Chapter 4: Reprisals Averted

Evidence that sarin had been used in Syria presented the United States with a dilemma over how to respond. A year before the Ghouta attack President Obama had warned that chemical weapons were a red line as far as the US was concerned. At the time he didn’t elaborate on what would happen if the line was crossed, and when the Ghouta attack came it put him on the spot. While supporting opposition to Assad inside Syria, Obama had been reluctant to commit American forces directly, and this was broadly in line with public opinion which showed little appetite for war.

In considering what to do about Ghouta, Obama insisted that any action should focus on chemical weapons rather than the wider conflict. “The world has an obligation to make sure that we maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons,” he said, adding:

“In no event are we considering any kind of military action that would involve boots on the ground; that would involve a long-term campaign. But we are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act that would help make sure that not only Syria, but others around the world, understand that the international community cares about maintaining this chemical weapons ban and norm.”

The aim, Obama said, was to hold the regime to account but he made no mention of overthrowing it. The world, he added had become weary of wars, and “there’s a certain suspicion of any military action post-Iraq”. Despite having set a limited military objective, Obama found himself not only struggling to gain approval from Congress but also lacking support from key international allies. In Britain parliament rejected the Cameron government’s plans to take part in the proposed military action and a few days later France said it would await the UN investigators’ report before making a decision. Furthermore, Russian opposition to punitive airstrikes meant there was no prospect of the UN Security Council authorising them; Russia had already used its veto three times in connection with the Syrian conflict and looked set to do so again if it came to a vote.

In the end, though, Obama’s dilemma was resolved with Russian help. This might seem surprising but while Russian and American interests diverged over Syria they converged to some extent over chemical weapons despite Russia’s attempts to deny that Assad was using them. Both countries were anxious to prevent chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorist groups, and in that connection both were concerned about the security of Syria’s stockpile in the midst of turmoil.

As it happened, Russia was due to host a G20 summit in St Petersburg on 5-6 September, a couple of weeks after the Ghouta attack, and Obama had a private meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the summit. What transpired between them is unknown but just as the summit was getting under way American media reported an idea floated by two senators – of holding off military action for 45 days to give Syria an opportunity to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Three days after the summit ended, the idea of Syria joining the Convention surfaced again. US Secretary of State John Kerry was asked by a reporter whether there was anything Assad could do to avert a military strike, and he replied: “Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week – turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting [of it], but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.” Kerry insisted it was just an off-the-cuff remark but the speed of the Russian and Syrian reactions suggests it had not come as a total surprise to either of them. Both countries instantly welcomed it, treating it as a formal proposal.

This proved especially timely for Obama as he had not only got into a difficult position over the chemical weapons crisis but was due to give a televised address about it next day. Fortunately for him, as a result of this development he was able to announce that because of “some encouraging signs” he had asked Congress “to postpone a vote to authorise the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path”. In his TV address, Obama explained that the Russian government had “indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons” and that the Assad regime had “even said they would join the Chemical Weapons Convention”. He added that this had happened in part because of “constructive talks that I had with President Putin”.

In a Russian TV interview shortly afterwards, foreign minister Lavrov said “the idea of putting Syrian chemical weapons under international control” had started more than a year earlier when Obama and Putin had a private two-hour discussion on Syria during a G20 summit in Mexico. Although news reports at the time suggested the talks in Mexico achieved little, according to Lavrov Syria’s chemical weapons were one area of agreement. Both sides, he said, had expressed serious concern that they might fall into the hands of “the wrong people” and had agreed to “regular exchange of opinions and information” on that issue. “We worked directly with the Syrians in order to understand how safe [the arsenals] were,” he said. “The US side – and we can openly speak about that now – also contacted the Syrian government more than once for updating information.”

Less than a month after the Ghouta attack Syria officially joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and the threat of US military reprisals was lifted. This extricated Obama from his dilemma but it raised new questions about the narrative promoted by defenders of the Assad regime. According to their narrative, Ghouta had provided the west with a pretext for the war it supposedly desired, but when presented with this opportunity the west proved remarkably reluctant to plunge in. Furthermore, if rebels had really faked a chemical attack the lesson to be drawn from Ghouta was surely that their effort had failed. That should have been enough to deter them from further attempts but according to the narrative it was not.

Dozens more chemical attacks were reported in Syria over the next few years. Two of them did provoke military reprisals from the west – though not to the extent that the rebels were allegedly hoping for. In 2017 US forces bombed Syria’s Shayrat airbase which was said to have been used to launch a sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun and in 2018 American, British and French airstrikes were said to have targeted facilities associated with chemical weapons in response to the reported chlorine attack on Douma. The Russians, who had a presence in Shayrat, were notified in advance and although the Trump administration launched 59 cruise missiles against the base it was reportedly operational again within a day or two.

Dismantling Syria’s weapons

The immediate result of Syria’s decision to join the Convention was that it had to declare all its chemical weapons, together with related facilities, and then begin dismantling them. The start looked reasonably promising. Syria wasted no time in submitting its declaration and, in a speech to the OPCW’s executive committee, assistant foreign minister Husamuddin Alla boasted that it had done so four days ahead of the legal deadline. This, he said, was a sign of Syria’s “full commitment” to complying with its obligations under the Convention.

Full details of Syria’s declaration were not made public but documents on the OPCW’s website showed the regime had disclosed 41 chemical facilities at 23 sites:

● Eighteen chemical weapons production facilities, including some for filling weapons

● Twelve chemical weapons storage facilities, consisting of seven reinforced aircraft hangars and five underground structures

● Eight mobile units for filling weapons

● Three other facilities related to chemical weapons

As far as actual weapons were concerned, the regime declared:

● 1,000 tonnes of Schedule 1 chemicals [1]

● Approximately 290 tonnes of Schedule 2 chemicals

● Approximately 1,230 unfilled chemical munitions

● Two cylinders, later found to contain sarin, which the Syrian authorities said did not belong to them

All forbidden chemicals declared by the regime were removed from Syria in 2014 and destroyed. The OPCW also verified the dismantling of all declared chemical weapon production facilities. This led to claims on Twitter that Syria no longer had any chemical weapons but the OPCW’s statements referred only to those that had been declared – and Syria’s initial declaration, as the regime later acknowledged, was incomplete. Syria had originally admitted to having four different chemical warfare agents but, following “consultations” with the OPCW’s Declaration Assessment Team (DAT), it added a fifth to the list. Later, tests on samples obtained by inspectors in Syria “indicated potentially declarable activities involving five additional chemical agents”. More “consultations” ensued and the list grew to six.

While it might be expected that the number of unresolved issues would have been whittled down over time, in Syria’s case the opposite happened. According to the OPCW, the number “steadily increased” – along with the assessors’ scepticism. In a blistering report in 2016, the OPCW’s director-general, Ahmet Üzümcü, complained that many of Syria’s answers to the assessment team's questions were “not scientifically or technically plausible”. In many instances, he said, new information proffered by Syria “presents a considerable change in narrative from information provided previously – or raises new questions. In some cases, this new information contradicts earlier narratives.”

While some of Syria’s omissions may have been unintentional, as time went on suspicions of deliberate concealment grew. More than eight years after Syria joined the Convention the OPCW had still not accepted the revised declaration as complete. There remained – to quote the official phrase – “gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies”.

One area of difficulty was accounting for discrepancies between quantities of chemicals listed in the declaration and the quantities originally produced (according to the regime’s own records). At one point the regime claimed it had used 15 tonnes of nerve agent and 70 tonnes of sulfur mustard for research purposes – figures that the inspectors found hard to believe since research would need only tiny amounts. On the munitions front too there were problems accounting for 2,000 or more chemical bombs which Syria said it had either destroyed or used after adapting them for non-chemical purposes. Again, the inspectors doubted the truth of this because converting them into conventional weapons would scarcely have been justified by the effort and expense.

Members of the Declaration Assessment Team working on the ground in Syria faced various operational difficulties which cumulatively gave the impression of deliberately hampering investigations. According to a Reuters report, these included “withholding visas, submitting large volumes of documents multiple times to bog down the process” and last-minute restrictions on site inspections. Inspectors also complained of difficulty gaining access to the most relevant Syrian officials – those with “strategic knowledge and oversight” of the chemical weapons programme.

During one field visit inspectors noticed that remains of destroyed chemical munitions and production equipment which Syria had agreed to retain for further investigation had disappeared. A military official later told the inspectors he had sent them to a local smelting company where they were melted down. On another occasion, reported by the OPCW in 2019, inspectors visiting a previously-declared chemical weapons production facility noticed some gas cylinders by a side road behind the facility. Syria said it had previously declared them but by that stage all declared material was supposed to have been destroyed – which raised questions about why the cylinders were still there.

Towards the end of 2018 inspectors visited the Barzah and Jamrayah branches of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (which carried out chemical weapons research, among other things) and found “ongoing construction activities” at both sites. The OPCW “advised” Syria that in future it should be notified about the nature and scope of any such activity before construction began. While visiting Barzah the inspectors also took samples. One of them revealed a Schedule 2 chemical which laboratory reports said “could be the primary hydrolysis product” of a Schedule 1 chemical. The Syrian authorities agreed to look into the matter but two years later the OPCW reported that it was still waiting to receive “sufficient technical information or explanations” from them.

Another unresolved issue concerned a facility which the Syrian authorities denied ever using for chemical weapons production, though the OPCW said a review of all the evidence, including samples, indicated that “production and/or weaponisation of chemical warfare nerve agents” took place there. The facility was not named in the OPCW’s report but two sites in Syria had previously been identified as the subject of such disputes. Both were described in an article for Foreign Policy magazine by Colum Lynch, a journalist who gained access to a confidential report produced by the Declaration Assessment Team.

One of these sites was an underground facility on the outskirts of Damascus known as Hafir 1. “Samples collected at the site revealed the unmistakable presence of sarin in the equipment used to mix the banned warfare agent and pour it into Soviet-era Scud or Tochka tactical ballistic missiles,” Lynch wrote. “They also betrayed traces of precursors for another, even deadlier nerve agent, VX, that Syria did not initially acknowledge using at the site. More signatures of sarin were detected in two mobile filling units parked above ground at the complex.” When presented with this evidence, Lynch wrote, Syrian officials “offered a series of evolving, and often contradictory, explanations” which further aroused the inspectors’ suspicions.

The other disputed site was an underground facility called al-Sayed, about 25 miles west of Homs. Although it had been intended for mixing sarin and filling munitions, the Syrians claimed the project had never been completed. However, soil samples collected by the inspectors revealed traces of sarin’s main ingredients. In the months following this discovery Syrian officials came up with a variety of explanations – none of which the OPCW inspectors found scientifically plausible. One was that equipment installed at al-Sayed had been cannibalised from other facilities where it had supposedly become contaminated. Another was that the authorities had been forced to move chemical weapons equipment around the country to prevent it falling into the hands of opposition fighters and the trucks transporting it might have brought contamination on their tyres.

When these suggestions failed to impress the inspectors the Syrians suddenly recalled a top-secret experiment a decade earlier which had sought to combine sarin and VX in a single warhead. The experiment had failed, causing a large spillage which could be the source of the chemicals found in the inspectors’ samples, Syrian officials said. Regrettably, though, they could not provide any original documentation relating to the alleged experiment.

The difficulties reconciling Syria’s declaration with reality had been foreseen by Ahmet Üzümcü, the OPCW’s director-general at the time of the Ghouta attack. “I was at the time not comfortable with a decision inviting a government to become a member [of the Convention] with equal rights while it was accused of using sarin, a deadly nerve agent, less than a month before, against its own people,” he said later. “I believe a progressive approach should have been adopted under which Syria should have been asked to wait until it had gotten rid of all its [chemical weapons] stockpiles and production capacity in a verifiable manner, and then a reasonable and quiet period allowed to elapse without any reported use.” He added that although there was no provision in the Chemical Weapons Convention for such an arrangement, the UN Security Council could have insisted on it if members been so inclined.

Chemical attacks resume

After Ghouta, dozens more chemical attacks were reported in Syria but most of them made far less impact internationally. If the rebels were faking them it was hard to see why they persisted for so long to so little political effect. The vast majority of cases involved chlorine rather than sarin, with the result that casualty figures were mostly low, causing injuries rather than deaths, and with the exception of Douma in 2018 they aroused barely a flutter of interest from governments, the public or the media.

The choice of chlorine as a weapon became more explicable when viewed from the regime’s standpoint. The first reported chlorine attacks – in April 2014 – came just a few months after Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the timing may have been significant. While sarin was specifically designated as a chemical weapon and had to be declared to the inspectors and destroyed, the position with chlorine was more blurred. Chlorine had so many legitimate uses that possessing it was not, in itself, forbidden. It did, however, become a banned weapon if produced or used with the intention of causing “death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals” through its chemical action.

Chlorine reacted with moisture in the human body to produce acids, mostly in the throat and lungs, sometimes causing victims to foam at the mouth. High levels of exposure could result in permanent damage or death but since chlorine gave off a distinctive warning smell and had a greenish-yellow colour people in Syria often managed to flee – which in many cases was probably the intended objective. From a military point of view, chlorine gas offered a relatively quick and easy way to clear an area of fighters and/or civilians.

Another feature of chlorine, which became relevant later in connection with OPCW investigations, was that its use as a chemical weapon was very difficult to confirm after the event through laboratory testing. Sarin left tell-tale chemical traces but chlorine was a very common element present in many compounds. The problem this presented was how to distinguish between chlorinated compounds resulting from a chemical attack and chlorine that was already present in the environment. Other evidence, such as witness statements, the symptoms of victims and the remains of munitions, could point to chlorine use but laboratory tests couldn’t confirm it with the same degree of certainty as sarin use – and this left plenty of scope for the deniers of chlorine attacks.

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[1] Schedule 1 means “high risk” chemicals, including nerve agents, which are considered especially hazardous and which have little or no use outside chemical warfare. Schedule 2 includes “significant risk” chemicals such as phosgene which also have some legitimate civilian uses.