Chemical Weapons Use in Syria: A Personal Perspective

United in grief: Syrians hold placards during a protest to mark the anniversary of the alleged chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun. Image: dpa picture alliance / Alamy

Six years after a deadly chemical weapons attack in the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun – an event which was by no means a one-off – what hope is there of holding the perpetrators to account?

4 April marks the anniversary of the use of sarin on the outskirts of the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun. While for many people spring signifies a new beginning, for the people in opposition areas of Syria, springtime was chemical weapons (CW) season, as the weather conditions at this time of year favoured the distribution of a chemical cloud without its rapid dispersal. So, while the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had already started looking at allegations of CW use in Ltamenah in late March 2017, it was no surprise that on 4 April 2017 there was another allegation of use, this time in the town of Khan Shaykhun. What did come as a surprise was that the allegation made international news – it had seemed that the world had lost interest in the ongoing use of chemical weapons in Syria. This particular attack made the news because it was the largest such event since sarin was used in East Ghouta on 21 August 2013.

However, this was not an isolated use of chemical weapons, but part of what appeared to be a concerted attack on the families of armed groups that were taking part in the Hama offensive of March/April 2017.

Over breakfast on that Tuesday morning, the FFM team members knew that this was a major event and that holidays and plans for the following weekend needed to be cancelled. This was going to be a busy time, but it was nothing compared to the situation that families encountered in Khan Shaykun when they woke up that day – or in some cases, when family members never woke up again.

Once inside the headquarters of the OPCW, while the then Directors of Inspectorate and Verification had convened a meeting to pontificate over an inspection that had taken place a month earlier, the FFM team along with the acting head of Operations Planning Branch put everything in place so that an advance team could depart the day after the allegation, with the main team following the next day. This rapid reaction was somewhat unusual from an international governmental organisation – so much so that when the UN was discussing in New York what it might do in relation to the allegation, the Director-General of the OPCW, who was also present, was able to tell the UN that the OPCW had already deployed a team to investigate.

The Syrian government maintained that at no time did it lose control of its chemical weapons, thus it would not have been possible for opposition groups to have access to Syrian-made sarin or its immediate precursors

The rapid reaction also elucidated a positive response from the Syrian Civil Defence, who only six months earlier had understandably exercised a great deal of cynicism over the FFM’s ability to respond quickly in the event of a major attack. Even recent events with respect to the earthquake centred near Gaziantep in Turkey have shone a spotlight on the international community’s inability to respond when it comes to areas outside of the control of any government.

Prior to this allegation, the FFM had no guaranteed access to UN vehicles, so relied on taxis for local travel. UN vehicles, however, were required for trips to the border – including receipt of samples and some interviews. UN agencies in the area were reluctant to commit to loaning vehicles (even with cost reimbursement) as these agencies relied on the support of the Syrian government for the implementation of their programmes and dealing with the FFM was perceived as detrimental to receiving that support; thus, trips to the border could be planned but then cancelled on the morning of the excursion if there didn’t happen to be a spare vehicle available. Such was the horror at the events in Khan Shaykhun, however, that UN agencies made their vehicles available even for routine meetings around the city, never mind being a guaranteed feature for planned trips to the border.

So, while UN agencies, member states of these agencies and states parties to the OPCW worried about the politics of everything, the FFM was able to concentrate on one issue, and that was to investigate the use of CW in Khan Shaykhun. Blood samples were taken from people who tested positive for sarin, and these people confirmed their presence in the area where sarin was released; other witnesses independently confirmed the presence of these people at the same location; environmental samples retrieved from the area tested positive for sarin. There is no doubt that people were exposed to sarin. This, and more, is what was reported by the OPCW FFM.

The quality of the work and the report subsequently released by the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) was vastly superior in every regard to that produced by an earlier incarnation of the JIM. Among other things, it cleverly linked the chemical fingerprint of sarin produced as part of the Syrian government’s CW programme to what was used in Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017. It is worth noting that sarin is not easy to produce from industrial chemicals, and additionally, the processing equipment required is not straightforward to acquire or manufacture; furthermore, the Syrian government maintained that at no time did it lose control of its chemical weapons, thus it would not have been possible for opposition groups to have access to Syrian-made sarin or its immediate precursors.

The people who died in Khan Shaykhun will never know justice, but for the survivors and for the sake of humanity, there needs to be accountability for the use of chemical weapons in Syria

So, the situation is such that the FFM has irrefutable evidence that chemical weapons were used in Khan Shaykhun, and the JIM has identified the perpetrator. To put it another way, the beat police officer has identified what appears to have been a crime, and the detectives have identified who they believe committed the crime – so what is the next step? While a normal person might think that a court or tribunal would be the answer – that is, to get the facts out there and allow them to be challenged in a tribunal or a court of law – supporters of the Syrian government and, by default, supporters of the use of CW took another approach and decided not to extend the mandate of the JIM. Disinformation was propagated, often conflicting with other disinformation likely emanating from the same source, but with the intention of muddying the waters and seeing which piece of disinformation holds most traction. One of the results of this disinformation campaign was that at the end of the year, the leadership of the FFM changed. If the intention was to discredit the work of the FFM, it was not successful. The quality of its investigative work and output, rather than diminishing, continued to increase in the following years, an indication that where there is a mentality of continuous improvement and a strong belief in the work being done, it will survive a loss of leadership.

Various countries have tried to address the lack of accountability. The OPCW itself created the Investigation and Identification Team, which was formed by majority and not consensus, essentially continuing the work of the JIM. Individual countries have started looking at trying to prosecute people within their own legal systems; some countries formed the International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons. The International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism was formed and started collating evidence relating to the use of CW in Syria. But nothing has yet been implemented that is even close to achieving universal accountability.

From a personal perspective, on the anniversary of this occasion, I take a lot of pride in having been a small part of achieving the accountability that I truly believe will happen one day. The investigation into Khan Shaykhun was the pinnacle of my career to date, but at great cost: the loss of lives in Khan Shaykhun, the ongoing suffering related to those losses, and the demonstration to the world that it is ok to use CW – especially if you use them on your own people.

The people who died that day will never know justice, but for the survivors and for the sake of humanity, there needs to be accountability for the use of CW in Syria. 193 states have ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, yet somehow nothing has been done to send a clear message that with ratification there should come responsibility.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Lennie Phillips OBE

Senior Research Fellow, Chemical Weapons

Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

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