Latest Update on Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

When it comes to Syria today we need dialogue. Those who have the courage to stand up and say, “there is another way” have become so important and are much needed at this time everywhere, most especially in the Syrian conflict. We must work for solutions that are in reality something more than a quick fix. We need to look at a long-term solution, rather than a short-term one. A great friend of mine, James Lynn from Northern Ireland, says, “Hatred only destroys the soul of the person who speaks it, for it has no permanent solution to offer.” We all need to be the voice of peace and reason, and keep the Syrian nation very much in our prayers.

So, as a precursor to peace, we need to understand the nature of the war we are facing. Clearly a line must be drawn when it comes to honour in war. And chemical weapons are dishonourable. Chemical weapons are much more widespread and utilised more frequently than the other two types of W.M.D.s. Among the most common chemical agents that have been deployed are G-series nerve gas (in particular, sarin), and mustard gas. Chemical weapons are indiscriminate. Children are particularly the hardest-hit from chemical weapon attacks as their bodies are more vulnerable. Numerous countries still have large stockpiles of chemical weapons despite the Chemical Weapons Convention, which required the destruction of stockpiles by 2012. Due to the Convention, 85% of the chemical weapon stockpiles across the world have been destroyed. This is significant progress, but a considerable number of production facilities and stockpiles remain.

Chemical weapons have been around a long time. The first to use chemical weapons in the Middle East were the British who employed them in the Second Battle of Gaza against the Turks in 1917. Since then they have been used repeatedly, most notably by Saddam Hussein against the Iranians from 1983 to 1988 and the Kurds from 1987 to 1988.

That the Syrian government has chemical weapons is without question. Their existence has been confirmed by the Syrians in oblique statements, most notably by onetime Syrian spokesman Jihad Makdissi who apparently lost his job over the remark.

Syria’s main chemical weapons base, though there are others nearby, was at the Safira base just to the East of Aleppo.

The Free Syrian Army destroyed the Safira base on 29th November 2012. The artillery base was utterly demolished but the nearby air defence base was fought over for some time. Safira was a sprawling military complex. However, the Islamist group Al Nusra joined the fight and by mid February 2013 the entire town had fallen into rebel hands.

Since when both extreme elements of the opposition and the government have used chemical weapons, the government moreso than the opposition but both parties have been culpable.

All of this does however highlight one issue. There is an acute need to promote the Chemical Weapons Convention in the Middle East today.  The are only five countries in the whole world which have either not signed and / or not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. They are: Egypt, Israel, North Korea, Palestine (and yes Palestine is entitled to sign), and South Sudan. They should all be brought onboard urgently.

Back to Syria

Meanwhile let’s come back to the issue of the use of chemical weapons in Syria in recent days. For background, the following timeline of events is drawn from an article by ‘Urayb ar-Rintawi in the Jordanian daily ad-Dustour. These are his words edited for clarity:

On February 18th, the Syrian army began a major Eastern Ghouta offensive via a concentrated artillery and aerial bombardment. And by early March, its units had succeeded in dividing up the Ghouta into different sectors and had recaptured many villages and towns.

The factions affiliated with the “Turkish/Qatari axis” concluded an agreement with Damascus sponsored by the Russian mediators. Thousands of Ahrar ash-Sham, Nusra, and Faylaq ar-Rahman fighters left to Idlib together with their families, and then the Syrian army entered ‘Arabin, Zamalka, and Jobar.

Jaysh ul Islam then denounced ‘the treason and treachery of our brothers-in-arms’ (those affiliated with Qatar and Turkey) who had left for Idlib. Jaysh ul Islam, which is affiliated with Saudi Arabia, could not find a safe haven.

Damascus then began a dialogue via Russian mediators aimed at clearing Douma of the remaining armed opposition giving them the choice of leaving or “settling their affairs” with the Syrian state, leading to an agreement that called for the evacuation of thousands of civilians and military personnel and allowing those who did not wish to “settle their affairs” to head to Jarabulus. This was the deal that came to be known as the ‘Ghouta-for-‘Afrin’ deal.

Convoys of buses then began to carry the armed elements and their families from Douma. In addition, more than 40 thousand civilians left via the Wafideen Gateway and were moved to “shelters provided by the Syrian government”.

Then a coup occurred inside Jayshul Islam. Its leaders who were engaged in the negotiations with Damascus and had reached an agreement with it were either killed or detained. Abu-Hammam al-Buweidani disappeared amidst rumors that he had surrendered to the Russian police, while Abu Qusay and Abu ‘Abderrahman Ka’ka took over the group’s leadership. Implementation of the agreement was suspended.

Next, the Syrian army launched a ruthless offensive on Douma, most of whose stages were broadcast live on air. It tightened the noose around Jayshul Islam’s neck.
Within three hours a chemical attack occurred.

The attack itself

Victims who survived report an odourless gas. This can only be Sarin. The other main gas used in Syria, Chlorine gas, is far from odourless. Some witnesses report a smell of chlorine but our impression is these are less credible accounts from people who were not actually exposed to the gas. Other symptoms are also Sarin specific. Particularly the pinpoint pupils of the dead. For links and fuller details so that you may examine this yourself if you wish, there are full supporting details on our first NCF blog entry on this subject which answers the question “Is this the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack?“. But you will need a strong stomach if you are going to examine all of the links we provide. Some among them are very harrowing. Note that Sarin gas has been extensively deployed before in the Damascus suburbs.

“Chlorine gas generally harms far more people than it kills because it requires comparatively high concentrations (nineteen thousand milligrams per cubic meter) and prolonged exposure to achieve lethal effect”. It is useful to terrorise rather than to kill. For example, to quote National Interest magazine’s excellent extensive report on the issue (we reach slightly different conclusions however), “A helicopter-delivered chlorine bombing in Zubdiya in eastern Aleppo on August 10, 2016, injured around seventy (including forty children) and killed four (including a mother and her two babies). In numerous other chlorine attacks, dozens have been injured, but deaths have numbered “only” in the single digits or even zero.”

Some of the videos relating to the current Douma attack imply that chlorine gas was used. For instance, extensive dousing with water is valuable in dealing with chlorine gas exposure, whereas the removal of clothing is considered an important step in dealing with exposure to Sarin. One repeatedly broadcast video shows the extensive dousing of children with water without the removal of clothing. But it is possible that in the panic in the aftermath of a bomb attack, standard tactics for chlorine were employed as people may not have been as familiar with standard practice for Sarin exposure. There is also a video of two yellow cylinders of the type only normally used to deliver compressed chlorine gas in Syrian government attacks. However, there are various reasons for regarding these as false. For example one of the cylinders is some distance from the blast hole in the roof through which it has supposedly fallen, resting on a bed and comparatively undamaged by the impact and / or blast to which it has been exposed (such cylinders are usually substantially damaged and sometimes blasted apart). In any case, the very high numbers of casualties and the nature of the victim reports make it clear, in our view, that chlorine gas was certainly not employed as the primary agent.

Culpability

There are a number of possibilities. We will make arbitrary assessments. We do so because we believe it is helpful for those that read this to have a benchmark opinion, which they can then use as an assessment against which to examine the available open source material for themselves and draw their own conclusions. This is inevitably just our own subjective report on the subject. The forthcoming OPCW report will not determine culpability. Even when the United Nations has sent in teams (and UN teams are generally less skilled than those of the OPCW) with the prime objective of determining culpability their reports have been confusing and less than satisfactory when it comes to providing conclusive evidence. We reiterate that this is because the government has not been the sole perpetrator of war crimes with chemical weapons in Syria. The more extreme elements of the Islamist opposition have sometimes done so, occasionally with a view to implicating the government through false flag incidents. And one of the most extreme opposition groups, Jaysh ul Islam, was present in Douma, a group that is so ruthless that it at one point held hostages in cages in Douma.

That said it must be stressed in all fairness that the Syrian government is usually the one culpable. The fact that access to the alleged site was delayed until today by Russian troops now in control of the area makes Syrian government culpability more likely. The NCF does however have direct contacts within the ranks of the Syrian military and they deny culpability in this instance. Undoubtedly your reasonable response might be “they would wouldn’t they”.  However, they say that these are victims of “suffocation” after being buried in the aftermath of shelling and that civilians panicked and imagined a gas attack and then some unscrupulous members of the opposition put out false videos or videos from other incidents which they flagged as being from this incident. We give percentage probabilities in an attempt to be helpful. Please note once again that this is an arbitrary assessment:

  1. This was done deliberately by the Syrian government: 75% probability.
  2. That this was done by overzealous elements of the Syrian Army without direct Syrian Government instruction: 5% possibility.
  3. That these were victims of suffocation and the incident was exploited by the unscrupulous: 5% possibility.
  4. That the Syrian government did not attack and this was an entirely false flag incident perpetrated by Jaysh ul Islam: 15% possibility.

What is needed now is not further military action but a concerted international effort to work for peace both at a second track and first track level that engages Russia, Iran, and the United States of America. There are so many factions operating in Syria. As I was reminded just today by a Hawaiian friend, Stafford Clary:

  • Saudi Arabia-Qatar-UAE-Turkey support aggressive Sunni Arab elements against the Syrian government
  • Russia-Iran-Iraq-Hezbollah support the Syrian government
  • Iran-Hezbollah are aggressively anti-Israel
  • Turkey is aggressively anti-PYD (the prime Kurdish faction in Syria)
  • US is aggressively anti-ISIS, pro-PYD, and pro-Israel (however the US does not currently oppose al Qaeda elements in Syria)

All people of good conscience must surely believe that the nations of the world should start working together for peace in Syria.

God bless Syria and all its people, and may his peace rest upon their shoulders.

William Morris LL.D., Secretary General, The Next Century Foundation

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