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Syria’s Chemical Weapons: The way forward?

The eyes of the world are on Syria. What can the world do?

On August 21,reports in international media said that Syrian rebels in Ghouta,a neighbourhood in eastern Damascus,were targeted by government forces in a deadly gas attack. The officially accepted tally to date is about 1400 people perished from the attack,though poor accessibility for observers have hindered proper investigations.

Related: Syrian opposition accuses Assad regime of using chemical weapons,over 1000 dead

In the general confusion,the United Nations sought to determine the exact nature and identity of perpetrators of the alleged attack and ordered an immediate inquiry the same day. However,the site of the attack was in a ‘frontier zone’,a central scene of conflict,and despite growing clamour from the United States and its allies,the Syrian government made no arrangements of consequence to enable UN inspectors to investigate on-site. This was seen by US,UK and France,three of the members of the Security Council vouching for action against Assad’s regime,as a cover-up and proof of complicity in the crime.

The agent that was supposedly made use of is sarin,a banned nerve agent. Sarin is included in Schedule 1 of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC),meaning it has few,if any,legitimate uses,except for purposes of research. Signatories to the CWC,of which Syria is not one,must report to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) if its quantity in possession exceeds 1 ton.

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In the immediate aftermath,US president Barack Obama said that the US had conclusive evidence,though it presented none to the public,that the Syrian government was the aggressor. Russia,firm in its position,refuted saying there was no way to tell whether Assad’s government was behind the attack. Obama had called the use of chemical agents crossing of a ‘red line’ that would invite consequences,despite a clear roadblock in the form of an unmoving UN Security Council. The proposed military action,which initially had France and the UK as primary partners,would that way be carried out in defiance of international statute that does not permit military action by a state in foreign territory without UN sanction,except if undertaken for self-defence. But support for military action has been scant. UK’s Parliament outvoted prime Minister David Cameron’s willingness to cooperate with the US for an air strike. The huge domestic backlash in US too has led Obama to call for a vote of the Congress before deciding whether to go ahead with the attack. International diplomacy has trickled along,carrying along with it threats of sanctions and closures,as well as appeals to alleviate the humanitarian sufferings of Syria’s civilian populace.

Related: US releases video ‘evidence’ of Syrian chemical attacks to build consensus for offensive

The questions,therefore,before the UN chemical inspectors’ team publishes its findings,are whether chemical weapons had been used at all; if they were,by which side. If indeed chemical agents were used,and Assad’s regime is found to be the aggressor,the question would then be under whose command were the rockets fired that supposedly contained nerve agents; if culpability is traced right to the top,then what can the international community do in a country where the general situation has spiralled way past manageable standards.

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The first question is easily answered. Chemical weapons have been used in Syria during the civil war,and if insider reports are to be paid any heed,have been used on more than one occasion. Certainly,the intensity of the August 21 attack was visible enough for the whole world to see,but rebels from diverse factions do not hold back in saying that Assad has made use of his chemical arsenal a lot more freely than is generally thought. The Los Angeles Times reported on 6 September that the Obama administration had had its first sniff of chemical weapons testing by Assad over a year ago,in July 2012,when infrastructure was being shifted from capital Damascus to the port city of Tartus. Following this,there were unconfirmed reports published by Al Jazeera about the death of 7 civilians in a neighbourhood in Homs city on December 23,2012. On March 19,2013,rockets possibly carrying chemical substances were fired both toward districts in Aleppo and Damascus. Apart from few other debatable incidents,soil smuggled out of Syria was tested by British scientists who confirmed that chemicals had definitely been made use of as weapons; yet no credible word came from the White House’s corridors of power in that long interval,until August 21 and its aftermath. In light of these events,the US invoking humanitarian motivations to intervene in Syria have indeed been looked upon skeptically,at best. The Middle Eastern factions,where attitudes toward America are outright malicious,including the actual rebels on the ground in Syria,are quite unsure of the true motivations for the US wanting to mount an attack,and due to the negative opinion it has been able to garner for itself from its activities in the last few decades,there are not too many who do not sneer at US’s humanitarian commission.

As to which side in the conflict used chemical weapons,commentators and experts have tended to agree,taking into account the vague and shadowy divisions between the various rebel groups,that an attack of this nature would require considerable organisation and planning,and which may not be possible for the hard-pulled rebels on the ground to deploy. Due to heightened propaganda by the government,a thought or two has been given to the possibility that foreign powers in the region,those opposed to Assad,may have had a hand in the affair. Or,as the Syrian government has been wholeheartedly saying time and again,it was a rebel tactic to discredit the government ahead of a trip by UN chemical inspectors. But these charges swim in shallow waters. If Assad has agreed,through Russia’s prodding,to hand over chemical weapons in the eleventh hour to deprive the US from having a chance at striking,it naturally means there is a significant stock of chemical weapons in Syria’s possession (intelligence communities over the world are well aware of it,and a number of statements by Syrian officials over a number of years have proved this beyond doubt),and since chemical-laden rockets were fired from government-held territory,conclusion can be reasonably drawn that it was the state forces,after all,which used chemical weapons.

In one of the many interviews given by US Secretary of State John Kerry in recent days,he mentioned that US had obtained information that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad,general and commander of the Republican Guard Maher al-Assad,and ‘an unnamed’ general are the custodians of chemical weaponry and no offensive involving these could be launched without the consent of at least one of three. This would be laying culpability at the highest order in the Syrian hierarchy for the use of banned substances to make war. However,the Syrian president,as the Russian and Iranian cabinet ministers,have been pinpointing the inability of the US to provide real,substantial evidence and accusing it of running a charged rhetoric without a real basis. In this connection,an important factor are the intercepted signals that showed some sort of confusion in the Syrian establishment. Minutes after the attack on August 21,higher Syrian officials were reportedly thrown into confusion and demanded explanations as to what had actually occurred on the ground. For the US,as can be discerned from the statements government officials,it would be of little use if it came to be established that rogue elements within the army had purported these attacks without the knowledge he high commission and the president. US reasoning for proposing a military intervention has been,from the first,based on the conviction that Assad himself had given the go-ahead for the now-controversial attack.

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It is at this point,on 9 September,that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced to the world that Russia had advised the Syrian high command to hand over its chemical weapons stockpile to the supervision of the UN,and Assad has agreed to do so. Dynamics that led to this turn are not particularly known; however,the motivation to do so was in large part backed by the US assertion that the military project would be dropped if Assad surrendered his chemical weapons. Many commentators have criticised this approach in the sense that not only does it deflect away from the original point of bringing Assad to justice for committing a crime against humanity,but it does not in any way address the real issue of what happens to the conflict itself. The talk of chemical weapons and the ‘red line’ has drawn away international attention from the fact that even if chemical weapons were to be given up by the state,the fighting would still go on. As some rebels and hapless civilians have put it,“What matters to us if we die by gunfire or poisoning?”

Finally,if the torrents of western speculation are confirmed,and it is proved beyond reasonable doubt that Assad had knowledge of deployment,and was intending to go through with it,it would still be a long-drawn legal and military affair to secure any meaningful resolution,given the state of war the country is in.

Related: At UN Security Council meet,US-Russia diplomacy reaches fever pitch over Syria

Legally,Syria is a signatory to the Geneva Gas Protocol 1925,which it signed in 1968,which prohibits in war the use of asphyxiating,poisoning and other gases,as well as bacteriological methods of waging warfare. This treaty prohibits use but is mute on of the production or stockpiling of these substances. The more comprehensive Chemical Weapons Convention,banning development,production,acquisition,stockpiling and use,does not have Syria as one of its signatories. The use of chemical agents is a violation of International Humanitarian Law enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and International Committee of the Red Cross’ International Customary Law. The destruction of assembled chemical arsenal has been a major agenda for the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs,and several members have accused Syria of not disclosing the amount of chemical weapons it has at its disposal (it is considered by some to be the third most powerful chemically equipped country in the world having a huge stockpile of chemical agents to wage war with).

Should Assad give up his chemical weapons (or at least a fair potion of it),there are no existing protocols or guidelines that may be invoked to carry through the proposed action of dismantling these weapons. Russia’s proposal,that Assad handover his stockpile of chemical weapons in order that a US military offence on Syria is avoided,is framed in such a way that it may be easier to move these weapons under the auspices of the international community in Syrian territory,but to start off at all the process of their dismantling would require a plethora of legal and logistical measures,which,considering ground conditions in Syria,will prove extremely difficult.

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The West might also weigh the chances of Assad surrendering all his weapons,especially since Russia is expected to broker the deal. Latest reports quoted Selim Idris,the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that Assad had started moving his chemical weapons as soon as the UN Security Council had resolved to start its inspection by November. So far,all efforts by the United Nations to persuade Syria to surrender its weapons have come to little fruition.

Inspection of Syria chemical stockpile might start in November: John Kerry

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In this general confusion,the report of UN chemical inspectors’ team,which left Syria on August 31 and has been utterly mute on the issue,is anxiously awaited. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that the report is expected on September 16. The international community is waiting for its verdict,though skillful diplomacy has nevertheless left for it very little to reveal. Most of the world wishes for peaceful negotiations to give way to a political solution in Syria. But the variety and conflict of interests,reputations and maintaining spheres of influence may yet drag this affair to newer,more harrowing depths.

First published on: 14-09-2013 at 10:07:34 pm
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