Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Why chemical weapons provoke outrage

Why chemical weapons provoke outrage
Frank Gardner

By Frank Gardner BBC security correspondent, 11 Sept 2013

It has been nearly three weeks since the world woke up in horror to what appears to have been a mass chemical attack on residential areas in the suburbs of Damascus on 21 August.

Yet some are asking why, in a conflict that has already killed at least an estimated 100,000 people, many in the most barbaric way, should the use of chemical weapons be any more abhorrent?

After all, long before that dreadful early Wednesday morning in August, Syria's ever-growing list of atrocities already included reports of the indiscriminate shelling of residential areas, suicide bombings, beheadings, fatal torture, even napalm dropped on a school playground. So why the crescendo over chemical weapons?

Legacy of WWI

"Chemical weapons are unacceptable," says Thomas Nash, an arms monitor with Article 36, a UK-based body "working to prevent unacceptable harm caused by certain weapons".

"But it's equally unacceptable, I would say, to be shelling areas with explosive weapons where people are living.

"I think we should remember that all of these rules and regulations about which weapons are allowed are a means to an end. They are a means to alleviating and preventing humanitarian suffering that we've been seeing. And it applies to cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, explosive weapons in populated areas, as well as chemical weapons," Mr Nash adds.

But chemical weapons hold a special horror, partly because poison gas is often invisible, partly because of the indiscriminate way it can seek out every hiding place, and partly because of the agonising death it can cause.

The horrors of gas attacks in the trenches of World War I were supposed to teach the world: "Never again".

Yet Britain used chemical weapons soon afterwards against rebel tribesmen in Iraq and Afghanistan, before they were outlawed by the Geneva Protocol of 1925.

Winston Churchill was said to be an advocate and it was feared Hitler would use them against Britain. In the end, this country was spared but others were not.

Japan used poison gas against the Chinese in the 1930s, Mussolini used it in Ethiopia during World War II, and the Egyptian air force used it in Yemen in the 1960s.

Miracle escape

But nothing compared with what happened at Halabja. In March 1988, Iraq's President Saddam Hussein ordered a Kurdish town in northern Iraq to be drenched with mustard gas and nerve gas, killing over 5,000 people almost immediately.

Kamaran Haider was 11 at the time. When the bombardment began, he, his family and others rushed to their shelter.

Mr Haider told me that at first it was conventional bombs that fell. Then they smelt a strange odour of fruit and garlic and they knew at once what had happened.

"When we felt that smell, especially my mum and dad when they smelt it, we knew that's a chemical weapon.

"Then they started shouting and crying. It was very horrible because chemical weapon is very different from other bombs. Other bombs you can hide yourself in a shelter or mountain or somewhere but chemical is mixing with the air, you cannot hide.

"So when my mum knew that it was chemical weapon she ran up to the kitchen which was upstairs and she brought some towels... with a bucket of water. And she said: 'Put it on your face... to prevent from burning', because chemical burns the skin or makes you go blind."

Mr Haider's mother rushed outside with his brother to try to find a boy who had run outside.

They found him lying already dead and seconds after she came back into the shelter she too succumbed to the effects of the poison gas. That day Haider lost his father, mother, only sister, both brothers and a cousin.

"It's a miracle I survived," he said, "because of the 35 people in that shelter only me and my friend Hoshyar survived.

"Because I stayed in the shelter among the bodies for 3 days without water, food, electricity, nothing in the shelter and I was severely poisoned by chemical weapons, I was completely blind, my skin burned, and I felt many times sick and lost consciousness," Mr Haider says.

So it's the prospect of another Halabja - or indeed another attack like the one in those Damascus suburbs - that is spurring so much of the international community to prevent it recurring.

Col Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former chemical weapons inspector, fears that what happened last month around Damascus could set a precedent for worse to come.

"I think the urgency is the future potential. In the attack of 21 August maybe 100, maybe 200 litres of sarin were used," Col de Bretton-Gordon says.

"We believe that he [President Bashar al-Assad] has anywhere between 400 to 1,000 tonnes of sarin remaining, which could kill many tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people if used. So it's the future potential that we must guard against".

Syria's chemical weapons

CIA believes Syria's chemical weapons can be "delivered by aircraft, ballistic missile, and artillery rockets"

Syria believed to possess mustard gas and sarin, and also tried to develop more toxic nerve agents such as VX gas

Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) or ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)

Sources: CSIS, RUSI

Chemical attacks: what we know

Syria chemical attacks: What we know

Since the early hours of 21 August when graphic footage started to flood social media sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians living in the agricultural belt around Damascus, experts have been piecing together the evidence to try to establish what happened.

A report from the New York-based Human Rights Watch is the latest to blame Syrian government forces for carrying out the attacks, which left hundreds of people dead in the Ghouta area on the outskirts of Damascus.

Human Rights Watch says 330mm surface-to-surface rockets were used to attack Zamalka in Eastern Ghouta on 21 August. At least four strike sites have been found.

From remnants of the weapons, HRW has reconstructed the characteristics of the rocket, which, it says, was capable of carrying up to 60 litres of chemical nerve agent.

The payload of the rocket consisted of a large, thin-walled container. A small explosive charge at the front detonated on impact and ruptured the skin of the payload, dispersing the chemicals.

What happened

The first reported use of chemical weapons came at 0245 (local time) in Ein Tarma and again at 0247 in Zamalka.

Shortly after, dozens of videos were uploaded of distressed and visibly sick adults and children in makeshift hospitals but with no external injuries.

In some of the most graphic footage, dozens of bodies, including many small children and babies, were seen laid out in rows on the floor of a clinic.

While opposition activists initially said 300 people were killed in the attack, the casualty figure they gave quickly rose to over 1,000 people.

Casualties were reported in the areas of Irbin, Duma and, to the west, Muadhamiya, among others.

While opposition activists initially said 300 people were killed in the attack, the casualty figure they gave quickly rose to over 1,000 people.

Casualties were reported in the areas of Irbin, Duma and, to the west, Muadhamiya, among others.


Opposition activists accused the Syrian government of carrying out the attack as part of a wider scale operation to edge the rebels further outside the capital. They said army rockets had dropped toxic agents onto civilian areas.

The Syrian government, however, has strenuously denied that it has ever used chemical weapons.

Immediately after the attack, the Syrian army denied using poisonous gas, describing the claims as "false and completely baseless".

Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said such an attack would not have been possible because of the presence of the government's own forces in the area allegedly affected.

Syrian officials have suggested that the opposition were behind any such attacks and that they were encouraged in this by Western powers.

Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad insisted it was a tactic by the rebels to turn around the civil war which he said "they were losing".

The government had previously admitted to having stocks of chemical weapons, however, they stated they would never be used "inside Syria".


Initial reports and video footage of the attack emerged from social media sources, making the claims difficult to verify and causing many to reserve judgement on whether chemical weapons were actually used.

Despite this, chemical weapons experts said the large volume of visual evidence would be difficult to fake.

Three days after the attack, medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres confirmed that three hospitals it supports in Damascus had treated about 3,600 patients with "neurotoxic symptoms" on the day of the attack. They said 355 of these had died.

Medical experts said large numbers of patients displayed convulsions, pinpointed pupils, excessive saliva and difficulty in breathing - all tell-tale signs of nerve agent poisoning thought most likely to be sarin. They were treated with atropine and other known antidotes, which the medics said worked in many cases, despite the hospitals running out of treatments.

A team of UN chemical weapons experts already in Damascus to investigate separate allegations of chemical weapons use managed to gain access to the sites near Damascus on 26 August, five days after the attack occurred.

For four days, they spoke to survivors, nurses and doctors and took blood and urine samples from the districts affected.

They have since returned to The Hague and are awaiting the results of their findings, which they will then present in a final report to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

But the UN team is only responsible for investigating whether chemical weapons were used, not who used them.

Western intelligence gathering

Western governments have also been trying to substantiate the claims of chemical weapons use in Syria.

The British government made public a UK Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) assessment into the attack on 29 August, in which it clearly stated a chemical weapon attack had taken place, saying it was "highly likely" the Syrian authorities were responsible.

The assessment said confidently that the Assad government was behind 14 separate chemical attacks in Syria, and that it had "some intelligence to suggest regime culpability" in the Damascus attack.

The intelligence analysis also suggested the rebel forces did not have the capability to deliver chemical weapons. It did, however, admit it did not understand why the government would deploy chemical weapons while the UN team was in the capital.

The Obama administration then weighed in with its own intelligence analysis the next day. US Secretary of State John Kerry has accused Syria of using chemical weapons to kill 1,429 people, including 426 children, citing a US intelligence assessment.

It said Syrian military chemical weapons personnel were operating in the area over a three-day period before the attack and satellite evidence shows rockets launched from government-held areas 90 minutes before the first report of chemical attack.

US intelligence services also intercepted communications between a senior Damascus official who "confirmed chemical weapons were used" and was concerned about UN inspectors obtaining evidence.

Shortly after this intelligence release, Mr Kerry said he had firm evidence sarin was used in the attack, namely from samples of hair and blood from emergency workers who attended the scene.

On 2 September the French government released a declassified summary of its intelligence on the attack, as well as assessments of video footage.

It concluded that there had been a "massive use of chemical agents" against civilian populations, that "the launch zone for the [delivery] rockets was held by the regime while the strike zone was held by the rebels", and that only the Syrian government had the stock of chemical weapons and the means of delivering them.

"We believe the Syrian opposition does not have the capacity to carry out an operation of such magnitude with chemical agents," the report said.

It said, based on video reports, that it had counted at least 281 dead, but that such an attack might easily have killed a higher number.

On 5 September, the UK government said British laboratory tests on clothes and soil samples from the attack site in Damascus had confirmed that sarin had been used.

"The evidence is growing all the time," Prime Minister David Cameron said during the G20 summit in Russia.

"We have just been looking at some samples taken from Damascus in the Porton Down laboratory in Britain which further shows the use of chemical weapons in that Damascus suburb."

On 10 September Human Rights Watch produced a report, based on evidence from eyewitnesses and doctors, as well as video footage and images from the scene. It concluded the attacks were carried out by Syrian forces using two different types of rockets, both capable of carrying chemical agents.

The first type of rocket, found at the site of the Eastern Ghouta attacks, is a 330mm rocket that appears to have a warhead designed to be loaded with and deliver a large payload of liquid chemical agent. The second type, found in the Western Ghouta attack, is a Soviet-produced 140mm rocket which has the ability to be armed with one of three possible warheads including one that can carry and deliver 2.2Kg of sarin.

The report concluded that Syrian government forces "were almost certainly responsible" for the 21 August attacks.

Russia - which, alongside China, supports the Syrian government - has challenged the US to present its evidence, with President Vladimir Putin describing claims the government was behind the attack as "utter nonsense".

Russian officials instead suggest Syrian rebels were behind the attack to try to provoke the international community to respond with military action.

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