As Syrian Civil War Rages On, Chemical Weapons Use Persists

The Syrian government is accused of using chlorine in an attack on the city of Sarmin.

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When the United States and Russia inked a 2013 agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stock, it was hailed as a major achievement in the global effort to end the use of nerve agents, choking gases, and blistering substances. And a year later, when U.S. officials announced that they had completed the destruction of Syria’s declared chemical weapons arsenals, it seemed that the effort would be one of the few success stories to emerge from the brutal Syrian civil war.

But recent days have made clear just how tenuous the dream of eliminating Syria’s stockpile had been all along. Earlier this week, Syrian rights activists reported the Syrian government forces had dropped barrel bombs containing chlorine gas on the city of Sarmin. The Syrian government has — of course — denied responsibility and blamed the attack on rebel groups.

On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the regime’s reported use of chlorine. “While we cannot yet confirm details, if true, this would be only the latest tragic example of the Assad regime’s atrocities against the Syrian people, which the entire international community must condemn,” Kerry said in a statement.

And as chlorine has reappeared on the Syrian battlefield, the weapon has apparently also made its way into Iraq. Over the weekend, Iraqi Kurdish officials alleged that Islamic State forces had used chlorine gas — the origin of which is unclear but was probably pilfered from Syrian government stocks — in an attack on their troops.

The continued use of chlorine speaks to an ongoing trend in fighting in Syria: the embrace of primitive weaponry with awful destructive power. Though the Syrian regime has given up its stocks of chemical weapons such as sarin, chlorine was not included in the September 2013 agreement that ultimately delivered Syrian sarin gas to a U.S. warship for destruction. As a chemical with many commercial properties, chlorine is not explicitly outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention. That convention still prohibits the use of chlorine as a weapon, and its use in barrel bombs is a clear violation of the agreement.

The worst chemical weapons attack of the Syrian civil war — and the one that spurred the agreement between Washington and Moscow — came in August 2013, when hundreds of people died from exposure to sarin fired by Syrian government forces into the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

Taxed by four years of civil war, the Syrian army has relied on barrel bombs as a crude explosive to attack enemy forces and civilians alike. The bombs are usually dropped from helicopters and are both highly destructive and inaccurate.

The attack in Sarmin is not the first time the Syrian army is alleged to have used chlorine in such weapons. According to Human Rights Watch, the regime also used chlorine barrel bombs in April 2014 in attacks that killed at least 11 people and exposed at least 500 to chlorine.

Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council passed a U.S.-sponsored resolution that condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria and emphasized that those responsible for their use must be held accountable.

If confirmed, the Syrian government’s actions this week are a clear indication that Damascus doesn’t see much reason to pay attention to such resolutions.

JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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