UN’s annual Day of Remembrance for all Victims of Chemical Warfare. And now, 29 April is also the day on which for the first time the potential violation of the ban on the use of chemical weapons (CW) by a state party to the CWC was officially recognised. A mere six months after Syria joined the convention. And 99 years after chlorine ushered in the age of modern chemical warfare.

On the same day, a British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, felt the need to headline that it had the proof that Assad launched the chlorine attacks. It caused a stir, not in the least because the article ended with the claim that the newspaper’s investigation was on a par with OPCW procedures. Hardly.

No stranger to the battlefield of world opinion

It is worth recalling that initial accounts on the chemical attack at Khan al-Assal (near Aleppo) on 19 March 2013 referred to chlorine. Early press reports mentioned 26 fatalities, a figure 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 the EU Institute for Security Studies I wrote:

This claim is intrinsically problematic. Exposure to chlorine stored in a warehouse or near a production installation hit by a shell could account for respiratory problems and skin irritation, but not for a high number of fatalities. One would need a very high volume of the agent to obtain lethal doses in open air; the explosion would most likely destroy part of the agent; and highly recognisable evidence of corrosion at the site of attack could not be missed.

More recent accounts specify that Islamic extremists filled a home-made rocket with chlorine dissolved in a saline solution. The agent would thus amount to Eau de Javel (bleach). Even in its highest industrial concentration of 40%, the agent cannot explain the fatalities, even if one were to assume that a very large number of home-made rockets hit the target in a tight cluster.

A month later, I remained just as unconvinced. In the meantime, having reviewed all CW references I had collected since the start of the Syrian civil war, I was struck by how stories on a particular incident may change with time. As a rule of thumb, everything ultimately turned into sarin. And as suggested in the quote above, sarin could become bleach. It is worth retracing that metamorphosis.

The Khan al-Assal attack of 19 March prompted the Syrian Government to request the UN Secretary General to conduct an investigation of alleged use. As already mentioned, reports at the time were referring to chlorine or witnesses recalling a chlorine smell. Chlorine was also what the Syrian government reportedly cited in its letter to Ban Ki-moon. Already early in December 2012, the Syrian Foreign Ministry had warned of possible insurgent use of CW in letters to the UN. It alluded to a Syrian-Saudi factory SYSACCO near al-Safirah (southeast of Aleppo), which had just been captured by militants from the jihadist Al-Nusra Front. That factory produced  sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) and hydrochloric acid (HCl). Not only did this claim prepare a plausible foundation for the chlorine allegations three months later, it also gets close to the bleach (sodium hypochlorite), commercially known as Eau de Javel in Europe.

Four days after the alleged attack we learn that ‘the Syrian military believe that a home-made locally-manufactured rocket was fired, containing a form of chlorine known as CL17, easily available as a swimming pool cleaner. They claim that the warhead contained a quantity of the gas, dissolved in saline solution’. Now, what form of chlorine is Cl17? A look at the Mendeleev’s Periodic Table teaches us that Cl is the chemical abbreviation of chlorine and 17 is its chemical number. However, this demystified CL17 is contained in a saline solution, which is, of course, sodium hypochlorite. I use it to disinfect my toilet. Eau de Javel as a chemical warfare agent, that was new to me. (However, do note the source of that story.)

So, please forgive me if I seem to demand a higher level of convincing.

Questions I would like to see answered

  • From some of the footage available on the internet, I do think that a toxic substance must have affected a number of people. However, I am less sure about the more precise elements in the accusations. For example, based on the pictures of one of the flasks, I gather that a substance (in this case, liquid chlorine, I presume, but then letters with white powder are also often marked ‘anthrax’) was contained in a small industry-standard vessel (apparently of Chinese origin & and marked Cl2). What I would like to know is how much explosive it would take to break open such a container? How much chlorine (if this is what was inside) would have been destroyed or burned by that explosion? What are the dynamics of chlorine release in the scenario that the amount of explosives is sufficient just to break the seal / valve of the vessel? I have been told that such an amount would be very small, but how does the resulting aperture affect the dynamics of gas release? Was the vessel contained inside a drum (i.e., a confined space), as some reports suggest? If so, how does that affect the dynamics of the explosion and gas release? What would the impact of an explosive devise have on the rate of release of the chlorine and how much of the chlorine would actually remain after the rupture of the container?
  • How much chlorine (if this was what it was) was inside the vessel? How would sufficient chlorine be built up locally to seriously injure or even kill people? In what environment was the chlorine released (e.g., closed space of a room or outside in the open air)? Chlorine is perceptible to humans in very low concentrations, so why would people remain in close vicinity of the devise long enough to absorb a harmful dose of chlorine? Following the blast, I have been told, people in close proximity of the bomb may be dazed and confused and in their disorientation may consequently not escape from the area. Was this the case?
  • Would an industry-standard container rupture simply by dropping it from a helicopter?
  • One film clip on Brown Moses’ blog shows a helicopter dropping something, followed by a – in my mind – big flash. Would chlorine withstand the forces and heat of such a detonation? Detonation of chlorine was pretty ineffective in Iraq (at least as regards the impact of chlorine on the targeted group of people).
  • Are there any reports of corroded metals in the vicinity of the area of release? (Moisture in the air acts as a catalyst for chemical reactions with chlorine, and the agent is very aggressive on metals and alloys.)
  • Why do press reports refer to a ‘yellow’ smoke or powder (as one Beirut-based journalist described the observations to me)? Chlorine tends more towards pale green, sometimes with a yellowish hue. However, the yellow might dominate in a sun-swamped environment and an overall sandy-colour backdrop. I do not know. A BBC clip (2nd clip, middle article, final seconds) posted on 28 April, shows yellow smoke from a barrel bomb attack in which no chlorine was used. So, can we see similarities of symptoms and phenomena between different types of attack, but which witnesses do not or cannot differentiate? Another example: as for the reports of a chlorine smell near the scene of the Khan al-Assal attack in March 2013, chemical weapons expert and chief operating officer of SecureBio, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, then said that conventional high explosives can also produce an odour which might be mistaken for chlorine.
  • Would one expect a hissing sound as the chlorine under pressure escapes from the container? Have we seen any such witness accounts?
  • Are we looking at a case of what I call ‘opportunistic use of toxic chemicals’, where people (government soldiers, their allies, or insurgents) took hold of containers at an industrial site and improvised a new device of war? In other words, are we looking at a case of deliberate preparation for chemical warfare by whoever is responsible for the events?

A good call

The OPCW Director-General’s decision is the right one. Ambiguity and speculation must be removed—and fast. The lack of precise timing (or explanation of the necessary preparations and precautions) in the OPCW press statement is worrying, and not just because this is the first time the organisation is called upon to launch an investigation of use all by itself (in previous investigations the OPCW assisted the UN Secretary-General, as Syria was not yet a party to the CWC). Chlorine is a very volatile element, so the critical question is how long the agent might reside in the soil, on other surfaces or inside containers? The answer is not long, especially not in the heat of Syria.

Still, the exercise should not be futile. Investigations of alleged use typically apply various methods (medical analysis, identification of plausible witnesses and corroboration of individual stories, matching pictures and film footage based on the stories by the carefully selected witnesses, etc.), whose independent results should contribute to building a more or less consistent picture of events. The OPCW inspectors would deploy sophisticated detection equipment. Any evidence brought back from the incident sites would be subject to strict procedures to preserve the chain of custody and then divided over multiple OPCW-certified laboratories for analysis.

And oh, just as a small afterthought: with an OPCW investigation, one of course does not have to wonder who has paid the piper.

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

After 99 years, back to chlorine

Today is the 99th anniversary of the first massive chemical warfare attack. The agent of choice was chlorine. About 150 tonnes of the chemical was released simultaneously from around 6,000 cylinders over a length of 7 kilometres just north of Ypres. Lutz Haber—son of the German chemical warfare pioneer, Fritz Haber—described the opening scenes in his book The Poisonous Cloud (Clarendon Press, 1986):

The cloud advanced slowly, moving at about 0.5 m/sec (just over 1 mph). It was white at first, owing to the condensation of the moisture in the surrounding air and, as the volume increased, it turned yellow-green. The chlorine rose quickly to a height of 10–30 m because of the ground temperature, and while diffusion weakened the effectiveness by thinning out the gas it enhanced the physical and psychological shock. Within minutes the Franco-Algerian soldiers in the front and support lines were engulfed and choking. Those who were not suffocating from spasms broke and ran, but the gas followed. The front collapsed.

The impact of this gas attack surprised the German Imperial troops too. Their cautious advance behind the chlorine cloud, their hesitation in the confusion about what was happening despite having secured their initial objectives within an hour, and their halt after darkness fell meant that they almost immediately lost the strategic surprise. They would never regain it.

A first generation warfare agent in worldwide industrial application

How ironic it is that today, almost a century later, the latest chemical warfare allegations in the Syrian civil war concern chlorine once again. Everybody knows about the dangers of the chemical element, but nobody really considers it any longer as a militarily useful agent. At least not in standard warfare scenarios.

Chlorine and derived products are in massive industrial production. According to the World Chlorine Council, there are more than 500 chlor-alkali producers at over 650 sites around the globe, with a total annual production capacity of over 55 million tonnes of chlorine. Based on the low threat assessment and its wide relevancy to the chemical industry and trade, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) does not even list it in Schedule 3 of toxic chemicals (Phosgene, another widely used chemical and World War 1 agent, is).

An oversight by the CWC negotiators? Hardly. Books on the toxicology and treatment of chemical warfare agents published between 1992—year of successful conclusion of the negotiations—and 1997—year of entry into force of the CWC—hardly mention chlorine. Chemical Warfare Agents, edited by Satu Somani (Academic Press, 1992), presents a few scattered references, mostly in relation to other agents or public health. Another book featuring the same title, written by Timothy Marrs, Robert Maynard and Frederick Sidell (Wiley, 1996), gives it a four-line acknowledgment in the opening historical section. And the monumental Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare, edited by Frederick Sidell, Ernest Takafuji and David Franz (Office of the Surgeon General, US Army, 1997), accords it about two pages out of 721 in a subsection entitled ‘Historical War Gases’.

Today, chlorine is mostly viewed as a public health or environmental hazard resulting from occupational exposures, industrial accidents or the malfunctioning of pool chlorination systems.

Back to World War 1

It goes without saying that during and after World War 1 perceptions of chlorine as a combat agent were quite different. Despite having been replaced by much more potent toxic chemicals, belligerents released chlorine gas until the final month of the war. Considering that the first contingents of the American Expeditionary Forces arrived in Europe in June 1917, but saw their first major military engagements in May/June 1918, the US War Department registered and examined 838 ex-service men who had been gassed with chorine (and survived their experience). A closer medical examination of 98 victims to assess the long-term effects of exposure suggests that all US chlorine casualties were affected between July and October 1918. It is interesting to note that Maj. Gen. Harry Gilchrist, Chief of the Chemical Warfare Service, and Philip Matz, Chief of the Medical Research Subdivision of the Veterans’ Administration, devoted half of their medical study, The Residual Effects of Warfare Gases (War Department and US Government Printing Office, 1933), to chlorine, mustard being the other agent of their investigation.

Their description of chlorine remains interesting, because it departs from its utility as a warfare agent, rather than as a public health hazard. The element is almost 2.5 times heavier than air, which means that it will cling to the surface and sink into depressions. At 15° C liquefaction requires 4-5 atmospheres pressure. Upon release at 25° C, one litre of liquid chlorine will yield 434 litres of chlorine gas. Moisture stimulates the element’s chemical action, so the liquid gas must be thoroughly dehydrated for storage in steel cylinders.

Concentration and length of exposure both play a role in the physiological action of chlorine and their effects on humans and animals. The authors noted that ‘a concentration of 1–100,000 of chlorine gas is noticeable, 1–50,000 may cause inconvenience, while a concentration of 1–1,000 may produce death after exposure for five minutes’. (The numbers correspond to 0.01 mg/ml; 0.5 mg/ml and 1mg/ml respectively.) Experimental studies on dogs (carried out to determine the types of lesions various concentrations of chlorine will produce) showed that the animals died within 72 hours from acute effects at concentrations of 2.53 mg/l and higher. These concentrations were labelled as lethal. A small percentage of the animals recovered within a week. A concentration of 1.9–2.53 mg/l increased the recovery rate markedly, whereas dosages below the 1.9 mg/l were rarely fatal. Recovery rates were markedly faster at lower concentrations.

Concentrations required for injury and death are relatively high. For comparison, in the section on mustard (dichlordiethyl sulphide) Gilchrist and Matz deemed this oily compound to be 50 times more toxic than chlorine. It can be deadly in concentrations from 0.006 to 0.2 mg/l, but they considered 0.07 mg/l at an exposure of 30 minutes to be the lethal concentration.

Rewind to March 2013

Syria, just like any other country with a relatively advanced chemical industry, produced chorine in large quantities before the civil war. Readers will recall that early reports of chemical attacks at Khan al-Assal, west of Aleppo, in the middle of March of last year mentioned a strong smell of chlorine. To the east of Aleppo, there was a chlorine production facility (which the Jubhat Al Nusra, a jihadist rebel group ideologically similar to Al Qaeda, reportedly took over in December 2012). However, accounts also mentioned scores of 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 action. At the time, descriptions did not fit the claimed agents, whichever these might have been.

The need to compress the agent into a liquid has ramifications for delivery: the container must be sufficiently strong to withstand several atmospheres of pressure, and if dropped from an aircraft, sufficiently thin for the skin to break open. It must also be large enough so that a lethal concentration can be built up for a sufficiently long time. Given that humans smell chlorine at very low concentrations, the chances that they will remain at the site of impact are remote. The element is also not colourless; in fact, its name derives from the ancient Greek ‘khloros’, meaning pale green.

The same goes for rocket delivery of the warfare agent. Shells were attempted during World War 1, but this method for chlorine discharge was quickly abandoned in favour of much more potent munition fillings, such as phosgene.

So, it would be good to get more details on the recent incidents and review them in the light of possible chlorine delivery. Please note that I do not deny the possibility of toxic incidents over the past few weeks, but I would just like to see the various facts reconciled with the claimed chain of events. Given that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and French President François Hollande have once again waded into the controversy, politicisation of the ‘truth’ cannot be far away, alas.

Back to where it all started

So, as we reflect on that fateful 22 April in 1915, the sad thought is that chlorine is back, or at least, that people feel that chlorine is back as a possible lethal combat agent.

Allegations fly, but if confirmed, the incidents would be the first acts of chemical warfare committed involving a state party to the CWC. If Syria’s accusation of insurgent use is correct, then the government has every opportunity to demand an investigation from the OPCW and request assistance. If the insurgents’s claim of government use is correct, as non-state actors they cannot request the OPCW anything. However, any state party to the convention can demand an investigation of alleged use by the OPCW, and the Syrian government has no right of refusal (Verification Annex, Part XI). The opposite would be a serious material breach of its treaty obligations and tantamount to an admission of guilt. Or, the states parties can determine that the claims are insufficiently substantiated to warrant an investigation. In which case, it would be nice if they all were to sing the same tune.

So, which way shall the international community have it? The principal long-term casualty of those political games might be the CWC, even though, admittedly, we are still far away from the death knell that 22 April 1915 sounded for the 1899 Hague Declaration (IV, 2) concerning asphyxiating gases.


Several recent reports have suggested that because chlorine or other toxicants, such as riot control agents or incapacitants, are not listed in one of the schedules, they are not covered by the CWC. This is a major error. Any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals is a chemical weapon, according to Article II of the CWC. This is the default position. There are only four categories of purposes (Art. II, 9), under which a toxic chemical would not be considered a weapon.


Cross-posted from The Trench.]