Tuesday,16 January, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013
Tuesday,16 January, 2018
Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Chemical weapons phantom

Amid claims and counter-claims on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the UN’s fact-finding mission, called for by the regime, is blocked from all access to the country, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

It was no surprise for the Syrian opposition and observers when the Syrian regime turned away an international inspection team investigating claims that chemical weapons are being used in Syria, although it was the regime itself that accused the opposition of using a missile carrying chemicals and asked the UN to send investigators.

A rocket landed in Khan Al-Asal in Aleppo in northern Syria, a residential area where battles have raged for several months between regime forces and the armed opposition. Preliminary reports and eyewitnesses indicate the missile carried toxic chemicals, killing 20 people who suffered similar symptoms to victims of chemical attacks. Residents and the opposition accuse the regime of using long-range missiles carrying internationally banned chemical warheads to punish areas outside its control.

The regime quickly denied using this type of weapon in Syria, and in turn accused the armed opposition of possessing chemical weapons, claiming the latter had fired the missile. To support its claims, it asked the UN to immediately investigate the attack, asserting states hostile to Syria are supplying revolutionaries with chemical weapons.

The opposition immediately welcomed the Syrian government’s request and viewed it as a golden opportunity to show the world that the regime is using banned chemical weapons against civilians. In fact, the opposition strongly insisted on the request, directly supported by Western countries, and hoped other areas where chemical weapons were reportedly used by the regime would also be inspected, such as Al-Otaiba and Douma in rural Damascus, and Deir Al-Zor in northeast Syria.

In record time, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon approved the Syrian government’s request since using chemical weapons by any side and under any circumstances is a crime against humanity under international law. Ban formed an independent UN commission to investigate the matter, and to avoid suspicion and guarantee neutrality he decided not to include any representatives of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Ban chose only respected experts from countries that are neutral on the Syria crisis.

Sweden’s chemical weapons expert Aki Sellstrom was chosen as the head of the fact-finding mission, and Ban declared their task was not limited to one region but would include all claims of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. He stated the team would only succeed if it investigated claims by both sides, and urged the Syrian government to be flexible about the mission’s task.

The opposition had little faith in these decisions and said the regime would obstruct them by all means, explaining the regime requested the commission to claim innocence of using chemical weapons and did not expect the UN to agree and form a team so quickly. Accordingly, it will manoeuvre by all means to thwart the entire mission. The opposition was not mistaken: the inspection team arrived in Cyprus and waited for many days for approval by the Syrians to come and begin its work, amidst doubts the mission would begin.

The UN’s insistence to go to all sites where chemical weapons are believed to have been used was rejected by the regime, which wants the group to only visit Khan Al-Asal and then leave the country. The group’s task is purely technical, whereby it collects samples and tests them, without investigating which side used these weapons. According to UN sources, the regime demanded a list of inspectors beforehand and the right to reject any of them, and also to appoint a Syrian mentor to accompany the inspection team. Another precondition was for Syria to acquire the same samples for analysis and verify the findings of the inspectors.

In the end, Damascus officially announced it would not allow the international team into the country, and described the possibility of it travelling around Syria as “an infringement on national sovereignty”. It also expressed concern the commission would play a similar role as weapons inspectors did in Iraq, where they were used to justify the 2003 US invasion.

Security Council members were divided about the decision: Russia supports Syria’s official position, while the US, Britain and France support the opposition’s request. The UN cannot launch an investigation without a mandatory resolution because protecting the inspectors in areas under the control of the regime and the opposition is vital, and the government could refuse to protect them, which would end the mission.

The team’s work has been postponed until further notice and the opposition believes its mission will be scrapped or the regime will demand conditions and restrictions to strip it of any substance. But this will never end the chemical weapons issue since Western countries believe Syria has the largest secret stockpile of chemical weapons in the world. The opposition states the regime collected it over decades to use against its own people.

No one knows the size of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons stockpile because Syria is not a member of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that keeps such records. The CIA estimates Syria has hundreds of litres of chemical weapons, essentially mustard gas, Sarin gas and possibly the VX nerve agent.

Opposition leaders insist the regime used chemical weapons in Homs in December 2012, Khan Al-Asal in Aleppo and Douma near Damascus in March and Al-Oteiba in rural Damascus in April. In a morgue near Damascus, local opposition activists and leaders are storing the corpses of six victims of chemical weapons attacks who died in the villages of Al-Oteiba and Adra in March, as well the corpses of children in Aleppo who died this month, to would be available for testing. They have also drawn detailed maps of locations attacked by chemical weapons to submit to any investigators, and kept parts of rockets and strange containers fired at civilians.

There are also 32 people who are suffering symptoms of exposure to chemicals who are being treated, and are willing to be tested by inspectors. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) said it is monitoring the regime’s chemical weapons, but it cannot control them or stop the regime from using them.

At the beginning of the week, UN diplomats revealed that some Western countries have “solid evidence” chemical weapons were used at least once in the ongoing battles in Syria that began in 2011. One day later, London’s The Times newspaper reported scientists with the British army found forensic evidence confirming the use of chemical weapons in Syria. A sample of soil taken from an area near the capital Damascus, smuggled to the British Ministry of Defence’s chemical and biological research department, revealed chemical weapons were indeed used in Syria. It did not specify whether they were used by the regime or the armed opposition.

The opposition believes the US is prejudiced on this issue. Washington fears Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile could be handed over to the regime’s ally in Lebanon, Hizbullah, and is also worried these weapons would reach the hands of extremist jihadist forces in the armed Syrian opposition. It declared the use of chemical weapons as a red line. At the same time, it has not taken any steps to prevent the regime from using these weapons, especially after some Western countries confirmed they were used in Syria.

Syrian human rights monitors, and the political and armed opposition, assert these developments will not prevent the regime from expanding its use of chemical weapons. In fact, in recent days the regime has increased using them publicly. Rami Abdel-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Al-Ahram Weekly that a military helicopter dropped two poison gas bombs on Sheikh Maksoud district in Aleppo at the beginning of this week. The attack killed one woman, two children and injured 16 people. Abdel-Rahman quoted a source as saying the victims suffered from disorientation, vomiting, burning eyes and difficulty breathing, as well as other symptoms consistent with chemical weapons attacks.

Revolutionaries said regime forces fired a rocket with a chemical warhead near Damascus Airport at armed groups surrounding the airport, which resulted in similar injuries.

The UN only has two options left. Either launch investigations into chemical weapons claims from outside Syria, question witnesses being treated abroad and investigate evidence smuggled out of Syria, or submit a report to the Security Council that the regime did not cooperate on the matter. Russia would then almost certainly obstruct any move to condemn the Syrian regime.


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