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Saga of Chemical Weapons in Syrian Civil War

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  • July-December 2014
    Country Profile

    23 July 2012 was an important landmark in the Syrian conflict as on that date the Syrian Government officially acknowledged possessing chemical weapons. However, the spokesperson, Jihad Mikdassi, said that “any chemical or bacterial weapon will never be used – and I repeat will never be used – during the crisis in Syria regardless of the developments. Such weapons are stored and secured by Syrian military forces”.1 This statement came in the backdrop of the concern that the escalating conflict between the Syrian Government and the rebels could land Syria’s chemical weapons (CW) stockpiles into wrong hands. At the same time, world community saw this acknowledgement also as a statement of deterrence against any impending attack on the country.

    Subsequently, President Obama warned Syria on 20 August 2012, for the first time, saying that the use of chemical weapons was a red line for the US.2 Later on 19 March 2013, the Syrian government claimed that rebel fighters had used chemical weapons against its soldiers in Khan Al-Assal area and asked the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to send a team to investigate the attack.3 At the same time, the rebels refuted this claim and requested for an independent investigation.4 Immediately after the attack the EU, US, Turkey and other Gulf states accused Syria of using chemical weapons against its own civilian population. However, through its own investigation on the attack site, Russia concluded that it was the rebels who perpetrated the attack as a false flag to invite foreign intervention in order to win the war.5

    The UN inspectors arrived in Syria on 18 August 2013 to investigate the Khan Al-Assal attack. The scope of investigation was only to determine the nature of attack not its perpetrator. However, a bigger disaster was in the making even as the UN team was investigating the attack site. On 21 August 2013, videos of a suspected chemical weapon use began surfacing on internet showing hundreds of men, women and children gasping in the aftermath of possible mass poisoning. Rebels accused the government of chemical attack in Ghouta, a Damascus suburb and this allegation was categorically denied by the Syrian government.6 The extremely graphic videos coming out of Syria shocked the world and the US & its allies began to discuss a possible military response. With that the US began to move its naval warships in the Mediterranean Sea to expand the scope of its offensive capability.7

    The case of military intervention in Syria was becoming stronger after the attack as the US and its allies were ready to undertake the operations. However, this enthusiasm dwindled when the British parliament rejected Prime Minister Cameroon’s request to join the coalition.8 On 31 August 2013, President Obama decided to go to war without UK but said that he needed congressional approval for the same.9 After a week, the Russia announced a proposal whereby Syria would agree to place its chemical weapons facilities under international control and dismantle them while in return the US would refrain from military strike on Syria. This proposal was immediately accepted by the Syrian Government and Syria agreed to turn its chemical arsenal to international control and to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).10 Leaders of western nations welcomed the proposal with France beginning to make stipulations that force be authorized if Assad fails to implement the provisions of the resolution. While President Obama decided to put the Congressional vote on hold, he added that he would use force if the terms of the deal were not met. Syria officially joined the CWC on 14 September 2013.11 With that the US and Russia reached a comprehensive agreement on the plan for accounting, inspection, control and elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. This plan required declaration of the entire stockpile within a week and provision for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN to access all chemical weapon sites in Syria. It called for the destruction of all chemical weapons by the first half of 2014.12

    In accordance with the US-Russia deal, Syria submitted a declaration of its stockpiles of Chemical Weapons to the OPCW. On arrival in Syria on 1 October 2013, the joint OPCW-UN team began monitoring the destruction of facilities being done by Syrian government.13 Later in November 2014, OPCW approved a plan for elimination of Syrian chemical weapons whereby the most dangerous one were to be transported outside Syria for destruction. The first stock of chemical weapons was loaded to a Danish ship 7 January 2014 by its port city Lattakia to be moved to US for destruction using Hydrolysis.14 After many shipments of the chemical agents outside the Syria, OPCW announced on 21 July 2014 that all of Syria’s chemical agents had reached various facilities in Finland, US and UK.15

    The UN findings of the Khan Al-Assal and the Ghouta incidents were focussed mainly on the technical details rather than who perpetrated it. Certain western governments and media were too eager to conclude that it was Assad who was the perpetrator but there was a Pulitzer winner Journalist Seymour Hersh who had a very different take on the Ghouta Massacre as he links “Turkey, Benghazi, Syria and Sarin”. Till date it is not known who was responsible for the deadly attack which killed hundreds of innocent civilians including children.