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

Becoming the largest weapon-control treaty

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has just announced the accession of Angola to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The country deposited its instrument of accession with the UN Secretary-General on 16 September, which means that it will become a party to the CWC 30 days later, that is, 16 October.

Angola will thus be the 192nd state to join the OPCW. No other treaty limiting possession or use of a particular type of weaponry can boast that many parties. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has 191; the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) 173.

Middle East – The hard nut

According to the OPCW statement, only four states now remain outside the treaty: Egypt, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan.

North Korea presents the simplest problem. There is no diplomatic interaction at all, so expectations that Pyongyang will join the CWC any time soon are as good as zero.

Some optimism exists about South Sudan. Efforts are underway to secure succession (Sudan has been a party since June 1999) as part of a broader package that includes offers of assistance to rebuild the war-torn state. Having said that, the date of OPCW membership keeps getting pushed back into a less definite future in parallel with the floundering efforts to bring peace to the country.

Egypt remains of course obsessed by Israel’s nuclear weapons, while Israel continues to fail to see any benefits in collective security in its pursuit of a peace-first policy in a region that seems to be descending ever further into violence and instability. The fact of the matter is that neither country would lose an iota of national security by joining the CWC; quite on the contrary. Symbolism can be a powerful demotivator …

And what about Palestine?

Among the NPT’s membership is the State of Palestine, which acceded to the treaty as the 191st party in February 2015. It deposited its instrument of accession in London and Moscow (but not Washington). On 10 September the UN General Assembly voted to fly the Palestinian flag outside the UN building—together with that of another non-member observer state maintaining a permanent observer mission at the UN Headquarters, the Holy See.

OPCW statements do not list this Palestine in its statements on universality. It should be noted that UN membership is not a precondition for becoming a party to the CWC. Article XX speaks about accession of ‘any state’; Article XXIII designates the UN Secretary-General as depository and provides no grounds for rejecting any state. The Vatican joined the CWC in June 1999.

As far as I know, Palestinian authorities have not made any statements about acceding to the CWC. It may be that some low-level contacts are taking place between the OPCW and the Palestinian Mission to the EU in Brussels, but if this is the case, it is definitely not yet causing any ripples.

Is there an abundance of caution as a consequence of US laws that defund UN agencies that accept Palestine as a full member, thereby seemingly legitimising its quest for full statehood? While it is true the the USA is the single biggest contributor to the OPCW budget, reality is that (1) the OPCW is not a UN agency, and (2) as noted above, the CWC is not an invitation-only club. Unlike, for example, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), OPCW members do not get to vote on the accession of another state.

So, for the OPCW, four or five more countries before full universality, that’s the question!

Syria’s CW disarmament: spill-over effects for Middle East?

Using the Momentum of Syria’s Chemical Weapons Dismantlement and Identifying Spill-Over Potentials

Discussion note prepared for:  Academic Peace Orchestra – Middle East (APOME), Tackling the Middle East WMD/DVs Arsenals in the Context of Military Asymmetries Towards Zonal Disarmament, Berlin, 11–12 March 2015

[Cross-posted from The Trench]


  • Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on 14 September 2013 and formally became a state party on 14 October. This was the outcome of a framework agreement on the elimination of Syria’s chemical warfare capacities between Russia and the United States reached in Geneva on 14 September. This accord averted military strikes by France, the United Kingdom and the United States as reprisal for the use of chemical weapons (CW) in the Syrian civil war. In particular the attacks against the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August represented a major escalation in the conflict. The sarin nerve agent killed hundreds of people and injured many more. At the time of the attacks a UN team comprising experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) were in Damascus in response to an earlier request by the Syrian government to investigate alleged CW use during the spring of 2013. After modification of its mandate, it investigated the Ghouta attacks and issued their preliminary report on 16 September, two days after the Geneva accord. The findings all but blamed the Syrian government. The team submitted its final report covering all chemical warfare allegations from the original mandate as well as some additional attacks after the Ghouta incident on 12 December.
  • After becoming a party to the CWC the verification activities have consisted of four types of activities:
    • Syrian declarations on CW holdings, CW-relevant infrastructure (production and storage sites), and on the history of its chemical warfare programme since 1 January 1946. Given the special circumstances that have led the country to accede to the convention, Syria was requested and has (or is in the process of ) providing information on the destruction of CW before becoming a CWC party. As illustrated by the cases of France and Iran, a state party is not normally required to declare this type of information. However, in order to ensure that Syria is not hiding secret stashes of CW, the requested data contribute to establishing a baseline for its past capacities.
    • The OPCW verifies those declarations, resolves anomalies and where required requests amendments to those declarations.
    • The OPCW conducted inspections at the declared production and storage sites. It oversaw the removal of chemical warfare and precursor agents from Syrian territory and the destruction of delivery means, relevant equipment and installations, and precursor chemicals. It also oversaw the hydrolysis of mustard agent and the neutralisation of a range of precursor chemicals aboard the US vessel Cape Ray in the Mediterranean and the destruction of the resulting effluents in incinerators in Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. At present the OPCW is also overseeing the destruction of the former Syrian CW production facilities. To date, two out of twelve buildings have been destroyed and completion of this task is envisaged for this summer.
    • The OPCW carried out field investigations into the alleged use of chlorine during the spring and summer of 2014.
  • This background note discusses some unique features of the disarmament regime for Syria and their potential relevancy for the Middle East Zone free from non-conventional weapons.

Adaptation to specific circumstances

  • Nobody anticipated that the OPCW would ever have to evacuate CW from a state party under conditions of war. Such a situation never occurred before. Even the disarmament of Iraq during the 1990s took place after a cease-fire agreement, endorsed by the UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991). Syria joined the CWC as a CW possessor state, which was also a first after the treaty-defined destruction deadlines had expired. As a consequence, the responsibility to determine Syria’s interim and final destruction deadlines fell to the Executive Council. Its decision of 27 September 2013 was an adaptation of the US-Russian framework agreement. That same night the UN Security Council endorsed the decision in Resolution 2118 (2013). However, given the virtual impossibility to destroy the CW inside a country at war and the extremely tight deadline to complete destruction operations, the EC adopted several exceptional measures in a second decision of 15 November, none of which are precedent-setting.
  • A first major departure from the standard CWC process concerns the initial declaration. Under Article III this document is due within 30 days after the convention enters into force for a state party and establishes a baseline for the country’s status as CW possessor, plans for the destruction of CW and related installations if so required, a description of any CW-related activities after 1 January 1945, the types of chemical facilities on its territory and the types and quantities of treaty-relevant chemicals they produce. Following that submission OPCW inspectors will verify the accuracy of the initial declaration, upon which the state party can submit amendments if so required. In practice OPCW staff will assist a country preparing to join the CWC with compiling the initial declaration and other measures to be undertaken (e.g., national legislation). In the case of Syria inspectors entered the country even before it had formally become a state party (i.e., 30 days after accession) and such an initial declaration was submitted. The Syrian government had agreed to the accelerated pace. While it enabled the OPCW to quickly secure key CW sites that were accessible (some were in combat zones or under the control of insurgents), prepare inventories and render the delivery systems and special equipment useless, it also created a situation in which the OPCW received a lot of information piecemeal. Combined with the chaos of war, Syrian claims of poor bureaucratic administration of the chemical programmes and quite possibly reluctance to cooperate in full, this led to quite a few corrections of the initial declaration and submission of fresh data. Within the Technical Secretariat a small Declaration Assessment Team was set up to raise questions based on the initial declaration, to identify the gaps, find discrepancies, and so on, in order to correct the declaration. In this way, the OPCW has been able and is still continuing to develop the full picture of Syria’s past CW capacities and programmes.
  • Under the terms of Article IV of the CWC, each state party remains the owner of the CW thatmust be destroyed, destroys those CW on its own territory, and pays for the destruction operations and the OPCW verification activities.Given the inability to destroy the CW inside a country at war and the extremely tight deadline to complete destruction operations, the EC adopted several exceptional measures, none of which are precedent-setting:
    • With the exception of one precursor chemical that had to be destroyed in-country, all warfare agents and other precursors were evacuated by sea from Syria.
    • Once they had left the territory, the international community as represented by the OPCW assumed responsibility for the toxic substances. The legal status of the weapons outside of Syria, and therefore the liability in case of a mishap, was never precisely determined.
    • The toxic substances were neutralised or hydrolysed aboard the specially adapted US vessel Cape Ray in the Mediterranean, and then transferred to commercial incinerators in Finland, the United Kingdom and the United States and a dedicated CW destruction facility in Germany.
    • Both the UN and the OPCW set up special trust funds to finance the operation as Syria claimed to be unable to pay for the destruction and verification costs. Many countries offered funds or contributed in kind.
  • The Executive Council vested the OPCW Director-General with the authority to launch a procedure similar in purpose to the challenge inspection, but without many of the procedural formalities detailed in the in the CWC. His decision was to follow a request by a state party and a personal judgement as to the seriousness of the allegation based on information supplied by the requesting state party. He could redirect inspectors working in Syria to the designated site of alleged treaty violation. Despite the difficulties in implementing the decisions regarding the CW disarmament in Syria and the many accusations of procrastination and incomplete declarations, nobody has so far requested such a special inspection.
  • For the time being Syria remains under a special disarmament regime and it may still take one or two years, depending on the level of cooperation from Damascus, before the country can become a ‘normal’ state party. Nobody can presently affirm the way in which the transition to normalcy will take place, but the assumption is that both the Executive Council and the UN Security Council will have to take decisions to that effect.
  • OPCW decisions were endorsed by the UN Security Council, which had also insisted on a role for the UN. (The OPCW is not one of the UN organisations.) In order to coordinate negotiations and assess various risk factors related to the inspections, preparation of transportation and the movement of the chemical substances across Syria to the northern port of Latakia, the OPCW-UN Joint Mission was established. (It completed its mandate on 30 September 2014.) Its head reported to both the OPCW and the UN Security Council.

The emerging challenge of opportunistic use of toxic industrial chemicals

  • Opportunistic use of toxic industrial chemicals occurs when a particular entity resorts to a mode of chemical warfare using toxic chemicals that are readily available at a chemical plant or storage site, but does not undertake steps to develop and produce such weapons. The types of agent thus used can range from extremely common chemical substances, such as chlorine (often used in liquid form for water purification), to compounds such as insecticides and pesticides that, just like sarin or VX, belong to the family organophosphates. A typical characteristic of opportunistic use of toxic chemicals is that the attacks cease as soon as stores have been depleted or access to other sources of supply cut off. Delivery is extremely crude, but some indicators suggest a development process for dissemination devices may take place to enhance the impact of the attacks.
  • Through the spring and summer of 2014 there were several reports of chlorine strikes in Syria. Barrel bombs filled with liquid chlorine were dropped on villages from helicopters, strongly suggesting that government forces were responsible for them. As chlorine (or any other toxic chemical) falls under the General Purpose Criterion (GPC) of the CWC, any use as a method of warfare is prohibited. With Syria a state party to the CWC, the OPCW launched an investigation of alleged use. The fact-finding mission arrived in Damascus on 3 May, five days after its creation by the OPCW Director-General. During an onsite investigation on 27 May the team’s vehicle convoy was hit by an explosive device and came under fire. While this part of the mission had to be discontinued, the investigators were able to collate considerable data by means of other techniques, including victim and witness interviews, analysis of medical records and discussions with medical staff, and the analysis of flight paths of helicopters and correlating them to the precise time and site of the barrel bomb attack. It presented three reports in June, September and December 2014. On 4 February 2015 the OPCW Executive Council’s decision formally determined that chlorine had been used as a method of warfare and condemned the acts as a major breach of the CWC. Even though the conclusion did not identify the culprit, it is clear that as a state party Syria bears responsibility for preventing any violation on its territory.
  • Other allegations of opportunistic use of toxic chemicals attributing responsibility to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) emerged during the second half of 2014. One such claim related to the intense fighting at Avdiko village, 12 km east of Kobani in northern Syria; the other incidents came from Iraq. These occurrences pose a special problem under the CWC. While a state party is responsible for the implementation of the CWC on its territory, the reported events took place in areas not under the control by the government. Moreover the way the alleged use was described in Avdiko, both the perpetrator and the victims were non-state actors, a situation that may potentially create a legal and practical vacuum. Under the terms of the CWC (Verification Annex, Part XI, §27), if use has been alleged on territory not under the control by the government of a state party, then the UN Secretary-General’s mechanism will apply. However, in view of the attacks on the OPCW investigative team in May 2014 and the reliance on the Syrian military for the security and safety of UN and OPCW personnel inside Syria, the question arises how a UN investigation would be able to access an area of intense fighting in which the government military play no role. Thus far no concrete ideas suggestion an international military force to be inserted into a UN member state for the sole purpose of protecting an investigative team have been put forward.

Concluding thoughts

  • The arrangements made to enable the CW elimination in Syria are not precedent-setting. However, the whole process has demonstrated a willingness by the OPCW members to approach difficult and exceptional circumstances in a practical way and they have taken several decisions that deviated significantly from the letter of the CWC. This leads to a cautious optimism that if the international community were to request specific types of assistance in support of a nascent zone free of non-conventional weapons in the Middle East, the OPCW might agree.
  • However, any such optimism would dissipate fast if there were no serious indications that the two countries not yet party to the CWC—Egypt and Israel—were to show no inclination of acceding or ratifying the convention. After all, in Syria’s case inventiveness was also stimulated by the fact that on the same day Russia and the United States announced their joint framework agreement, Damascus deposited its instrument of accession with the UN Secretary-General and agreed to collaborating with the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW even before the treaty became legally binding on it. This fact alone already deviated from the standard process as foreseen in the CWC.
  • If Egypt and Israel were to embark on a range of CBM-types of activities to enhance transparency with regard to past and present CW activities and issues of concern, then the OPCW might be open to assist the process in a discrete fashion.
  • Particularly in view of the many emotional reactions to events in the Middle East, any scenario of OPCW involvement would require strong common purpose between Russia and the US, and at least tacit endorsement of their initiatives by the other P-5 members.
  • Other than that, the Syrian CW disarmament effort may well remain a truly exceptional case of international collaboration under exceptional circumstances with little bearing on other situations in the Middle East.
  • With ISIL moving into Egypt, a scenario of opportunistic use of toxic chemicals in that country cannot be wholly discounted. By staying outside of the CWC, Cairo denies itself certain international tools of assistance and cooperation that could help to counter the threat or mitigate the consequences of such an attack.

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Wow! Did the OPCW really say that?

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

It is true that pressure for Israel to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is steadily mounting. Presently 190 states are party to the treaty. Besides Israel, only Angola, Egypt, Myanmar, North Korea and South Sudan have not ratified or acceded to it. As participants in the 2014 Jonathan Tucker Conference on Chemical and Biological Arms Control heard yesterday from Dr Peter Sawzcak, Head of Government Relations and Political Affairs Branch of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Myanmar is expected to ratify the CWC in its forthcoming parliamentary session in January. The Council of Ministers of Angola, which will take up a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council next year, is to decide on joining the Arms Trade Treaty, Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and CWC really soon. South Sudan may also become a party to the CWC in the near future as part of a broader package deal under development. As was pointed out by some other speakers at the Jonathan Tucker Conference, being in the company of North Korea is not good for a democracy such as Israel.

However, in an article published on 11 December the Times of Israel quoted an anonymous OPCW official affirming that Israel has a chemical weapon (CW) stockpile. He also stated that he knew the size of the chemical arsenal, but refused to go into details. According to a second article in Arutz Sheva Israel Radio quoted the official as saying that the UN needed to begin an investigation of Israel on its chemical weapons stores, as it did with Syria.

According to the Times of Israel, he also said that Egypt has thousands of tonnes of CW.

Israel is a CWC signatory state. Under Article 18 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties a signatory state is obliged to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of a treaty. In other words, if Israel were indeed to have a CW stockpile, it would be in a clear breach of its international obligations. This is not a light accusation to make. Particularly if it is made in the name of the multilateral organisation that is responsible for ridding the world of these heinous weapons.

Striking too is the lack of nuance in the claims. Egypt and Israel have had past CW programmes. But in the absence of reports of troop training and testing of munitions, how useful is it to retain aging stockpiles? Would the agents be subject to degradation? Are stocks being replenished (which implies active CW production facilities)? Egypt’s ‘thousands of tonnes’ puts the country in the same league as Iraq under Saddam Hussein and North Korea (according to South Korean assessments) and well ahead of what has been removed from Syria over the past eighteen months. Mohamed Heikal, an Egyptian journalist and commentator on Arab affairs, described in his excellent book Illusions of Triumph: Arab View of the Gulf War (London: Fontana, 1993, pp. 91–93) how then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat closed down Egypt’s CW production plant after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and in 1981 refused to reopen it to supply Saddam Hussein with CW. To the best of my knowledge, this passage has not yet been seriously challenged.

Considering the culture of confidentiality at the OPCW and the organisation’s systematic refusal to comment on individual states—just take the many anodyne press statements on the CW disarmament project in Syria—the incident is remarkable to say the least. One would hope that those specific assertions were intended to be wholly off the record, but even so…


OPCW Statement Regarding Israeli Media Reports on a Recent OPCW Briefing
Thursday, 11 December 2014

OPCW officials met with a group of journalists from Israel on Monday of this week and briefed them on the OPCW’s work, achievements and future challenges. On the issue of achieving universality of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), it was mentioned to the journalists that there are six non-States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, including Israel.

In regard to the capacities of those six countries, it was clearly stated that the CWC verification regime functions on the basis of declarations, and that the OPCW would be able to ascertain possession of chemical weapons by any non-State Party only after it joined the Convention and made a formal declaration to the Organisation.

Üzümcü: “After Syria I do not see any country able to use chemical weapons anymore”

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

The last day of October, a sunny Friday in The Hague, I met with Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü to reflect on the previous year and a half, during which the civil war in Syria suddenly thrust the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into the spotlight.

In March 2013 United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requested technical assistance from the OPCW to investigate alleged chemical weapon (CW) use in the war-torn country. Six months later, after a serious incident in which sarin nerve agent killed and poisoned many hundreds of people in the Ghouta district of Damascus, Syria unexpectedly joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. And so began an urgent and perilous disarmament project. The announcement that the OPCW was to receive the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize just knocked international expectations from the organisation several notches higher.

The Syrian disarmament project has had a clear impact on the OPCW. Not just on its daily operations during the past 18 months, but it will also affect its future. However, the key question is whether the OPCW’s success in trying circumstances can inspire the international community to revive disarmament as a security tool.

Syria’s CW precursors have been evacuated and are almost all destroyed. Destruction of former CW production facilities has now begun. What were you thinking last year when you accepted the tight deadlines in the US–Russian Geneva Framework Agreement?

The Framework Agreement reached in Geneva on 14 September of last year was a significant achievement. The Russians and Americans wrapped up their negotiations in four days, which surprised us as much as the whole international community. We knew that the OPCW could be called on to address the chemical part of the Syrian conflict. In which form and under which conditions, we did not know then. Even so we were prepared to get involved and if necessary, to take the lead, all the while knowing such a project would be very challenging.

We first saw this document on 14 September. On 27 September, the Executive Council decided on OPCW involvement and a few hours later the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) endorsed that decision. Between both dates, we had 13 days to prepare our team for deployment to Damascus, work out the modalities, and so on. Having said that, I should add that the Technical Secretariat had been preparing itself for several contingencies. They included possible investigation of alleged CW use. We were thus ready when in March 2013 the UN Secretary-General called upon our expertise. In September, we had a team of 60 volunteer inspectors ready to go to Syria. They had trained to carry out different tasks.

Still, I was following the Geneva talks from Beijing. The negotiators raised questions whether we would be ready to do this or that. Our responses were all positive. We looked at our gaps. We identified a few areas where we would need some additional support, so we decided to rehire some of our former experts and hire some external experts. Important to us was to act swiftly and diligently. We also had to demonstrate to the international community that after 16 years the OPCW had the necessary capacity and expertise. I think we succeeded.

As I said, on Friday, 27 September, the decision was taken here. The same day the UNSC endorsed it in a resolution. On Monday, our inspectors were on their way. On Tuesday, they arrived in Damascus. The UN clearly had some difficulties to match this pace. The UN mechanism is huge compared to ours. So I called Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday, the day before the UNSC decision. I told him that we were ready to deploy and asked him for logistical and security support, which we received. Despite the magnitude of the challenge and the security situation in Syria, I think the Technical Secretariat was fully prepared to lead. When I say ‘lead’, I of course refer to the technical part of the operation. We relied on the UN for logistical support and security.

The other obvious challenge was the financial dimension. In that respect, having seen the support from the whole international community for this Russian–US initiative, I actually did not have any concerns. It was proven later on that we would have the necessary funds in both the UN and the OPCW Trust Funds. Financial aspects would not be problematic and they never were.

A year ago, I should say, we were both mentally and physically prepared to go to Syria. I personally was involved in setting up a task force, which I chaired every morning on the 7th floor of the OPCW headquarters. This also gave me the opportunity to know better some of our staff members. They were really capable and pleased to be able to help coordinate such a major operational mission.

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