Allegations of CW use in Syria revisited

Since acceding the the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) last month, Syria has submitted detailed declarations about its chemical weapon (CW) holdings and activities. While confidential, details of the composition of the CW arsenal have emerged from documents published by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). In particular, the publication of a request for expression of interest (EOI) by the commercial industry to dispose of certain toxic materials or their effluents has shed some light on Syria’s declarations.

Looking at the listing of chemicals in the EOI, two substances intrigue me with regard to allegations of CW use in Syria earlier in the year:

  • Hydrogen chloride (HCl): Syria declared 45 metric tonnes. The first serious allegation of CW use near Aleppo on 19 March included several witness statements of a chlorine smell. Syria called for an investigation under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General. I was one of the people calling for more details to ascertain that the incident actually involved CW use as the narratives conflicted with the visual evidence. Moreover, later statements referred to sarin. More relevant is that there is a chlorine plant at nearby Khan al-Assal, whose control switched several times from government to rebel hands and vice-versa. Although the declaration does not confirm nor shed light on who was responsible for the 19 March incident, it makes the initial witness reports more plausible.
  • Hexamine: Syria declared 80 metric tonnes. This compound is a precursor to an explosive known as RDX rather than to a chemical warfare agent. In July Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin handed over evidence concerning the Aleppo attack to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, adding that the RDX found in the warhead of the unguided missile Bashair-3 reportedly used in the assault was not consistent with what the armed forces use. After the Ghouta attacks in August, Russia again advanced the presence of RDX as evidence to blame insurgent rather than government forces for the use of toxic chemicals. Richard Guthrie of CBW Events commented in the same press report that it was not inconceivable that the Syrian military could have used RDX ‘if the government side was developing a semi-improvised short-range rocket” and “if there happened to be a stock available. While I would agree that it would be unlikely for a traditional, well-planned short-range rocket development program to use RDX in that role, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that, as the Syrian government did not seem to have an earlier short-range rocket program, it may have been developing rockets with some haste and so using materials that are at hand.’ [The information on hexamine has been updated.]

Only two more intriguing questions to be clarified…

Let’s see whether the final report of the UN investigative team in a few weeks time will (be able to) provide answers.

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About JP Zanders

Jean Pascal Zanders (Belgium) has worked on questions of chemical and biological weapon (CBW) armament and disarmament since 1986. He was CBW Project Leader at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project and Senior Research Fellow responsible for disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation questions at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He now owns and runs The Trench.

2 thoughts on “Allegations of CW use in Syria revisited

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