Photo: Freedom House

Did the Assad Regime Use Chemical Weapons?

On January 15, 2013, Foreign Policy Magazine’s The Cable blog published a report that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons against civilians. According to the report, a U.S. official, who reviewed a secret U.S. State Department cable signed by the U.S. consul general in Istanbul, Scott Frederic Kilner, relayed the results of the consulate’s investigation into reports that the Assad regime used chemical weapons in the city of Homs on December 23, 2012.

In an exclusive ABC news interview, U.S. Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta responded to the report by stating:“we have not seen intelligence that they have deliberately used this against their own people.”

A confirmation by the U.S. that the Assad regime is using chemical weapons would raise questions as to whether the U.S. will change its course of action towards Syria from humanitarian assistance to military intervention. In an August 20, 2012 statement, President Barack Obama warned “we have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

The conflict in Syria

The Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya set the stage for the eruption of anti-government street protests in Syria early in March 2011.The Assad regime has responded by using tanks, gunfire, and mass arrests to crush protests. As the regime escalated its suppression, protests spread across the country and eventually developed into a military response by the rebel forces. The rebel forces have responded by using antiaircraft guns, mortars, machine guns, and rocket launchers. A report published by The Washington Institute For Near East Policy finds that most of these weapons were captured from the regime’s stocks.

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The Assad regime’s military repression of civilians has created a humanitarian crisis in Syria. The United Nations estimates that 60, 000 Syrians have been killed and 3 million have been displaced. The regime continues to escalate attacks, using artillery, combat aircraft, and now reportedly, chemical weapons.

The secret U.S. State Department cable

A report by the French daily, Le Monde claims that the Assad regime used non-lethal chemical weapons against rebels in Homs on December 23. Citing unnamed Western intelligence services, the newspaper claims that the Assad regime used chemical weapons in four rockets fired on Homs. According to a French diplomat contacted by Reuters, the French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot has responded with the official line, that is, investigations into the matter yielded no evidence.

Two doctors, who were on the scene at Homs on December 23 and treated victims, were quoted by the Foreign Policy Magazine’s The Cable as confirming that the attack involved chemical weapons and not tear gas. The doctors attributed five deaths and 100 instances of severe respiratory, nervous system, and gastrointestinal ailments to the poison gas. Syrian acitivists have also circulated videos of victims of the Homs attack on YouTube and Facebook as evidence of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.

According to the Organization on Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “in the form of gas or liquid, mustard agent [a chemical weapon] attacks the skin, eyes, lungs and gastrointestinal tract.”Mild injuries consist of aching eyes, inflammation of the skin, coughing, and sneezing and severe injuries involve loss of sight, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea with severe respiratory difficulty. While these symptoms match those described by the Foreign Policy report, the U.S. is not the only party that is not confirming or corroborating that the Assad regime used chemical weapons.

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Lack of credible evidence

On January 16 2013, the human rights advocacy group, the Human Rights Watch expressed skepticism towards the U.S. State Department cable reported on by Foreign Policy. The group has been at the forefront of documenting human rights violations committed in the conflict, including the use of cluster munitions. [Cluster munitions scatter thousands of submunitions over an area: they are not chemical weapons, but can include chemical weapons]. However, In an email to the Truthout organization, Lama Fakih, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, stated that “based on the information available to us, we have not been able to confirm that the government did in fact use chemical weapons.”

The Convention on Chemical Weapons

Syria is not a party to the Convention of Chemical Weapons [adopted in 1993], which prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons [on one’s own citizens or another country] by signatory nations. According to the Foreign Policy report, the symptoms of the victims of the December 23 attack in the city of Homs match those of Agent 15, banned under the Convention. Only one other Middle Eastern country, Iraq, has used chemical weapons against its own population. During the Iran-Iraq war [1980-1989], the Saddam Hussein regime responded to the ethnic Kurds’ alliance with Iran with a gas attack in the Kurdish areas of the country.

While Syria is not obligated to abide by the Convention’s restrictions, the country is a party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which bans the use of chemical method for warfare. To this end, Syria is obligated by the international law to not use chemical weapons against any country.

Shifting red lines for the U.S.

The White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor responded to the Foreign Policy report by stating the following: “The reporting we have seen from media sources regarding alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria has not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program.” However, the U.S. administration official, who reviewed the secret cable, told Foreign Policy Magazine that the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons “reflects the concerns of many in the U.S. government that the regime is pursuing a policy of escalation to see what they can get away with as the regime is getting more desperate.”

While in the August 20 statement, President Obama warned that “a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around” would trigger U.S. action, on December 3, 2012, Obama directed the following warning to the Assad regime: “if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”

For analysts, this signals a shift in U.S. red lines. According to Jeremy White, an analyst at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, “the international community’s track record so far may have given Assad a bad lesson regarding the potential consequences of CW [chemical weapon use]. The regime’s massive escalation of violence throughout the war — including use of field artillery against civilians, aerial bombing of population centers, and routine use of cluster munitions — has gone largely unpunished, and Damascus has likely concluded that raising the stakes even higher would carry few real repercussions. It may therefore believe it can get away with limited CW use.”

Securing chemical weapon sites

The U.S. is arranging to send suits and equipment to Turkish and Jordanian military forces to protect them against exposure to chemical weapons and encourage them to take responsibility to secure Syrian chemical weapon sites if they become vulnerable to theft and misuse. Syria has developed a number of chemical weapons for a potential conflict with Israel: these include mustard gas, sarin, and liquids that interfere with the nervous system and lead to immediate death by paralysis after exposure.

At a press briefing on January 10 2013, the U.S. Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta stated the main concern of the Obama administration is “how do we secure the CBW [chemical and biological weapons] sites?…And that is a discussion that we are having, not only with the Israelis, but with other countries in the region, to try to look at…what steps need to be taken in order to make sure that these sites are secured.”He also noted that U.S. is not “working on a plan that involves [U.S.] boots on the ground.”

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