Unpacking Syria’s Chemical Weapons Problem

A series of three chemical weapons attacks in Syria within a two-week span in August 2016 occurred amidst increased scrutiny and criticism from the international community, which has sought to identify and hold accountable those state and/or nonstate actors perpetrating, organizing, or sponsoring these chemical weapons attacks. A number of reports released in recent weeks by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have revealed growing concerns about non-declared chemical weapons (CW) activities in Syria, raising the prospect that Syria might be hiding illicit CW capabilities in violation of its accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Further, the international team from the OPCW-United Nations (UN) Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) yesterday released the findings of its year-long investigation into nine confirmed cases of CW use in Syria during 2014 and 2015.

Q1: I thought we destroyed Assad’s chemical weapons program? What happened?

A1: Syria joined the CWC in 2013, and the high-profile removal of its declared chemical weapons stockpile was completed in mid-2014. The complete destruction of its 1,308 declared metric tons of chemicals was finished in January 2016. But over the last two years, the OPCW has been trying to verify that the Syrian CW program was fully disclosed and destroyed.

The international community raised serious concerns about gaps in the official Syrian declaration to the OPCW as early as the fall of 2013—prompting the establishment of the OPCW’s Declaration Assessment Team (DAT), which has made more than 15 visits to Syria, interviewed numerous members of the Syrian CW program, and undertaken extensive technical analysis of various types. Unfortunately, the gaps and discrepancies have only widened during this process. Through recently disclosed reports and statements, the OPCW Director-General appears to signal that the OPCW process, which depends upon reasonably cooperative support from the Syrian government, may have run its course and that the Security Council may need to step in to address Syrian noncompliance with its obligations.

Separately, the OPCW has also been investigating the repeated use of weaponized chlorine in Syria since 2014. Chlorine was never part of Syria’s formal chemical weapons program, nor was it included in the international destruction effort.

Q2: Is Syria secretly stockpiling chemical weapons? Has the international community been duped by Assad?

A2: Recent OPCW reports have highlighted mounting concerns about the gaps in Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapons program. Ambassador Ken Ward, the U.S. representative to the OPCW, said in July 2016 that DAT reports suggest the presence of “five chemical warfare agents—four of which have not been identified or declared by Syria to the OPCW.” He added that the reports “are indicative of production, weaponization, and storage of CW agent by the Syrian military that has never been acknowledged by the Syrian government” and leaves open the possibility that CW agents and munitions have been “illicitly retained by Syria.” These are very strong and troubling accusations that raise many questions; suggest a nearly incontrovertible pattern of bad faith from the Syrian government; and call into serious question Syria’s compliance with the CWC and U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2118, which declares chemical weapons use in Syria a threat to international peace and security.

Even so, we need to be cautious about jumping to conclusions about the motivations behind this bad behavior. Syria’s refusal to properly disclose its CW program could be tied to a desire to retain CW for future use. But, Syrian officials could also fear that certain disclosures would incriminate them in pre-2014 instances of CW use in Syria, such as the August 2013 sarin attack on Ghouta that killed an estimated 1,400 civilians. Alternatively, they could simply fear the embarrassment and condemnation that could come from admitting prior failures in the declaration process.

Q3: A new UN report says Syria is using chemical weapons again. Is that true?

A3: While the DAT has worked towards closing the gaps and eliminating discrepancies, the OPCW-UN JIM has been separately investigating nine cases of CW use in Syria in 2014 and 2015. According to widespread news stories and public statements, the most recent report of the JIM on August 24, 2016 determined that the Syrian government was responsible for two attacks that both used chlorine-filled barrel bombs dropped from helicopters: April 21, 2014 (Talmenes) and March 16, 2015 (Sarmin). The JIM report also blames ISIL for an attack on August 21, 2015 (Marea) that used a blister agent similar to sulfur mustard. The report further highlights three of the nine cases that merit additional investigation, all of which seem to involve helicopter-delivered, chlorine-filled barrel bombs: April 18, 2014 (Kafr Zita), March 16, 2015 (Qmenas), and March 24, 2015 (Binnish).

There have been over 150 alleged instances of CW use in the Syrian conflict since 2012, with more than 50 since 2015. The JIM needed to provide nearly incontrovertible information in a highly politicized Security Council environment to ensure the credibility of its report. As a result, the JIM has used a very high standard—not only to reach its conclusions about responsibility, but to also consider only those cases in which use of chemical weapons had been previously confirmed by the OPCW. That the JIM attributed these three attacks to their respective perpetrators demonstrates that the evidence in these cases is overwhelming and could withstand scrutiny in formal legal proceedings.

The DAT and the JIM are two distinct teams investigating different aspects of the Syrian CW problem. The OPCW DAT reports suggest that the Syrian government has engaged in CW-related activities—both in terms of facilities and agents—that it has not disclosed. But chlorine was never declared as part of Syria’s CW program and was not the subject of the DAT’s investigation. The JIM, however, was specifically tasked to investigate chemical use, to include chlorine, following the removal of Syria’s declared stockpile. While the findings of the JIM report do not indicate linkage to the discrepancies identified by the DAT, both reports highlight the Syrian regime’s disregard for international law.

Q4: Why are the Syrians using chlorine?

A4: Chlorine is a common industrial chemical that is not included in the CWC schedules of banned chemicals, so it was not part of the agreement leading to the elimination of Syria’s declared chemical weapons. All countries depend on chlorine, a nearly ubiquitous industrial chemical, for clean water and other essential purposes. But chlorine is a chemical weapon when it is deliberately used to kill or terrorize people (such as when it is dropped from a helicopter in a barrel bomb) and such use is a serious violation of the CWC. In fact, chlorine was the first chemical weapon used in major warfare in Ypres, Belgium in 1915. Not surprisingly, Syria did not declare chlorine as part of its military’s CW program when it joined the CWC. Syria had a much more advanced CW program and there is little reason to believe chlorine played a role in its pre-2014 program. Moreover, removing the country’s entire supply of toxic industrial chemicals, to include chlorine, is implausible. None of that changes the basic facts: Using chlorine, or any toxic chemical, as a weapon is prohibited by the CWC. It thus constitutes a violation of international law, and, in the case of Syria, clearly violates UNSCR 2118.

Q5: The JIM report also says that ISIS has used chemical weaponsmustard agent to be specificas well. Isn’t mustard agent much more advanced and deadly than chlorine? Did ISIS get its chemical weapons from Syria?

A5: We don’t know where ISIS obtained its mustard agent. Since the agent is not difficult to make in small quantities, it is quite possible that ISIS could have produced mustard itself with a small laboratory and scientists from Iraq or elsewhere. While it is possible that it might have been a remnant from the former Iraqi or Libyan stockpiles, which were destroyed under international supervision, there is no evidence for this.

Q6: What are all of these different reports and why are we hearing about them now?

A6: To summarize, multiple investigative efforts have been underway simultaneously regarding chemical weapons in Syria since 2014. On the one hand, the DAT was established to investigate and verify the validity of Syria’s declaration of their chemical weapons program and has spent much of the last two years seeking to reconcile numerous discrepancies.

At the same time, another OPCW ad hoc entity, its Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), has been investigating alleged use of chemicals as weapons in Syria since 2014. The FFM has had the mandate to confirm the use of chemicals as weapons, not to attribute use of such weapons to one actor or another. After the FFM concluded that such attacks indeed occurred on multiple occasions from 2014 onward, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 2235 in 2015 establishing the Joint Investigative Mechanism and gave it a one-year mandate to determine if any of these attacks could be clearly linked to a perpetrator—state or non-state. It is the JIM report, which clearly ties two attacks to the Syrian regime and one to ISIS, to which the Security Council and the international community must now respond.

These various mechanisms and entities have resulted in numerous statements from the OPCW, its Executive Council, and its annual Conference of the States Parties, updating States Parties and the public on the ongoing destruction of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile. The OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission and Declaration Assessment Team have also provided several updates (although these have remained confidential to States Parties), and the Joint Investigative Mechanism has issued two preliminary reports. However, most media and the public have paid little attention to these, once all of Syria’s declared chemical weapons were removed from Syria. In recent weeks however, critical inflection points in two areas—imminent expiration of the JIM mandate and scathing reports from the OPCW Director General regarding Syrian cooperation in the declaration process—have put the issue back on the front burner.

Rebecca Hersman is director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Rebecca Hersman