The Cable

Is Assad Now Using Chlorine to Gas His Own People?

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog will send a fact-finding mission to Syria to examine claims by the United States and other Western powers that the Syrian government may have used deadly chlorine gas against its own people. Tuesday’s announcement by the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) followed a week of intensive ...

Jim Lopez/ AFP/ Getty Images
Jim Lopez/ AFP/ Getty Images

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog will send a fact-finding mission to Syria to examine claims by the United States and other Western powers that the Syrian government may have used deadly chlorine gas against its own people.

Tuesday’s announcement by the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) followed a week of intensive diplomatic efforts by Washington to rally international support for such a mission, which is likely to renew international scrutiny of Syria’s chemical weapons at a time when Damascus was receiving credit for destroying its stockpiles of the lethal toxins.

Over the past several days, the United Nations has repeatedly declared that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had eliminated most of his country’s chemical weapons program, largely abiding by the terms of an agreement struck earlier this year to avert a U.S. attack. Chlorine wasn’t covered by that deal, which means Assad can technically use a weapon fashioned from an old-fashioned industrial cleaner without being in violation of the agreement. And according to Syrian opposition groups, that’s exactly what he’s doing.

A Syrian human rights group, the Violations Documentation Center, issued a report this month alleging that the Syrian government has used chemical gases, including chlorine, at least 14 times since the beginning of the year, killing 22 people and injuring nearly 250. It cited one case in which Syrian helicopters allegedly dropped explosives containing chlorine gas on the village of Kfar Zeita on April 11 and 12.

The Obama administration finds some of those claims credible. White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters last week that the U.S. was conducting its own investigation into allegations that the Syrian government used "a toxic industrial chemical, probably chlorine" in April in Kfar Zeita. In response, the White House has mounted an intensive, behind-the-scenes diplomatic campaign in The Hague designed to convince other Western powers to prod the OPCW to investigate whether Damascus has been using weaponized chlorine against rebels. Exposure to chlorine gas in large quantities can have a deadly effect, targeting the throat and lungs and suffocating its victims.

The American diplomatic effort appears to be bearing fruit. Ahmet Uzumcu, the Turkish director general of the OPCW, informed the agency’s executive council that he will send a fact-finding mission to Syria to examine claims that the chemical agent chlorine may have been used as a weapon of war in Syria’s conflict. The effort has the backing of the OPCW council, which includes the United States and Russia, and of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has pledged logistical support for the mission, according to a statement issued by the OPCW.

"The Syrian government, which has agreed to accept this mission, has undertaken to provide security in areas under its control," according to a statement from the agency. "The team is expected to depart for Syria soon."

Chlorine is a common industrial chemical that is best known for its use in laundry detergents and swimming pool cleaners, a standard industrial agent that is not banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention. But chlorine has an unsavory history, first used as a chemical warfare agent by Germany against Franco-Algerian troops in World War I. Despite that history, chlorine is no longer considered a chemical warfare agent.

The preparations come amid growing concerns in Western capitals that the Syrian government may be seeking to preserve at least a limited capacity to reconstitute a chemical weapons program when international scrutiny of its declared stockpiles subsides. The United States, Britain, and France have already begun to quietly raise concerns with the chemical weapons watchdog that Syria has not declared its entire chemical weapons program.

Syria’s U.N. envoy, Bashar Jaafari, has "categorically" denied the allegations, claiming that Western powers have trumped up charges of alleged chemical weapons use to detract attention from Syria’s preparations for presidential elections.

The new mission — if it is approved by Syria — would conduct a preliminary assessment of allegations of chlorine use. A more formal investigation, however, would likely require approval by the OPCW’s executive board, which includes representatives from 41 countries, including Syria’s ally Russia, or the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow holds veto power, according to Western diplomats.

The U.S. and Russia brokered a deal last fall that bound Syria to destroy its previously clandestine chemical weapons program and join the Chemical Weapons Convention in exchange for calling off U.S. airstrikes against Damascus.

The deal — which was later accepted by Syria and blessed by the U.N. Security Council — required Syria to destroy or remove all of its chemical weapons from the country by April 27, a deadline which passed this weekend with a small portion of Syria’s declared chemical weapons program still in Syria. The final destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons programs — some of which will be carried out at sea on a U.S. naval vessel, the M.V. Cape Ray, and at other foreign chemical disposal facilities — is due to be completed by June 30.

Sigrid Kaag, a Dutch diplomat who heads the U.N.-OPCW joint mission overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, declared over the weekend that Syria had eliminated more than 90 percent of its declared chemical weapons.

Jaafari, the Syrian envoy, told reporters last week he expected Kaag’s mission to conclude its work and leave Syria as soon as Syria completes the elimination of its declared chemical weapons program. "It will be the end of everything," he said.

But U.S., British, and French officials have voiced concern with the OPCW that Syria has not declared its entire chemical weapons program, including rockets used in a chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Ghouta last summer, and that it possesses stores of chemical precursors that can be used to make new chemical weapons, according to U.N.-based diplomats. In an interview with Reuters, Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, said, "Our view is that there is a continuing role for the joint mission well beyond the removal of the chemicals."

In an April 25 letter to the U.N. Security Council, Ban said Syria has "made important progress towards the elimination of its entire declared stockpile of chemical weapons material." As of last week, Syria either destroyed or exported more than 92.5 percent of its chemical weapons program, including 96.7 percent of the most dangerous chemicals and 82.6 percent of other chemical precursors, according to Ban.

Ban said that most of the remaining 7.5 percent of Syria’s declared stockpile of chemical weapons materials — including small amounts of isopropanol, a common industrial chemical that also serves as a key precursor for the nerve agent sarin — are housed in a single facility "where the [Syrian] government had determined it would not be possible to undertake removal operations due to the prevailing security situation." But, he added, the "Syrian authorities have recommitted to the removal and destruction of this remaining stockpile as soon as the security situation permits." Ban also said that the team is preparing for the destruction of 12 chemical weapons production sites that Syria had hoped it could keep.

Ban has previously praised Syria for cooperating with international efforts to destroy its chemical weapons, he voiced concern "about recent reports of allegations regarding the use of toxic chemicals during the course of the conflict," an apparent reference to reports of chlorine use, and urged that "all necessary steps should be taken to establish the facts surrounding these allegations."

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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