BEIRUT: The United States and Turkey have said they are following up on renewed accusations that the Syrian regime continues to use chemical weapons against civilians.
If true, the government’s use of such weapons would be a violation of its agreement with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the Chemical Weapons Convention, both of which it signed last September.
The OPCW deal came as part of a U.S.- and Russian-brokered package in which the government of President Bashar Assad agreed to give up its entire chemical weapons arsenal. The move followed Western threats of military action against the regime after the Aug. 21 Ghouta chemical attack that killed hundreds – blamed on the regime by the opposition and its allies, and on the rebels by the regime.
Over the past few months, members of the Syrian opposition, including the main umbrella group the Syrian National Coalition, have accused the regime of using chemical weapons, mainly in the suburbs of Damascus, in areas such as Jobar and Harasta.
“There have been at least four such attacks in recent months, involving high doses of chlorine and pesticides,” said Sinan Hatehet, director of the Coalition’s media office.
He added that although the attacks only killed around 15 people, the chemicals were primarily being used as a psychological weapon.
At least 150,000 people have been killed so far in the now three-year-long civil war.
In one alleged attack, which occurred on March 10 in Jobar and was said to involve “toxic gases,” a local doctor said “the victims showed symptoms of sweating, pinpoint pupil, and shortness of breath,” a statement from the Coalition said at the time.
A U.S. State Department official said: “we are not in a position to confirm or corroborate these reports,” but added, “we take all allegations of chemical weapons use seriously and are looking into it.”
Chlorine gas is classified as a chemical weapon, while pesticides with the same structure as nerve agents such as sarin – used in the Ghouta attack – could be classed as “improvised” chemical weapons, according to Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, CEO of SecureBio, a U.K.-based Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear consultancy firm and former commander of the British military’s CBRN forces.
The opposition has “learned a lot” from the Ghouta attack, Hatehet said, while the recent alleged incidents have been carefully monitored by activists on the ground, with samples from victims’ clothing and from contaminated soil smuggled out of the country.
They are then analyzed both individually by the Coalition and by the relevant authorities, including those from Turkey and Jordan, he said.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry did not comment on its findings, but a spokesperson said: “We take such allegations very seriously in view of the regime’s past, notorious record.”
The regime categorically denies carrying out any chemical weapons attacks, and accuses the rebels of having done so, in Khan al-Asal and in Ghouta.
The spokesperson added that, in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2118 – which governs the chemical weapons deal– “we expect the U.N. and the OPCW to put forward their assessments and findings with regard to the said allegation.”
But the OPCW can only investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons on a request from states party to the CWC, the body’s spokesperson, Michael Luhan, said.
“There is no mechanism like that under the Convention for NGOs or individuals,” he explained.
“This is a tricky situation,” Hatehet said. “We cannot do it on our own, as we do not have the legal status or enough leverage to push the Turkish government to [approach the OPCW].”
“We know that whenever we call on the Turkish authorities they have helped us,” he said, but added that it might take time for any formal requests to be processed.
The OPCW, Luhan said, is “always collecting information on recent developments from open sources like media and others,” but does not conduct its own intelligence.
When OPCW inspectors arrived in Syria last August it was at the request of the U.N. Secretary-General, with whom the body has a Memorandum of Understanding, and at the invitation of the Syrian government, which alleged the rebels had used chemical weapons in Aleppo. This was quickly followed by allegations from the U.K. and France that the regime had used such weapons.
Similarly, however, the secretary-general’s mechanism for investigating such allegations can only be triggered by a request from a member state, according to a spokesperson from the U.N. Office for Disarmament Affairs.
The Aug. 21 attack occurred while the inspectors were in the country, and after days of discussions the government eventually allowed them access to the Ghouta.
But the OPCW’s remit was only ever to discover whether or not sarin had been used, not to designate responsibility to any party, and access was restricted.
When possible, investigations are always worth conducting, de Bretton-Gordon said, but such limitations caused obvious problems.
“The regime will only take the OPCW to areas they control and show them only what they, the regime, want to be seen.
“A lot of the issues around allocating blame that the likes of Seymour Hersh latch on to are caused by the OPCW only getting a partial picture of the Ghouta attack,” he said.
Last weekend, veteran journalist Hersh alleged that the August incident was a false flag operation overseen by Turkey and the U.S. to bolster support for military intervention. The report has been strongly denied by both countries and described by the Turkish Foreign Ministry as “groundless and slander.”
Israel Radio Monday quoted defense officials as saying that two regime attacks in late March to the east of Damascus had used “neutralizing chemical weapons.”
Israel is not a party to the CWC.
De Bretton-Gordon said he thought that the Syrian regime has “probably not” declared its entire stockpile of chemical weapons, and that it probably could orchestrate another such attack, but “not on the scale of Ghouta.”
“In purely military and strategic political terms, this is probably what the regime wants to achieve,” De Bretton-Gordon said.
Such retention of stocks, and the persisting threat that they could be used again, would preoccupy the opposition, he added, and “affect their battle plans.”
Politically, the chemical weapons issue has also been beneficial to the Syrian regime, he added, insofar as it has succeeded in “keeping the international community at ‘arms length’ and perhaps by producing some more chemical weapons, [once] the current batch has been extracted, at great cost to the international community and lives of innocent civilians.”