Exactly ten years ago when more than 1,400 people, many of them children, were killed in an early morning sarin gas attack on al-Ghouta district, on Damascus’ outskirts. The violence of the strike, compared to previous chemical weapons attacks, shocked international public opinion because the perpetrator is assumed to have been the Syrian state. The Assad regime denied such accusations and duly launched a disinformation campaign. The crime went unpunished.
A year earlier, then-US president Barack Obama said that the use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line,” interpreted to mean that American military reprisals would ensue. To avoid such an intervention, an international agreement was signed to secure the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.
A decade on, L’Orient-Le Jour spoke to Lennie Phillips, a researcher in chemical weapons proliferation and nuclear policy at the Royal United Services Institute.
To what extent have international efforts to destroy Damascus’ chemical arsenal been successful?
On the surface, the chemical demilitarization of Syria was incredibly successful. In a relatively short timescale, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), with the support of the UN and the financial support of some countries, verified the destruction of all declared chemical weapons, production facilities and specialized equipment. But there is one key word in the last sentence: “declared”!
The basis of the chemical weapons convention (CWC) is that each state party to the convention is required to declare munitions, delivery devices, chemicals, production facilities and related equipment. This requires honesty from the state party concerned. With regard to the Syrian Arab Republic, to give a large amount of latitude, they were a country embroiled in a civil war and the requirements of the CWC would be new to them and may have appeared complex, so the OPCW formed the Declarations’ Assessment Team (DAT) to aid the process of ensuring that declarations were complete and correct. This team identified numerous activities that had not been declared and also has several outstanding issues demonstrating that the Syrian declaration was not complete and is still not complete.
What consequences have these revelations had and where do we stand today?
Since the Ghouta attack there have been hundreds of allegations in open-source alone of the continued use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, almost all of which were in civilian populated areas. There is also anecdotal information that there has been ongoing use of chemical weapons against opposition combatants as well as against civilians and combatants in areas held by Daesh [the self-styled Islamic State group]. This widespread use, after [the] supposed dismantlement of the Syrian chemical weapons program, is an absolute indicator that the Syrian government did not declare all its chemical weapons and did not destroy all its chemical weapons.
Why was it incomplete and not exhaustive? I think we’re past the government’s ignorance of the CWC and preoccupation with a self-created conflict. We’re well and truly in the territory of deliberately trying to hide aspects of their chemical weapons capability for the purpose of continued use of chemical weapons against their own population.
There have not been any allegations of use of chemical weapons for quite a while now, which is perhaps more of an indicator to the value of improved conventional weapons, burning crops, targeting rescue workers, bombing hospitals, denying aid, etc. and a reduction in military support to opposition groups, than it is to a genuine decision not to use chemical weapons. There are still discrepancies with the declaration and the Syrian government does not appear interested in solving these discrepancies. Any meaningful action at the international level is blocked by Russia, so essentially we’re in a stalemate.
Does this mean that the Syrian regime enjoys total impunity?
The OPCW established the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) to collect facts surrounding the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Their remit was not to identify any perpetrator but establish the likelihood of whether chemical weapons had been used, based on available information. The UN Security Council established the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mission (JIM) to identify perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons, where the FFM had previously identified use or likely use. Following the use of sarin in Khan Shaykhun and Ltamenah in Spring 2017, Russia vetoed the extension of the JIM. As a consequence of this veto, the OPCW Conference of States Parties established the Investigation and Identification Team, [where Russia does not have a veto right — editor’s note] in essence to continue the work of the JIM. In addition to this the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic included several uses of chemical weapons in their reports.
There is no implication of total impunity. There is total impunity. But this isn’t just about chemical weapons. This is broader. This is saying that if a permanent member of the security council agrees with what you’re doing, then not only is there impunity, there is tacit support for breaking all norms of international law, with the promise of a veto if things become too uncomfortable. What is the effect of this support? Many countries have sought to normalize ties with the Syrian government and there is pressure within other countries to do the same.
In this context, a tribunal would clearly address all the supposed concerns Russia gives when blocking Security Council resolutions on this matter. This would be the opportunity to challenge the evidence obtained by the various international investigative bodies or provide credible supporting evidence for what is currently apparent disinformation coming from the side of the Syrian government. For as long as they deny a tribunal and accountability, they are admitting that they know the Syrian government used chemical weapons and in effect they support the use.
Apart from the Syrian regime’s impunity, what consequences does the Ghouta massacre still have today, particularly in terms of disinformation?
Simply put, the lack of action in relation to the Syrian government’s continuous transgressions of the CWC, coupled to other human rights’ violations, emboldened Russia to expand its invasion of Ukraine. It has weaponized disinformation over many issues, over many years and used it to good effect to paralyze international reaction to, not only its allies in Syria, but also its own actions in Syria and Ukraine.
Disinformation with regard to chemical weapons usage in Syria, however, does not appear, in the main, to be targeting the general population and governments. I believe it is targeted at the personnel who work in international organizations like the OPCW that investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria in order to sow doubt, mistrust and ultimately polarized views within the workforce. Disinformation will continue to have a deleterious effect on society, including international organizations, until governments around the world treat it seriously and tackle it.
This story first ran in French in L’Orient-Le Jour, translated by Joelle Khoury.