Chlorine attacks sink Syria's credibility on chemical weapons deal

President Assad is accused of gassing rebel areas, despite joining a chemical weapons convention last year. Syria has missed its latest deadline for removing its chemical weapons.

Mahmoud Hebbo/REUTERS
A resident surveys the damage after what activists said were explosive barrels thrown by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Old Aleppo April 27, 2014.

Trust that the Syrian regime is committed to banning the use of chemical weapons is withering amid allegations that it gassed rebel areas with industrial chlorine.

On top of that, Syria missed a self-imposed deadline to remove the last of its chemical weapons from the country Sunday, and questions are also being raised about the accuracy of the regime's declared inventory of lethal chemical agents. The delays and lingering uncertainty place additional pressure on Syria to meet a June 30 deadline for destroying all of its chemical weapons facilities and equipment. 

“It’s good the [chemical arsenal] is out of [Syria] but the effort has fallen short and Assad used the international cover it provided to pulverize the opposition… This issue is far from over if you add it all up,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute of Near East Policy.

On Sunday, Sigrid Kaag, the United Nations envoy overseeing the eradication program, announced that Syria had missed an April 27 deadline to remove all of its chemical arsenal from the country. She said that 7.5 to 8 percent remains.

“However, 92.5 percent of chemical weapons material removed or destroyed is significant progress,” she told reporters in Damascus. “A small percentage is to be destroyed, regardless, in country. That can be done. It’s a matter of accessing the site."

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. 

Although the removal process began apace, progress soon slowed. Syria missed a Jan. 1 deadline to remove all the deadliest agents from the country. And by Feb. 6, the deadline for the removal of all chemical agents from Syria, only 11 percent had been transferred. 

Syria’s 1,300 tons of declared chemical weapons include Sarin and VX nerve agents and mustard gas, a blistering agent.

Chlorine: common chemical, dangerous weapons

The Violation Documentation Center, a Syrian NGO that monitors human rights abuses, has so far this year documented 14 suspected chemical attacks. It reported a significant increase in April from explosive barrels dropped from helicopters – an escalation from previous deliveries by grenade. 

In recent weeks, the village of Kfar Zita in Hama Province was hit three times by barrel bombs dropped from helicopters, killing one and wounding 132 people. Video footage released by Syrian activists after the first attack on April 11 showed men, some of them convulsing, lying on the floor of a clinic struggling to breathe. Other videos showed unexploded yellow metal cylinders with the CL2 symbol for chlorine gas. Witnesses described smelling chlorine and seeing yellowish smoke wafting through the streets.

Chlorine gas reacts with moisture in the throat and lungs and turns into hydrochloric acid. In large concentrations it can be lethal. Chlorine gas bombs were used by insurgents in Iraq between 2006 and 2007, although with limited effect, and both the Germans and the British used it during World War I. 

Because chlorine has many industrial uses, it is not a banned substance – like sarin and VX nerve agents – under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to which Syria became a party last year. 

“Chlorine is very common chemical,” says John Hart, the head of the Chemical and Biological Security Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “It has no real value in state-to-state conflict in cases where the forces have [chemical weapons] protective equipment and training.”

Nevertheless, using chlorine gas as a weapon is prohibited under a catch-all general purpose criterion (GPC) of the convention. 

“The GPC prohibits all toxic chemicals and their precursors except for permitted purposes,” Hart says. “This is a mechanism by which to ensure that [science and technology] developments are captured. And it serves as the equivalent of a catch-all for non-listed chemicals [like chlorine].”

International action stymied 

Meanwhile, doubts that Syria has fully disclosed its chemical weapons arsenal are growing. Reuters reported last week that Britain, France, and the US have concluded that there is a “high level of probability” that Syria has withheld some of its weapons, and have queries about the nerve agent ricin, mustard gas, and the precursors for sarin.

The suspicions are only now coming to light because it was feared that previous disclosure could have provoked Syria to abandon cooperation with the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is overseeing the eradication program. 

The OPCW says that it cannot act on allegations of chlorine gas use or any other related activities without a formal request by an international authority with good evidence. The UN has mulled launching an investigation into the alleged attacks.

However, tackling Syria in the UN Security Council would likely be held hostage to the strained ties between the US and Russia, two permanent members, over the crisis in Ukraine. Furthermore, Washington has demonstrated clear reluctance to become enmeshed in the Syria conflict, though confirmation that the Assad regime used chlorine gas could increase pressure on the US to act. 

“Obama has been pronouncing the [Syrian chemical weapons] deal as a victory so I’m not sure he's ready to jump on the chlorine issue,” says Tabler of the Washington Institute.

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