Mustard gas in Syria: What happened to the ban on chemical weapons?

Mustard gas was found in Syria after chemical weapons were strictly banned by the UN two years ago. Will this shift US policy for Syria?

AP Photo/Local Committee of Arbeen, File
Members of the UN investigation team take samples from the ground in the Damascus countryside of Zamalka, Syria. The chemical weapons watchdog that is overseeing the dismantling of Syria's chemical weapons program said Tuesday, May 27, 2014 that a convoy of its inspectors has come under attack, but all are safe. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said the inspectors had been traveling to the site of an alleged chlorine gas attack site when they were attacked.

At least two people were exposed to mustard gas in Syria in August and one of the two, an infant, died.

Evidence of chemical weapons was found in Marea, a northern town in Syria, where Islamic State insurgents were fighting another rebel group, according to a confidential report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The report, which was released by Reuters on Friday, stated, “It is very likely that the effects of sulfur mustard resulted in the death of a baby.”

It is the first time chemical weapons have been found in Syria since 2014, when Syria agreed to clear out any remaining stash of chemical weapons, including sulfur mustard.

Sulfur mustard, often referred to as mustard gas, has been a common weapon used by insurgents in Syria. The chemical vapor sometimes smells like garlic or mustard and sometimes is odorless. Although not typically fatal, the mustard agent can disfigure, blind, or leave blisters the skin, reports the BBC. OPCW found evidence of the mustard agent by examining victims and through environmental samples.

Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq have also reported that ISIS fighters have used chlorine gas against them. 

Chemical weapons use has occurred sporadically during Syria’s brutal civil war, which has killed 250,000 and displaced millions more since 2011 when the war began. Syria first developed a chemical warfare program in the 1970’s after the country began stockpiling chemical weapons in 1972, according to a report from the US Congressional Research Service. Egypt may have supplied the weapons before the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the report found. In August 2013, a deadly chemical weapons attack in Damascus killed more than 1,400 people and brought international attention to the issue.

Syria has long been a rope in a “tug-of-war” struggle between the United States and Russia – President Putin has been a longtime supporter of Syria’s Bashar Assad regime while President Obama has stated the international community shouldn’t support political leaders who use violence to remain in power. The 2013 chemical weapons attack brought the United States and Russia together in an unlikely partnership to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.

Mr. Obama has been strongly opposed to involving the US in any war with Syria. Chemical weapons, however, were the “red line” that resulted in a small UN intervention to dispose of any additional chemicals in 2014. 

As The Christian Science Monitor reported:

The US and Russia brokered a deal last year for Syria to hand over its entire arsenal of chemical weapons to avert a military strike by the US. The regime agreed to sign an international treaty on chemical weapons. The arrangement came after a suburb of Damascus was struck by the lethal sarin nerve agent, killing hundreds of people. Investigations indicated the Assad regime was responsible, although it denied any involvement. 

Recently, though, Obama has agreed to dispatch a small team of US Special Operations troops into Syria to assist Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. It is a move, Secretary of State John Kerry, claims is “keeping with [Obama’s] originally stated policy that we must defeat and destroy daesh.” Obama has not announced any further plans for Syria.

The Obama Administration has yet to comment on whether the US will take action against the most recent use of mustard gas in northern Syria.

A special session has been called by the OPCW's 41-member Executive Council to discuss the Syrian findings and it will be held in The Hague on Nov. 23, sources at the OPCW told Reuters.

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