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Back on the agenda: Chemical gas attacks in Syria

April 18, 2014 at 12:23 pm

On Friday 11th April, there was an attack on Kafr Zeita, a rebel-held village 125 miles north of the Syrian capital, Damascus. Agreement between the Syrian regime and the rebels is rare, but in this case, both sides say that it was a chemical gas attack, involving the use of chlorine. That’s where the agreement ends. Each side has blamed the other; opposition leaders said the gas was dropped by a regime helicopter, while state-run television accused the Islamist group Al-Nusra front – the gas is widely available in the region and has been used by insurgents across the border in Iraq.

The attack has not been independently verified, and western powers are being cautious in their response. “We are trying to run this down,” said Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations. “So far, it’s unsubstantiated, but we’ve shown, I think, in the past, that we will do everything in our power to establish what has happened and then consider possible steps in response.”

Of course, those possible steps are limited. Last year, US president Barack Obama said that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that, if crossed, would have serious repercussions. A chemical attack in the outskirts of Damascus in August 2013 left up to 1,300 people dead and very nearly led to a US-led military strike. International investigators were unable to unequivocally allocate blame for the attack (the regime blamed the opposition) but the chemical compound of the sarin used in the attack matched the supply held by the regime and most international powers held the Syrian government responsible.

Military action was averted after Russia brokered a deal for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to surrender the country’s stockpile of chemical weapons. A deadline of 13 April – now revised to 30 June – was set for the destruction of the entire arsenal, which includes sarin and mustard gas. But whether even the new deadline will be met is looking increasingly uncertain. The chemicals are supposed to be transferred to ships now moored in Latakia, north-west Syria, and rendered safe for disposal. According to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international body tasked with destroying the chemical arsenal, 65% of Syria’s chemical stockpiles have been removed. The regime has said that the remaining chemicals will be transferred to Latakia by the end of April but American and UN officials have expressed concern that the Syrian government is in control of the timeline. This upper hand for the Assad regime may make the US and its allies in Europe particularly reluctant to issue fresh threats based on the latest allegations of chemical attacks. These countries all have a shared interest in seeing Syria disarmed and will not want to further jeopardise an already uncertain process.

Since the notorious attack last August, the Syria opposition has accused the regime of using chemical weapons on numerous occasions. The alleged attack on the 11thwas just the latest in a series of relatively small-scale chemical attacks reported by the opposition. As a non-state body, the rebel leadership is unable to order an investigation by OPCW, but the organization has said it will investigate the opposition’s claims that chemical weapons have been used in at least three attacks since January, if an appropriate state authority refers it. Of course, as the inconclusive results of the lengthy investigation into the August attack shows, even if the attack is verified, the chaotic context of the civil war could make it difficult to apportion blame one way or another.

Chemical weapons have been one of the most controversial aspects of the Syrian war. The speed with which the propaganda machines of both the rebels and the regime kicked into action after the alleged attack on the 11th demonstrates quite how hotly contested this specific issue is.

Images from the horrific attack in August shocked the world, and rightly so. But it must also be remembered that more than 100,000 people have died in the three years of the Syrian conflict. The vast majority of those people were killed by conventional weapons. Of course, clearing Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons – which are brutal and inhumane – can only be a good thing. But it must also be remembered that this is not the magic solution; even if the stockpiles are cleared by 30 June, there is no indication that the bloodshed will stop.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.