[Cross-posted from The Trench]
Investigations under the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism
- Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013 (16 September 2013)
- United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic: Final report (12 December 2013)
Investigations by the OPCW Fact-Finding MIssion
- Summary report of the work of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria covering the period from 3 to 31 May 2014 (16 June 2014)
- Second report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria: Key findings (10 September 2014)
- Third report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria (18 December 2014)
- Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria regarding the incidents described in communications from the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates and Head of the National Authority of the Syrian Arab Republic from 15 December 2014 to 15 June 2015
- Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria regarding alleged incidents in the Idlib Governorate of the Syrian Arab Republic between 16 March and 20 May 2015 (29 October 2015)
- Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria regarding alleged incidents in Marea, Syrian Arab Republic August 2015 (29 October 2015)
The Trench blog comments
- 16 November: Investigation of alleged chlorine attacks in the Idlib Governorate (Syria) in March – May 2015
- 23 November: CW incidents alleged by the Syrian government: an industrial chemical as likely cause?
- 3 January: 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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
[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.
[Cross-posted from The Trench]
On 4 December I addressed a workshop on Nuclear Safety, Security and WMD Non-proliferation. The event was organised by Atomic Reporters and the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP), together with the Stanley Foundation and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). The target audience consisted of more than 20 journalists from or working in the Middle East.
My presentation ‘Responding to chemical weapon use in Syria’ addressed the allegations of chemical weapon (CW) use in Syria since early 2013 and the international CW disarmament operation over the past 15 months.
The audience’s reactions at times illustrated how sensitive the question of CW remains in the Middle East. When people are forced outside their comfort zone offered by established reference frameworks, regional security discussions quickly become tense. If ever serious progress is to be made on the idea of a zone free of non-conventional weapons in the Middle East, preparing a common reference framework for the participants in the debates—particularly civil society constituencies who must prepare the ground to make proposed solutions politically and socially acceptable—will be an unescapable task.
Lale Kemal, a Turkish journalist, captured the exchanges very well in a piece for the Daily Zaman on 8 December. If she leaves you with the impression that the discussions were not just intense, but also most stimulating, then I can confirm they were.
Middle East’s ‘unique’ status on chemical weapons
A colleague from a Middle Eastern country reacted sharply when a speaker in a recent workshop in Vienna used the term “Muslims” in some of his references to the countries in the region during his presentation on the issue of chemical weapons. The colleague urged him to use the names of the countries instead of generalizing them with their affiliation to Islam. The topic of chemical weapons is a sensitive one. Jean Pascal Zanders, director of The Trench — a website specializing in reporting on chemical weapons — told the workshop audience in Vienna that with the exception of the First Indochina War, all cases of major chemical warfare after World War II have taken place in the Middle East.
Yet this journalist’s reaction to the speaker in his usage of the term “Muslims” does not change the reality that — in the words of Mehmet Dönmez, head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate — around 900 Muslims per day are killed by fellow Muslims around the world, including in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the topic of the workshop for journalists from the Middle East, held in Vienna between Dec. 3-5, was on nuclear safety, security and WMD non-proliferation. WMD is short for “weapons of mass destruction,” which are chemical, biological and nuclear weapons — the deadliest weapons that have so far been developed by humankind.
The workshop was sponsored by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), along with nongovernmental organizations the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), the US-based Stanley Foundation and Vienna-based Atomic Reporters. The event was hosted by the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP). It was a follow-up to the first workshop, which was held in I.stanbul in June of this year in cooperation with I.stanbul’s Okan University.
Going back to the topic of chemical weapons in the Middle East, Zanders from The Trench cited the known incidents of the usage of chemical weapons in the region, including Egypt during its war with Yemen in the 1950s and Iraq against Iran in 1984 during the long-lasting war between the two countries in the 1980s, as well as Iraq’s use of mustard gas against its own Kurds. Syria lately staged a sarin gas attack against its own citizens in Ghouta, near Damascus. Syria’s chemical weapons were destroyed under a deal it struck with some world powers, yet it is unclear whether the country is still hiding some of its chemical weapons stockpile.
Meanwhile, Israel is the only country in the Middle East widely known to possess nuclear weapons, even if it neither denies nor confirms their existence. Iran is accused by the international community of seeking to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of developing nuclear energy power plants.
Dr. Chen Kane from the CNS strengthened Zanders’ assertion, saying during the workshop that, concerning cases of the usage of chemical weapons as well as their possession, the region is unique. According to her, in the Middle East, all three categories of weapons of mass destruction — chemical, biological and nuclear — have been pursued by different states and chemical weapons have even been used in the region on several occasions. She mentioned fundamental ongoing territorial, religious, ethnic and other disputes that underline that the reality of WMDs and that the acquisition of WMDs in the region is interrelated and politically and security-motivated. Out of the seven violations of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), Dr. Chen said five are from the Middle East — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Egypt. This situation illustrates the risk associated with nuclear programs in unstable countries and war zones. It is unclear if any Middle Eastern country possesses biological weapons. The unstable nature of the Middle East also carries the risk of terrorist groups obtaining WMDs.
In February 2015, the Ja?far al-Tayya-r brigade and the al-Nusra Front gained control of the al-Kibar site (also called Dair Aizour) in Syria, where a nuclear reactor believed to have been under construction was destroyed by Israel during an air raid in 2007. According to Zanders, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — a terrorist group against which US-led Western and Arab coalition forces are currently carrying out an air campaign in both Iraq and Syria — has not obtained WMDs.
Turkey, a NATO member and a neighbor to the Middle East, came under criticism a long time ago for using white phosphorus — a kind of a chemical weapon — against militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). However, Zanders stated that such allegations from the PKK have never been confirmed by international organizations addressing WMDs.
The absence of a security framework or organization in the Middle East — where there is no regional conventional arms control culture — to mitigate the danger of WMDs poses a great threat to the region in particular and the world in general.