Chemical Weapons Use in Syria: a Test of the Norm

Wounded civilians arrive at a hospital during the ongoing Syrian civil war. Source: Wikimedia

Wounded civilians arrive at a hospital during the ongoing Syrian civil war. Source: Wikimedia

Recent events in the Syrian civil war have proved the greatest test of the norm against the use of chemical weapons since the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the clearest and most comprehensive expression of that norm, opened for signature in 1993. At its core, this was a test of the willingness of countries to uphold the norm, in this case in the face of a flagrant violation causing the deaths of nearly 1,500 people. While the international community may have stumbled upon a satisfactory conclusion – one that reaffirms  the special category of chemical arms – the global response said a great deal about current attitudes to the use of military force as a means of humanitarian intervention.

The Ghouta incident

Despite a number of alleged incidents of chemical weapons use in Syria in the early months of 2013 – the use of which was reportedly first confirmed by British scientists in April from soil samples smuggled out of the country – it was August before their apparent use touched mass consciousness around the world.

The catalyst for global outrage, and near-intervention with military means by western powers, was an attack in the early hours of 21 August in the Ghouta district of eastern Damascus. Chemical weapons, it seemed, had been deployed in Ghouta on a scale far greater than witnessed in any of the handful of previous alleged attacks. Video footage showing evidently sick and distressed adults and children, as well as dozens of bodies, began to rapidly circulate around the world—with Médecins Sans Frontières, the medical aid charity, reporting shortly after the attack that three hospitals supported by it in Damascus had treated around 3,600 patients displaying so-called neurotoxic symptoms. Of these, it said, 355 had died.

On 30 August, the United States issued a press release in which it claimed that 1,429 people—including at least 426 children, it said—had ultimately died in the attack on Ghouta. As for the who and the what of the incident, the US asserted that on the basis of both open-source information and covertly-acquired intelligence, it assessed ‘with high confidence’ that the attack had been carried out by the Syrian government, and that a nerve agent had been used.

UN chemical weapons experts wearing gas masks carry samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus. Source:

UN chemical weapons experts wearing gas masks carry samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus. Source: Tetovasot

Following access to three sites in the Ghouta neighbourhood, inspectors operating under the auspices of the United Nations Secretary-General subsequently confirmed that the fast-acting nerve agent sarin had been used there on a ‘relatively large scale’. Their report, released in mid-September, stated that biological samples taken from survivors showed ‘definitive evidence of exposure’ to sarin—evidence, they said, that was consistent with clinical assessments of survivors’ symptoms. Lab analysis of environmental samples taken in Ghouta was reported to have also confirmed the presence of sarin or its by-products.

While UN verification of chemical weapons-use in Ghouta provided important independent confirmation of what had taken place there (if not who was responsible, which it was not part of the inspectors’ mandate to ascertain), for most onlookers it came as little surprise. Videos, photos and survivor accounts were enough to leave most with few doubts that a toxic weapon of some kind had been used on a mass scale in Ghouta—a dark new low for a conflict already characterised by widespread savagery and the almost total disregard for the lives and welfare of non-combatants.

Less expected, however, was the decision by the Syrian government, in the days immediately preceding the release of the inspectors’ report, to give up its chemical weapons arsenal in an immediate, verifiable fashion and to join the CWC – a plan proposed by Russia, a key ally of the Assad regime, and an agreement to it by Syria that saw the prospect of US-led airstrikes averted.

In truth, it is unclear how likely airstrikes would have been had Syria not agreed to give up its chemical weapons. A parliamentary vote in the UK, held in late August, saw a government motion for intervention defeated, ruling Britain out of any involvement In the US, early September saw President Obama step back from the seemingly-imminent launch of airstrikes that would have most clearly of all upheld the ‘red line ’ he himself had set in 2012 regarding any use of chemical weapons in Syria. Instead, President Obama announced that he would first seek approval for the use of force from Congress – a vote that was ultimately overtaken by events and never held, but one that was by no means sure to end in favour of military intervention. Indeed, the vote looked likely to go against.

To intervene, or not?

If Syria’s decision to join the CWC and rid itself of chemical weapons stands as one unlikely positive outcome of the Ghouta incident, it is a positive that distracts little from the more troubling features of the attack and the global response to it. For one, the use of chemical weapons on the scale witnessed in Ghouta laid bare the lack of limits that seems to have become a feature of this war.

Moreover, the reluctance of most Western powers – and publics – to move beyond rhetorical outrage, in the face of the massacre of nearly 1,500 Syrian citizens with a weapon of mass destruction, threatened to erode the sense of chemical weapons’ unique evilness in a fashion not seen at any other time in the recent past.

All of which says more about the current Western appetite for military intervention, in the Middle East particularly, than it does about their attitude to the use of chemical weapons in warfare. That President Obama had placed chemical weapons use on the other side of the red line of acceptable conduct in warfare—the crossing of which may, the implication was, trigger more forceful intervention—is evidence of that.

A year on from his proclamation of the red line, however, the situation on the ground had evolved dramatically. Arguably the ripest time for intervention in the conflict has long passed, with al-Qaeda-affiliated and other radical Islamist groups increasingly entrenched within a rebellion that has no clear leadership nor common vision. For western powers, all choices may now be bad ones; though of course that does little to help the millions of refugees and internally displaced Syrians that the conflict continues to produce.

Slow progress in verifying destruction

Against a backdrop of ongoing violence, personnel from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the implementing body for the CWC, have been working in Syria since last autumn verifying Assad’s chemical arsenal and overseeing its removal from the country. Progress, though, has so far not been encouraging. An end-of-year deadline for the removal of Syria’s most dangerous chemical stockpile was missed over difficulties in implementation, largely due to the ongoing fighting, and more recently concerns have been raised that Syria is not doing enough to ensure the smooth implementation of the ‘framework’ agreement under which the elimination operation is proceeding. Russia has sought to quieten concerns, announcing in the past few days that a large shipment of chemical weapons would leave Syria this month.

Pressure on Syria, as war continues

That world powers are continuing to lean on Syria to ensure implementation of the framework, however, is evidence that the use of chemical weapons is taken seriously at the highest level, and that the issue remains high on the priority list of foreign policymakers in world capitals. What it says to the rest of the world is that the use of chemical weapons will incur consequences, but that leads to a host of questions over what level of use would generate a response (the Ghouta incident was the largest, but almost certainly not the first use of chemical weapons in the war there), as well as how to prove the use of these weapons in circumstances where use has been alleged—and, by extension, what level of doubt is acceptable.

Meanwhile, in Syria, as the war continues, so the country becomes ever more a kind of ‘new Somalia rotting in the heart of the Levant’, as The Economist so vividly put it last year. Long-awaited peace talks recently concluded in Switzerland achieved nothing of substance, beyond agreement to resume on 10 February. That we may have seen the last use of chemical weapons as Syria tears itself apart is a silver lining of sorts, but a silver lining around a cloud of particularly heavy darkness.

This article was written in a personal capacity. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERTIC.

David Cliff works as a researcher at the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (VERTIC) in London. There, his work focuses on research into the verification, implementation and compliance aspects of nuclear and chemical arms control and disarmament treaties. He holds a BA in Geography and an MA in International Affairs, both from the University of Exeter in the UK.