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bashar al assad
Bashar al Assad

The US-led coalition’s attack on three military sites with links to chemical weapons in Syria on the night of April 13, 2018 is the last act of a conflict that has been ongoing for the past 7 years. Over 100 rockets were fired in response to an alleged chlorine gas attack in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, by the Syrian government. But it was more than a “humanitarian” gesture.

US President Donald Trump finally showed his muscles after years spent criticizing Barack Obama’s inaction in the Middle East. Secondly, the attack was a message to Russia: the United States are still a player in the region. Not that they really have the power to shift the current balance in the area. Russia, Turkey and Iran are sitting at the victors’ table; the latest trilateral summit helped define a de facto partition of the battle ground.

Roughly two thousand US troops that station in the surroundings of Manbij will not be able to play any pivotal role in the future of Syria since their main allies from the YPG, the leading force behind the Syrian Democratic Forces, have been abandoned by the United States in Afrin.

A Deadly Weapon

Chemical weapons are the best way to get rid of your enemy. They guarantee great results on the field and have a great impact on the enemy’s morale. Chemical weapons don’t distinguish between civilians and militias; they strike indiscriminately and this is precisely the reason why they have been banned. The Chemical Weapons Convention was signed in 1993 and it bans the use, development, production and stocking up of these chemical agents, while prescribing for their destruction.

The Paris agreement has been ratified by several countries, but not by all of them. When we look at the Middle East: Egypt is a non-signatory, Israel signed the Convention but failed to have it ratified by the Knesset, Syria sent a letter to the UN Secretary General in December 2013 saying it was adhering to the Convention. Bashar al Assad’s regime decided to do so to prevent another American attack following an alleged chemical attack in Ghouta. However, Syria’s government did not comply with the deadline for the handing over of their chemical arsenal set for January 2014. Even Russia has claimed it will delay the destruction of its stocks until 2020.

An agency, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPWC), has been created in 1997 to monitor the application of the Convention. Although it is not a UN agency, it still works closely with them. Presently, the OPWC is responsible for all the Security Council approved investigations on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and elsewhere across the globe. Their work has been obstructed by Russia, who’s placed its veto to any extension of the OPWC’s mandate. After all, the Syrian regime has been accused of using chemical weapons at least a dozen times over the past six years.

The OPWC’s inspectors have a hard time carrying out an investigation in a war zone; unbiased information is hard to find and there is very little hard evidence that can be actually gathered on the ground. Furthermore, during a civil strife it is extremely complicated to draw a line between opposing factions and to define the perimeter of responsibility between alleged attackers and victims. Chemical weapons have been used in Syria by both the government and the rebels.

The use of chemical and biological weapons is a low cost alternative. They don’t need huge production infrastructures. They don’t require an advanced technology. You only need the guts to employ them. The most common is SARIN, a nerve agent, both in liquid and gas state. It produces a painful death within minutes. Mustard gas is another all time favorite for its vesicant effect, known since World War I.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, over 600 thousand people have died and thousands have been killed by chemical weapons. Over one thousand people were killed in Ghouta on August 21, 2013 alone. It is still unclear whether it was a deliberate attack on the part of the government, or whether a stock of chemicals owned by the rebels – and consequently provided by Saudi Arabia – was accidentally hit.

Tomahawk missiles

That was only the prelude to a coalition strike to punish Bashar al Assad. On April 4, 2017 fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles were fired against the air base where the regime planes had taken off to drop chemical weapons over Khan Sheykun. Just like in the recent past, Russia was told ahead of time about the strike. But also in this case, independent journalists claimed that the Syrian government had hit a rebel deposit of either chemical weapons, chlorine-based disinfectant or fertilizers.

Syria had a stock of around one thousand tonnes of chemical agents before the beginning of the civil war, and part of it was seized by the rebels during the conflict. ISIS for instance developed the skills to produce Mustard gas. Turkish police has recently seized radioactive material, californium, that could have been used for either a nuclear weapon or, as is more likely, to contaminate an area, people or water. Although a signatory of the Convention on chemical weapons, Syria has maintained a research and production facility in Masyaf, close to Hama, the Syrian Scientific Research Center, that was hit by Israeli fighter jets in September 2017.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic is the entity allegedly investigating human rights abuses in the country. The organisation was founded by the UN Security Council in March 2011 and so far has exposed around two dozen human rights violations. Syrian authorities have never granted the commission the possibility of conducting its research on the ground. Being never allowed in Syria has had serious consequences on the findings of the commission. And all the actors on the ground have been able to continue to act with impunity.

The North Korean Connection

The equipment (valves, thermometers, acid-resistant containers) and the raw materials that have been used by the Syrian regime to produce chemical weapons all come from North Korea. Or at least this is what a team of international experts claims. The two countries have been collaborating in the development of chemical agents and ballistic missiles for the past 50 years. During the first two conflicts against Israel in the 60s and 70s, North Korean pilots were flying Syria’s fighter planes. The collaboration went so far as the nuclear sector; the joint program was interrupted when Israeli warplanes bombed a reactor that was being built in Deir Ezzor on September 5, 2007.

Currently, North Korean experts are allegedly helping Syrians assemble chemical agents and prepare them for their use. There have been at least 40 shipments of military supplies – including for the chemical sector – from North Korea to Syria since 2011. This is one of the many businesses that keep the Pyongyang regime afloat. An open secret for two countries that unsurprisingly enough are under UN embargo.

Generally speaking, the shipments employ a series of tricks: from trans-shipments from one boat to another along the route, to covert shipment companies and financing to triangulations. And no one really cares about the embargo violations. China doesn’t see when the weapons leave North Korea. Russia doesn’t talk when the supplies land in one of the Syrian ports under its control. The world pretends not to hear the echoes of the victims.

ghouta chlorine
Chlorine attack in Ghouta

An Endless Agony

A chlorine attack has recently struck Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. The regime wanted to get rid of the last rebel holdout near the capital. But that was not the only target. Chlorine-filled barrel bombs have been dropped over Idlib and Saraqib. The ISIS used Mustard gas in Umm Hawsh in September 2016. The attack on Douma only served the purpose of igniting a US reaction. But apart from that, it was the latest act of a cruel conflict.

Probably chemical weapons have been employed more than we know about. Impunity prevails when it is difficult to obtain non-biased information. The Russians don’t see anything, don’t want to see anything and are often complicit. The US just bark or, as for Douma, drop a few missiles without nothing but a mere symbolic impact on the ground. The Israelis are slightly more effective when they strike military facilities, preferably the ones hosting Iranian advisors or Hezbollah. Ultimately, no one cares about the suffering of the Syrian population.

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