OPCW announces final CW shipment out of Syria

Announcement to media on last consignment of chemicals leaving Syria
Monday, 23 June 2014

Statement by Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General OPCW

Just under 9 months ago in October, I addressed you members of the press – in this same place, here in The Hague – to announce the deployment of the first OPCW inspectors to Syria to begin an historic and unprecedented mission. The mission was to destroy the chemical weapons programme of the Syrian Arab Republic.

A major landmark in this mission has been reached today. The last of the remaining chemicals identified for removal from Syria were loaded this afternoon aboard the Danish ship Ark Futura. The ship made its last call at the port of Latakia in what has been a long and patient campaign in support of this international endeavour.

Removing the stockpile of precursor and other chemicals has been a fundamental condition in the programme to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons programme.

The next stage in this mission is the completion of the maritime operations to deliver the chemicals for destruction at the assigned facility on board the U.S. vessel Cape Ray and at commercial facilities in Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

The mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons programme has been a major undertaking marked by an extraordinary international cooperation.

Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict. And this has been accomplished within very demanding and tight timeframes.

The mission has seen over 30 countries and European Union committing significant financial and in-kind assistance. This cooperation covered key logistical and transportation requirements, including a complex maritime operation. The collaboration with Member States relating to destruction activities and the provision of equipment and industrial facilities for this purpose is unprecedented in the history of disarmament. I wish to express our profound gratitude to all these States Parties.

This collective endeavour was born here, in The Hague, of a treaty that has more than demonstrated its resilience and responsiveness. Following the Framework Agreement concluded between the Russian Federation and the United States of America, the OPCW was called upon to devise and implement an elaborate programme. Various milestones and interlocking steps for a sequenced elimination and verification were established.

The Executive Council of the OPCW supported by the Secretariat remained fully engaged in its oversight of the implementation of the programme. Some eighteen meetings of the Executive Council have so far taken place at OPCW Headquarters, with numerous rounds of informal meetings and technical consultations in the background.

There were expected and unexpected challenges along the way. But the OPCW and member states have been able to overcome them – both through careful diplomacy and innovative technical solutions.

Although there were delays in the process, the cooperation of the Syrian Arab Republic has been commensurate with the requirements of the decisions.

And, crucially, we were able to count on the invaluable cooperation of the United Nations to provide logistical and security support for our verification effort in Syria through the OPCW-UN Joint Mission.

I take this opportunity to commend the Special Coordinator of the OPCW-UN Joint Mission, Ms Sigrid Kaag, and all those OPCW and UN staff who have participated in this mission. Their dedication and professionalism, in challenging circumstances, have been a key factor in the attainment of the critical progress that we recognise today.

While a major chapter in our endeavours closes today, OPCW’s work in Syria will continue. We hope to conclude soon the clarification of certain aspects of the Syrian declaration and commence the destruction of certain structures that were used as chemical weapons production facilities. Syria’s cooperation with the work of the OPCW Fact Finding Mission will also remain important. The OPCW will continue to engage with Syria to ensure that it is able to fulfil all its obligations under the CWC and the relevant decisions of the Executive Council and UN Security Council resolution 2118 (2013).

On the alleged customary nature of Article VI of the NPT – A Rejoinder to Joyner and Zanders

By Marco Roscini, 5 June 2014

[Marco Roscini, Reader in International Law at the University of Westminster, wrote this rejoinder on Arms Control Law. It is reproduced here with permission, as it forms part of a broader discussion about useful insights for nuclear disarmament to be derived from  chemical and biological weapon disarmament. – Jean Pascal]

Both Dan and Jean-Pascal offer excellent counterarguments in their replies to my blog post on the customary nature of Article VI, and I thank them for this.

After thinking carefully about their comments, I would like to offer some further thoughts.

1) I think that there is no obstacle in principle for a single provision within a treaty to be taken in isolation to establish whether it has become customary international law. The severability of treaty provisions finds support in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and has been upheld, for instance, in the ICJ Nicaragua Judgment, where the Court examined whether Articles 2(4) and 51 of the Charter reflected customary international law. We could even say that we should sometimes look at whether individual paragraphs within a provision are customary: again, in the Nicaragua case, the ICJ concluded that only the first sentence of Article 51 was a reflection of customary international law but not the second, ie the duty to report the armed reaction in self-defence to the Security Council. True, Article VI is linked to the other pillars of the NPT and is part of that Grand Bargain. But we shouldn’t forget that customary international law has a life of its own, independent from the treaty from which it may have originated: therefore, nothing prevents that only certain provisions of the NPT may have become customary but not others, even though, in the treaty where they were originally contained, they were intended as a package deal.

2) Like Jean-Pascal, I am not sure that the Chemical Weapons Convention is an appropriate analogy with the NPT. Indeed, as Jean-Pascal says, the difference between the NPT and the CWC is that the latter doesn’t distinguish between haves and have-nots. But an even more important difference is that virtually all states parties (and non-parties as well) agree that the use and possession of chemical weapons is unlawful: those states that are suspected of possessing or using them don’t count as contrary practice, as they don’t argue that such situations are lawful, rather they normally deny possession or use (Syria docet) or argue that the chemicals used don’t fall within the definition of the prohibited weapons, therefore confirming the prohibitory rule.

3) Dan is of course correct to say that Article VI formally addresses all NPT states parties. I still think, however, that this provision ‘specially’ affects only those states that possess nuclear weapons, as their position is necessarily different from that of non-nuclear weapon states. The fact that Article VI was what the NNWS asked to the NWS in return for their giving up the right to possess nuclear weapons (as Dan rightly states) demonstrates that this provision was specifically aimed at the NWS. In my view, it’s also impossible for the NNWS to engage in the relevant conduct, ie to give up weapons they don’t possess: they could engage if they acquired nuclear weapons, but that would confirm my argument, ie that the provision only specially affects states once they possess nuclear weapons.

4) I agree with Jean-Pascal that the customary nature of a provision or of a whole treaty doesn’t necessarily depend on how many states have ratified that treaty. Rather, it depends on the attitude of the states not parties in relation to that treaty. I also agree with Sergei Batsanov when he says in his comment to my initial post that we also have to take into account the practice of the several NNWS that accept nuclear weapons on their territory and of those that benefit of the nuclear deterrence umbrella. This practice by NNWS seems to imply an opinio that is difficult to reconcile with the customary nature of Article VI, ie it’s based on the acceptance that certain states may possess nuclear weapons.

To conclude. While I would in principle agree that Article VI, as a treaty provision, may have been breached by the NWS (although doubts about the normativity of this provision remain), I am still not sure that, at this stage, it reflects customary international law. The empirical study wisely advocated by Dan would have to provide evidence of consistent practice and opinio juris in that sense by a sufficiently representative majority of states, including the majority of the specially affected states (as per the North Sea Continental Shelf Judgment).

NPT Article VI and BTWC Article IX

[This contribution appeared orginally in Arms Control Law, and was in reply to a discussion on the blog. Links to the original arguments are included. - Jean Pascal]

This discussion between Marco [Roscini] and Dan [Joyner] on Article VI of the NPT and customary law is instructive.

In this particular case, Marco’s application of the notion to a single article rather than the totality of the treaty puzzles me. I would tend to agree with Dan’s counterpoint. However, Dan then refers to the CWC in its entirety to draw an analogy. In my mind a bit problematic for two reasons:

1. The CWC is a disarmament, rather than a non-proliferation treaty. It means that the weapon category in its entirety is banned and no exeception exists for any state, whether big or small; whether powerful or weak. However, more to the present discussion, as a consequence of the CWC being a disarmament treaty (i.e., going to zero and remaining at zero in the future), the convention is final. It does not have aspirational articles with regard to ambitions not covered by its own text.

2. Article VI of the NPT resembles more of Article IX of the BTWC:

Each State Party to this Convention affirms the recognized objective of effective prohibition of chemical weapons and, to this end, undertakes to continue negotiations in good faith with a view to reaching early agreement on effective measures for the prohibition of their development, production and stockpiling and for their destruction, and on appropriate measures concerning equipment and means of delivery specifically designed for the production or use of chemical agents for weapons purposes.

I find it difficult to see how this article could have turned the BTWC into a CW disarmament treaty (as proponents of nuclear disarmament often tend to do with regard to Article VI of the NPT) or how it could reflect on customary law regarding CW, even if considering that most people view the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical and biological weapons as having entered into customary law.

Just like the CWC, the BTWC is also a disarmament treaty and has similiar finality with regard to biological and toxin weapons. Nevertheless, I would argue that the BTWC today, despite having fewer parties than the CWC, fits more firmly into customary law: no state actually claims having BW or maintaining an offensive BW programme. (For example, in an interview in Der Spiegel on 19 January 2009, Bashar al-Assad more than implicitly admitted to CW, but flatly denied BW.) This has important implications from an armament/disarmament perspective: there is no space whatsoever for testing weapons in the field, training troops or developing military doctrines for their use on both the strategic and tactical levels. Even for states not party to the BTWC. Such types of preparations can be and would be detected.

But back to BTWC, Article IX: between 1975 (EIF for the BTWC) and 1993 (Opening for signature of the CWC) we witnessed an accelerated CW armament competition between the US and the USSR (including the startup of the US binary production programme), the start of Iraq’s CW programme culminating in gas being used in the 1980-88 Gulf War; Libya’s CW programme, Syria’s, …

So, as far as the analogy with Dan’s argument goes (I am discussing 2 different weapon categories mentioned in a single treaty): each party to the BTWC, whether a possessor or non-possessor of CW was bound to negotiate the CWC, but it did not prevent several among them to develop, produce, or even use CW during the intervening period.

Syria: Disarmament in animated suspense

Syria has now missed about every single deadline since it was unable to move the Priority 1 chemicals out of the country by the end of last year. These even include renegotiated time frames and the self-imposed final date of 27 April. One more fixed date is pending: 30 June, by which time all precursor chemicals should have been neutralised.

It would now seem that the world will sigh with relief if everything is aboard the Danish and Norwegian freighters by the end of next month. US officials envisage 60 working days to neutralise the volume of precursor chemicals and hydrolyse the mustard agent on board the US ship Cape Ray. The end of this mission could be pushed back even further if factors such as bad weather or sea states exceeding safety standards interrupt activities. In addition, the original schedule foresaw incineration of the reaction mass by the end of 2014. However, one of the companies selected by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Finland’s Ekokem, requires at least nine months. This potentially pushes completion of the disarmament tasks agreed in the US-Russian framework agreement of September last year into the second quarter of 2015. Consequently, the disarmament mandate established by UN Security Council resolution 2118 (2013) can be expected to remain in place at least as long.

Similar delays affect the final destruction of former CW production facilities (CWPF). Different interpretations about the perimeter of several CWPFs block consensus decision-making on the formal destruction plan in the Executive Council of the OPCW, and hence progress in the field.

Finally, concerns have emerged whether Syria has declared its entire CW stockpile. In particular, the country has claimed destruction of 200 metric tonnes of mustard gas in March 2013, but initially failed to declare this to the OPCW.

Remaining precursor chemicals

Syrian authorities have consistently claimed that heavy fighting at key sites and high security risks along the transportation routes make it all but impossible to transfer the precursor chemicals to the port of Latakia within the set deadlines. The Joint OPCW-UN Mission has tended to confirm these security assessments. It has also reported shelling into Latakia in March and intensive combat operations around the final storage site.

According to the 7th monthly report submitted to the UN Security Council on 25 April, 96.45% of declared Priority 1 chemicals and 81.09% of declared Priority 2 chemicals had been moved onto the Danish vessel Ark Futura and the Norwegian freighter Taico respectively. Combined they amounted to 92.03%. The remaining 8%—about 100 metric tonnes of precursors—consisted of

  • Priority 1 chemicals:
    • B salt (N (2-chloroethyl)-N-ethyl propan 2 amine salt)
    • DF (methylphosphonyl difluoride)
    • Isopropanol
  • Priority 2 chemicals
    • Butan-1-ol (alcohol)
    • HCl (hydrogen chloride)
    • HF (hydrogen fluoride)
    • Hexamine

On 20 May, the OPCW–UN Joint Mission confirmed the destruction of all isopropanol. (It should be noted that ‘B salt’ did not figure in the initial list of precursors and was included in one of the revised declarations by Syria. It is possible that a declaration error was made concerning ‘BB salt’.)

The 7.2% of chemicals that must still be shipped out remain trapped at Al Sin. Very little is known about the military site, except for its identification as a CW production facility in the 3rd monthly report of last December (Annex, paragraph 15). ‘Al Sin’ features in a few combat reports by insurgent factions published to the internet on 20 March, and are described as depots or an airport. Some press accounts suggest that the chemicals are at an airbase.

Battalion 559 of the Syrian armed forces holds a storage base that fits the descriptions.  It is located about 63km to the northeast of Damascus along a major road travelling from the Adra suburban area in the general direction of Palmyra (Tadmur). About 14km to the south of Al Sin lies the Sayqal Military Airbase, which also houses several ammunition storage installations.

Al Sin has two major access routes (presumable the aforementioned main road going either northeast or southwest) and a secondary road travelling through the mountains. At present, the main access routes are unusable because they are controlled by insurgents or within easy targeting range of their heavier weaponry. The secondary road is impractical, considering that the DF has been transferred into large 2000-litre reinforced containers and the highly dangerous and volatile HF is contained under pressure in industry-standard cylinders. Transport in a large, escorted convoy along a mountainous track not only runs a high risk of accidents, the surroundings also offer many opportunities for ambushes. The Syrian army is currently mounting major military operations to clear (one of) the two principal routes out of Al Sin. Once achieved, the evacuation of the final precursors to Latakia is expected to be completed shortly afterwards.

Destruction of CW production facilities at an impasse

Political blockage over the destruction of Syria’s twelve CWPFs prevents progress on an important dimension of the elimination of the country’s chemical warfare capacity. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) refers to CWPFs in many articles and sections of the Verification Annex. Article II, 8 defines them in terms of equipment for producing or filling certain types of chemicals and buildings that house such equipment. They must be irreversibly destroyed under a detailed destruction plan, although some buildings can be converted under strict conditions to purposes not prohibited by the convention. Despite Syria’s request, the Executive Council of the OPCW has refused to authorise conversion of some facilities.

In contrast, CW storage facilities (CWSF) are discussed only in the Verification Annex, Part IV(A) in relation to the presence of CW, their verification and destruction. A party to the CWC must declare a CWSF’s name, exact coordinates and a detailed site diagram, including a boundary map and the location of bunkers/storage areas within the facility. It must also provide a detailed inventory of the CW they contain. No treaty provision, however, demands the destruction of CWSFs.

Syria has apparently five underground structures, tunnels shaped in the form of a staple. They comprise three major sections. Each of the two extremities offers entrance to the complex. However, only one of the arms is the actual CWPF; the two other sections Syria has declared as storage sites. Following extensive discussions with OPCW technical staff and onsite visits at the end of March, a CWPF destruction plan was proposed to the Executive Council, which it rejected. The United States and other members of the Western Europe and Other States Group represented on the Executive Council argued that the storage areas form an integral part of the production site, and that therefore Syria’s circumscription of the CWPFs is incomplete. In addition, the argument has been put forward that via a network of tunnels they link up to other parts of a larger military complex.

It is difficult to see how the impasse can be overcome soon. The Executive Council habitually decides by consensus. If the United States and its partners press for a vote, they are by no means certain of gaining a majority. Even if they do, there may be ramifications in other areas of treaty implementation further down the road. Syria, for its part, has adopted a very assertive posture since becoming an OPCW member last October and is unlikely to budge on anything that does not represent a formal, unambiguous obligation under the CWC or without pressure from Russia. The current frosty relations between Moscow and Washington are not helpful either.

 Did Syria declare all?

Over the past month or two several questions have arisen as to whether Syria declared its full chemical warfare capacity. They are in part due to the recent attacks with barrel bombs allegedly containing chlorine canisters, and in part to the amendments to its formal declarations to the OPCW. The latter are the result of normal verification routines by OPCW staff, which it undertakes for all parties to the OPCW. Analysis of declarations and onsite inspections often lead to the discovery of inconsistencies, contradictions or even missing information, which yield lists of questions and issues that the state party must resolve. Syria is no exception, and a significant new amendment to earlier declarations is expected in the near future. Although it will not contain new types of chemicals, there will be variations in the volumes of declared precursors without much changing the overall total of 1,300 metric tonnes. In contrast, it will include a thus far undeclared CW research centre near Damascus. (Readers of this blog will recall that the Executive Council and UN Security Council decisions of 27 September compel Syria to declare research facilities, even though this is not required by the CWC.)

A initial team of 8 OPCW inspectors left for Syria on 2 May and they were joined by an additional 5 personnel on 12 May to investigate the chlorine attack allegations. They can have access to the one site where the government has claimed that the rebels used a chlorine weapon, but until now have been refused entry into the rebel areas. Negotiations with insurgents to enable the safe transit of the precursor chemicals to the port of Latakia or for OPCW-UN Joint Mission staff to have access to sites in rebel-controlled territory are conducted through the office of Lakhdar Brahimi, the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and League of Arab States for Syria. While the office continues to function, Brahimi’s resignation on 13 May, effective at the end of the month, implies the loss of a lot of political clout with the insurgents. It’s impact on the disarmament process is unclear for the time being, but the convoys transporting the precursor chemicals and the OPCW–UN Joint Mission may face growing security and safety challenges if the current lack of progress continues for any significant length of time. Future investigations of alleged used of CW may also be compromised.

Another element that tends to contribute to the unease about Syria’s truthfulness is the fact that until today the government has not declared owning any of the Volcano rockets believed to have delivered sarin nerve agent against the Ghouta district last August. It did report two such missiles, but stated that it had found them and that it was not their possessor. Many countries and observers blame the Syrian military for the Ghouta attacks and other chemical strikes.

Finally, the questions if Syria has declared all its ‘weaponised’ warfare agents revolve around whether it has irreversibly disposed of about 200 metric tonnes of mustard gas. Syrian officials claim that the stock was destroyed at three sites in March 2013, around the time of the chemical attacks in Khan al-Assal near Aleppo and several months before the Ghouta sarin strikes. (No allegation of a mustard attack has so far been recorded.) Interestingly enough, Syria apparently mentioned these destruction activities before or during the US-Russian bilateral negotiations in Geneva last September, but the issue has only been picked up more recently. The Syrian government has now supplied the OPCW with details of these operations, which still require confirmation. OPCW inspectors plan to verify the claim and the veracity of its particulars by means of interviews, record analysis and on-site sampling. UNSCOM inspectors in Iraq during the 1990s occasionally had to resort to similar methodologies to determine whether the claimed volume of agent destroyed without international supervision corresponded to reality. Syria formally declared 20.25 metric tonnes of mustard agent (an amount relatively small compared to the overall volume of declared nerve agent precursors), which will be hydrolysed on board the Cape Ray. Inevitably, the episode has raised concerns among some OPCW members about possible undeclared ‘weaponised’ nerve agents.

More to follow over the next weeks, I am sure.

Postscript: Two hours after posting this contribution, the OPCW published an updated report on the status of CW disarmament in Syria.

Until silence

Children and babies—whether born or unborn—suffer immensely in any armed conflict. Mental trauma from witnessing human wasting, which no person should really be exposed to anymore. Physical injuries that scar the young ones for the rest of their lives, even if a sense of normalcy could ever be recaptured. And death, often considered the worst possible outcome, but nonetheless a fortuitous escape from a lifelong suffering inflicted by a senseless war ripping apart the early stages of their far too many young lives. For the survivors—bereft parents and mothers of the stillborn one—deep-reaching psychological wounds far beyond consolation.

Until the silence says goodbye

Addressing her companion after a mutual acquaintance, a British naval officer who had served in World War 1, suddenly passed away in 1923, Vera Brittain (Testament of Youth, Chapter XXII, 4) wrote:

I don’t think victory over death is anything so superficial as a person fulfilling their normal span of life. It can be twofold; a victory over death by the man who faces it for himself without fear, and the victory by those who, loving him, know that death is but a little thing compared with the fact that he lived and was the kind of person he was … That’s why those war victories with which I was especially associated are still incomplete. That the people faced their own deaths without fear I have no doubt. It is through me that the victory is incomplete, because I cannot always quite feel that their deaths matter less to me than the fact that they lived, nor reconcile their departure, with all their aspirations unfulfilled, with my own scheme of life.

Having lost her fiancé, two brothers and a close friend in the Great war, she was still struggling make sense of death, despite a self-induced mental numbness to cope in a post-war British society that had no time or space to embrace its many scarred veterans with the human carnage she saw firsthand as a voluntary nurse.

No pantomime of time to heal…

For the unborn child or infant physically or psychologically mauled by detonating bombs or shells, there is no victory for having lived that parents could savour. Chemical weapons add to that despair: a person living under their threat has no sense of being able to escape them. There is simply no place to run (to paraphrase Tim Cook’s magnificent book on Canadian soldiers’ adaptation to survive under a perpetual gas blanket during World War 1).

Hurt and fear are overwhelming emotions. Children and gas, when combined, allow for easy, but powerful manipulation of public opinion beyond the battlefield, often for purposes that have little bearing on relieving the plight of those actually facing the threats. Add a couple of graphic pictures; throw in one or two names to make the suffering tangible and direct public emotions to these few foci in order to momentarily blur out the 150,000 fatalities and millions of other casualties shared by all sides in the Syrian civil war. Can a policy maker or shaper fail to respond to such concentrated emotion? This is why I reacted strongly to the unsubstantiated claims that sarin exposure was causing the deformed babies in ‘Must the Belgian babies be bayoneted all over again?

Today, a week or so after The Telegraph (London) and The Daily Star (Beirut) ran their respective ‘scoops’, no additional claims, no new names of children from the Ghouta area, have surfaced. A few media outlets reported on the original stories, but to the best of my knowledge, nobody seems to have delved further into the matter. Claims of sarin’s mutagenic properties appear to have vanished into thin air.

Survive to die alive

In contrast, other factors that may explain the incidence of miscarriages and malformed babies have come to the fore: prolonged extreme stress, concussion, exposure to high levels of dust, malnourishment, unsanitary conditions (at home, in shelters or in hospitals), etc.

Last December, many months before the sarin claims, a trained paediatrician with 20 years experience working Médecins sans frontières attributed the malformations in Syrian infants she was treating to possible deprivation of folic acids. No or insufficient intake during especially the first four weeks of a pregnancy profoundly compromises the neurulation process, which in turn leads to severe congenital deformity.

If this doctor’s surmise is correct, then the rising incidence of stillborn or malformed babies testifies to the dreadful state of Syria’s health system more than anything else.

She also described the wrenching plight of two pregnant women caught up in aerial bombing on their way to the market one sunny day. One lost her baby in her struggle to survive …

No hint of sarin or chemical warfare in her accounts.

There is simply no need to add gas to feel the pain of Syrian mothers …

Synthetic biology & biosecurity: How scared should we be?

The link between synthetic biology and heightened biosecurity threats is often exaggerated. In a report published today (22nd May), King’s College London researchers say that in order to produce more refined assessments of the biosecurity threat, we need to understand more clearly what would be achieved by synthetic biology’s goal to ‘make biology easier to engineer’.

Synthetic Biology and Biosecurity: How scared should we be? summarises and analyses the discussions from a workshop organised by Dr Catherine Jefferson, Dr Filippa Lentzos and Dr Claire Marris, at King’s in February 2014.

Synthetic biology’s aim to make biology easier to engineer has raised concerns that it could increase the risk of misuse for biowarfare or bioterrorism. The workshop brought together synthetic biologists, social scientists, policy experts and science journalists to explore whether concerns about these risks are realistic or exaggerated in the light of current scientific realities.

It is often assumed that synthetic biology will ‘de-skill’ biology and that this means that any layperson, working outside professional scientific institutions, is or soon will be able to design and engineer living organisms at will. However, workshop participants argued that this representation is too simplistic. De-skilling does not necessarily mean that skills become irrelevant. As we see in other industries such as aeronautics, de-skilling does not necessarily mean that specialised expertise becomes irrelevant.

The report will be presented at the meeting of experts to the Biological Weapons Convention at the United Nations in Geneva this summer.

Join the discussion and tell us what you think on twitter: #synbiosec

The “Synthetic Biology and Biosecurity” workshop and report formed part of SSHM’s on-going work on the social dimensions of synthetic biology, conducted within the EPSRC funded Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation and the Flowers Consortium, and an ESRC funded project on the politics of bioterrorism.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime at a Crossroads

Memorandum No. 137, Tel Aviv: Institute for National Security Studies, May 2014

Editors: Emily B. Landau , Azriel Bermant

The articles compiled in this volume grapple with questions and dilemmas that arise from a growing sense in recent years that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has reached a critical juncture, and that its continued role as the centerpiece of the nuclear nonproliferation regime is at risk. This is the result of a process that has unfolded gradually since the end of the Cold War, which also spelled the end of the bipolar global structure that, in the minds of many, helped keep nuclear proliferation in check.

Contents

Part I. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: Past Dynamics and Current Assessments

Forging Ahead: Challenges and Opportunities for the NPT / Rose Gottemoeller
The NPT Review Conferences / Harald Müller
The NPT toward 2015: NAM and Non-Nuclear Weapon States Perspectives /Rebecca Johnson
Don’t Beat a Dead Horse: The Past, Present, and Future Failures of the NPT / Carlo Masala
A “Bank Run” on the NPT: Preventing a Crisis of Confidence / Cameron S. Brown

Part II. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: Will the NPT Survive?

Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime: A Rethink? / Ephraim Asculai
Too Early to Eulogize the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime /Tamar Malz-Ginsburg
Whither the International Nuclear Order? / Emmanuelle Blanc

Part III. Confronting Proliferation at the Global Level

Recalibrating President Obama’s Global Zero Vision / Michael Nacht
Changes in the International System and their Impact on Proliferation / Yair Evron
Russia’s Nonproliferation Policy / Anton Khlopkov
Pakistan’s Security Perceptions and their Adverse Impact on the Global Nuclear Order / Nir Reichental

Part IV. The Verification Challenge

The IAEA Verifications System in Perspective / Olli Heinonen
Verifying the Prohibition on Chemical Weapons: The Relevance of OPCW Processes to the IAEA / Jean Pascal Zanders

Part V.  Perspectives on the Middle East

Nonproliferation and Regional Security: An Israeli Policy Perspective / Jeremy Issacharoff
Security Asymmetries in the Middle East / Shimon Stein
The Need for a Regional Security Regime in the Middle East / Shlomo Brom
A WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East: The Main Challenge is not the NPT / Benjamin Hautecouverture

 

Must the Belgian babies be bayoneted all over again?

August, 100 years ago: the Hun from the east invaded little, neutral Belgium. In the opening weeks of the campaign the Hun was not a good boy. He wilfully executed civilians, raped women, destroyed historical monuments and burned down university libraries—all war crimes that have been extensively documented. The worst barbarian acts, however, he committed against babies. He cut off their hands, so that the grownup man could never take up arms against the Hunnic master. Worse, he tossed them in the air and caught them on his bayonet. Alas, each investigated claim proved to be a myth. Meanwhile, many a Brit had enlisted to revenge the ‘Rape of Belgium’.

Similar stories appealing to public emotion circulated before the outbreak of World War I. And they have been fabricated since. Remember the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and Nayirah’s testimony before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus? Nayirah, then 15 years old, told of Iraqi soldiers seizing incubators from Kuwaiti hospitals and leaving the babies to die on cold floors. Nayirah turned out to be the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the US, and the accusations were reportedly coached by a US-based PR company contracted by the Kuwaiti government. However, the tale received a huge credibility boost from  Amnesty International. The human rights watchdog claimed in a December 1991 report that its investigation team talked with several doctors and nurses who ‘gave details of the deaths of 300 babies removed from incubators in hospitals by Iraqi troops and left to die on cold floors’ (Douglas Walton, 1995, p. 772). (Amnesty international eventually retracted its report, unlike Human Rights Watch today, which released a dubious report on the Ghouta attacks and—in a modern version of the Vietnam-era ‘destroy the town to save it’—seized on the chemical weapon allegations to call for military strikes against Syria.)

Which brings us to current press reports of genetically malformed babies as a consequence of chemical warfare in Syria.

Deformed babies after the Ghouta attack

A few days ago, The Telegraph (London) and the Daily Star (Beirut) published testimonies and pictures of children born with genetic defects from the Ghouta district near Damascus. Other babies were reported to have been stillborn. Parents and attending physicians attributed the occurrences to the chemical attacks there last August. The UN investigative team confirmed the use of the nerve agent sarin in those attacks.

Many toxic chemicals are known mutagens. Some directly damage the DNA, resulting in replication errors. Some interfere with the replication process itself, and yet other ones can create mutagenic metabolites. Certain cancers may result from genotoxic properties of chemicals. As a matter of history, research into the physiological consequences of exposure to mustard agents after World War I and during World War II contributed to the development of chemotherapy against cancer. Chronic exposure to such genotoxicants may also lead to transgenerational genetic effects. Images of mutant fish and amphibians living in polluted water reservoirs come to mind. The severely malformed infants of Vietnamese parents and US veterans who were exposed to large doses of Agent Orange sprayed to defoliate forests during the Indochina war remain living proof of the transgenerational mutagenic and teratogenic consequences of certain chemical warfare agents. Research into the long-term health implications of the chemical bombing of the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988 has revealed similar transgenerational effects of mustard agent.

The main problem with the current claims of genetically malformed babies in the Ghouta area is that no indicators are available to conclude that the nerve agent sarin provokes cancer or leads to genetic defects.

Long-term research into the effects of sarin

As a consequence of the prevalence of illnesses related to the 1990–91 Gulf War among US military personnel, the United States conducted extensive investigations into the consequences of exposure to nerve agents. One report, published in 1996, failed to link the neurotoxicants to cancers or mutations (GB is the US military code for sarin):

Carcinogenicity, Mutagenicity, Teratogenicity
Organophosphates are not recognized as being carcinogens. No evidence was found to suggest that GB has carcinogenic potential. In a follow-up study of approximately 995 U.S. Army volunteers who participated in anticholinesterase experiments at the U.S. Army laboratories, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Edgewood, Maryland during 1955-1975, no consistent pattern of increased risk of cancer was found (NRC, 1985). The study was of relatively low statistical power, and was only able to identify large differences. The investigators concluded that, based on these findings, and the 10 lifetime studies of carcinogenicity of organophosphates sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, that anticholinesterase compounds did not induce malignancies among the Edgewood subjects.

Goldman, Klein, Kawakami and Rosenblatt (1987) concluded that GB is not mutagenic based on both in vivo and in vitro evaluations. Negative results were found in the Ames Salmonella bacterial gene mutation assay using 5 different strains exposed to a range of concentration of GB. Mouse lymphoma cell tests, Chinese hamster ovary cell tests, including sister chromatid exchange assays, and rat hepatocyte assays (for unscheduled DNA synthesis and damage) were all negative for mutagenic activity.

No evidence of teratogenicity of GB was found. Organophosphates are generally not considered to have significant reproductive effects; no studies to directly evaluate this characteristic in GB were found. In their study of the toxicity of chronic exposure of dogs to GB, Jacobsen, Christensen, DeArmon, and Oberst (1959) had the male animals bred after 25 weeks of daily moderate doses of GB; the offspring were normal.

In their one year, low-dose GB inhalation exposure study of a variety of animals, Weimer et al (1979) found no abnormalities in reproduction and fertility, fetal toxicity, or teratogenesis in Sprague-Dawley/Wistar rats. Testicular atrophy was noted in the Fischer rat, but the authors speculated other causes, since later experiments (using a different route of exposure) did not replicate the finding. In their report, the authors also cite work conducted by J. R. Denk (EB-TR-74087 Effects of GB on Mammalian Germ Cells and Reproductive Performance, February 1975) which came to the same negative conclusions.

Similarly, an Emergency Response Card, last reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control on 12 May 2011, notes:

EFFECTS OF CHRONIC OR REPEATED EXPOSURE: Limited data are available on chronic or repeated exposure to sarin. The available data however, suggest that sarin is not a human carcinogen, reproductive toxin, or developmental toxin. Limited data suggest that chronic or repeated exposure to sarin may result in a delayed postural sway and/or impaired psychomotor performance (neuropathy).

 Attribution to chlorine and mustard agent exposure

The Daily Star also offered a bizarre linkage with chlorine, the agent of recent chemical warfare allegations in Syria:

While stressing that he was not a doctor, chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon pointed to similar birth defects witnessed after the 1988 Halabja massacre, when the Iraqi government launched a chemical attack against the local Kurdish population.

De Bretton-Gordon, CEO of SecureBio, a UK-based Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear consultancy firm and former commander of the British military’s CBRN forces, said of the images of Joud: ‘Yes I think there is something in this and we saw similar from Halabja victims. I’m obviously not a doctor but chemical weapons, including chlorine, are known to be carcinogenic and mutanogenic.” (Sic)

The Center for Disease Control, the U.S. national public health institute, states that in the use of organophosphates such as sarin, ‘the possibility that birth defects could occur has neither been confirmed nor ruled out.’ Chlorine is not included in this nerve agent category, as it is a blister agent.

The Health Protection Agency (today Public Health England) published a toxicological overview of chlorine (2007) and excluded any of the above cited consequences from exposure:

Genotoxicity

No data are available on the mutagenicity of chlorine gas per se, although the mutagenicity of solutions of chlorine in water (hypochlorite and its salts) has been investigated. Sodium hypochlorite has been shown to have some mutagenic activity in vitro (both bacterial and mammalian cells) that may be due to the generation of reactive oxygen species. However, there is no evidence for activity in vivo. Negative results were obtained in bone marrow assays for clastogenicity (chromosome aberrations and micronuclei) in mice. The negative results reported in the carcinogenicity bioassays also support the view that hypochlorite does not have any significant mutagenic potential in vivo.

Carcinogenicity

Negative results were obtained when chlorine (dissolved in drinking water) was investigated in a National Toxicology Program (NTP) carcinogenicity bioassay in rats and mice; concentrations of up to 275 ppm chlorine were used. Previously, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) had evaluated the carcinogenicity of hypochlorite salts and concluded that there was no data available from human studies and that the data from experimental studies in animals was inadequate. Therefore, hypochlorite salts were assigned to Group 3, i.e., compounds that are not classifiable as to their carcinogenicity in humans.

Reproductive and developmental toxicity

In general, animal studies have demonstrated no reproductive or teratogenic effects of chlorine. The effects of water chlorinated to a level of 150 mg L -1 were investigated in rats over 7 generations. No effects were observed on fertility, growth or survival.

Whether the interviewed expert actually expressed the words as recorded in the Daily Star is uncertain. The last sentence in the newspaper quote may indicate a mixup on the part of the journalist: ‘Chlorine is not included in this nerve agent category, as it is a blister agent.’ Chlorine, of course, is a choking agent, not a vesicant such as mustard gas.

As noted above, Saddam Hussein’s forces did employ mustard agent against Halabja and exposure to the agent can have genetic consequences for the survivors. However, nobody has ever alleged mustard gas use with respect to the chemical weapon attacks against Ghouta (or for that matter during the Syrian civil war). Therefore, speculating on the consequences of an agent not at issue is entirely irrelevant.

Spurious argumentation

Substantiation of the claims rests on impressions and convictions of the affected families and some doctors working in the field making straightforward linkages between an observed phenomenon and the appearance of supposed consequences a while later. The articles offer no independently verified facts on the previous incidence of malformed children in the affected area or within the families.

The mothers in question are all reported to have been pregnant at the time of the gas attacks against Ghouta. Certain chemicals are known to affect the development of the foetus, the consumption of alcohol and smoking, as well as drugs abuse during pregnancy being prime examples. Sarin, however, does not appear to have such an impact, although, of course, one cannot exclude that the ways in which the body responds to the poisoning and the administered antidotes may impact on foetal growth.

Instead of exploring the deeper connections between cause and effect, The Telegraph chose to refer to the testimony by Dr Christine Gosden before the US Congress (which actually took place on 22 April 1998). She described how the inhabitants of Halabja were exposed to a cocktail of chemicals. With regard to the impact of mustard gas, she noted:

Long term effects. The most serious of the long term effects arise because mustard gas is carcinogenic and mutagenic. In the respiratory system there are increased risks of chronic lung disease, asthma, bronchitis. Permanent impairment of vision may occur and eye damage may be severe, leading to blindness. Skin lesions and burns may be severe with persistent changes and hypersensitivity to mechanical injury. Carcinogenic and mutagenic effects can result in cancers, congenital malformations and infertility. Long term effects (mutagenesis, carcinogenesis, eye, skin, lung, fertility, etc.) are dose and route dependent.

She does not claim similar consequences from exposure to nerve agents. Most importantly, the remainder of her testimony details the various short- and long-term symptoms observed in the victims over a 10-year period, but does not attribute any one of them to a specific warfare agent. In other words, invoking Gosden’s report as evidence in support of the claims regarding the consequences of the Ghouta attack is misleading, more so as the only agent that might strongly suggest carcinogenic or mutagenic consequences was not used in Syria.

The Telegraph article (unwittingly?) offers a very good alternative explanation for the genetic malformations (emphasis added):

‘We are receiving pregnant women in Arsal from many areas such as Qusair, Homs, Kalamoon, and [outer] Damascus, they come across the border for giving birth but in some cases the result is tragedy.’

‘We are receiving around 100 births a month in Arsal, about 12 per cent in the average out of them are stillborn,’ [Dr Kasem al-Zein] said. ‘The problems for newborn children are mostly occurring in women who were exposed to the chemical weapons, but also we have noticed that all women who lived in areas exposed to shelling by barrels and missiles are suffering fetal diseases.’

Arsal lies to the northeast of Baalbek in Lebanon. Since the reported cases attributed to chemical attacks are all from the last week or two, it is very difficult to determine how large a part of the monthly average they (can) represent. In contrast, the numbers do hint at possible roles of prolonged extreme stress, concussion, exposure to high levels of dust, malnourishment, unsanitary conditions (at home, in shelters or in hospitals), and so on, in the incidence of miscarriages and malformed babies.

Déjà vu

The story leaves a distinct impression of having seen it all before. The Telegraph came up with a defector, General Zaher al-Sakat, who had replaced sarin with Eau de Javel, a story that did not get much traction. Last month, it offered proof of chlorine use, which it claimed to be on a par with the methodologies applied by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And interestingly enough, as the Christian Science Monitor wrote on 6 September 2002, ‘the first mention of babies being removed from incubators appeared in the Sept. 5 [1991] edition of the London Daily Telegraph’. That was on the eve of the decision to authorise military force to eject Iraq from Kuwait.

Seeking out plausible alternative explanations for observed phenomena and then eliminating them systematically goes a long way to establishing the credibility of an allegation. Are the current claims of mutagenic consequences of the chemical strikes in Ghouta part of a concerted ploy to again build a humanitarian case for Western military intervention against the regime of Bashar al-Assad? If so, it smacks of bayoneted Belgian babies all over again.

Roundtable invitation: Syria’s Chemical Demilitarization

INVITATION

Syria’s Chemical Demilitarization:

Progress, Challenges, and Lessons

A Roundtable Discussion with

Dr. Paul F. Walker, Amb. Serguei Batsanov,Dr. Ralf Trapp, & Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders

Introductory Remarks by Dr. Alexander Likhotal

Organized by Green Cross International, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and the Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition

Monday, May 19, 2014, 17:00-19:00

WMO Building, 7 bis avenue de la Paix, 2d floor

Vieira de Mello auditorium

 

Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in September 2013 made it the 190th State Party to the Convention with only six countries now remaining outside the treaty regime. This historic event, which occurred under very special circumstances, set in motion the unprecedented international efforts under the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Nations with the view of dismantling the CW program, including elimination of stockpiles, production facilities, and weapon systems – in the hostile and dangerous environment of a fierce civil war. Since 24 April 2014 over 90% of Syria’s declared chemicals (precursors and warfare agents) have been either destroyed in-country or shipped out of Syria for neutralization on board the MV Cape Ray in the Mediterranean and final destruction at facilities in Finland, Germany, the UK, and the US. This panel of experts will review the history of this process, missed deadlines, current progress, ongoing challenges, allegations of use of chemicals in warfare, and implications for the Syrian civil war.

 

Paul F. Walker is International Director of the Green Cross Environmental Security and Sustainability Program and manages the Washington DC office for Green Cross International. He is also coordinator of the international CWC Coalition (NGO Network around CWC and OPCW).

Sergey Batsanov is Director of the Geneva Office of the Pugwash Conferences, former Director for Special Projects in the OPCW, and former Soviet/Russian Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

Ralf Trapp is independent consultant on chemical and biological arms control; formerly held several key positions at OPCW.

Jean Pascal Zanders owns and runs “The Trench” – an independent consultancy and research initiative on the future of disarmament. Member of the Council of the Pugwash Conferences. He was formerly with the EU Institute of Security Studies in Paris.

Alexander Likhotal is President of Green Cross International.

 

Please RSVP to Carole Apotheloz at communication@gci.ch by COB Friday, May 16th. Seating is limited and reservations will be on a first-come, first-served basis. Light refreshments will be served at 17:00. You may be asked for a photo ID at the entrance.

 

Approximate schedule:

17:00 – Doors open. Light refreshments.

17:15 – Welcoming remarks: Alexander Likhotal, President, Green Cross International

17:30-17:45 – Bold experiment: convincing a country at war to join disarmament treaty. Lead: S. Batsanov.

17:45-18:05 – How the process works: Technical innovation in support of political breakthrough. Lead: P. Walker

18:05-18:15 – Q & A

18:15-18:25 – Investigations of alleged CW Use in Syria Lead: J.P.Zanders

18:25-18:35 – Lessons for OPCW, UN, and the Region; lessons for Syria. Lead: R. Trapp and S. Batsanov

18:35-19:00 – Q & A

19:00 – Closure of the meeting

__________________________________________________________

 About the sponsoring organizations:

Green Cross International: International NGO with a focus on protection of environment through demilitarization and remediation. Actively contributed to safe destruction of CW stockpiles in the US and Russia under the CWC. National affiliates in 30+ countries. HQ in Geneva. www.gcint.org.

Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs: International NGO (network) of scientists for the prevention of nuclear conflict and for elimination of nuclear and other WMD. Provided science-based advice to CWC negotiations. Contributed through track II process to Syria’s accession to the CWC. Involved in track II process on Syrian crisis. Nobel Peace Prize 1995. Rome-London-Geneva-Washington D.C. www.pugwash.org

CWC Coalition: International network of NGOs in support of the CWC and OPCW. Actively participates in OPCW annual Conferences of States Parties, assists NGOs with bringing their messages to the attention of States Parties and OPCW. The Hague – Washington D.C. www.cwccoalition.org

 

 

 

Green is the colour

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Warfare (OPCW) is about to investigate the various allegations of the use of chlorine in Syria over the past few weeks. It is the right decision. It is the only decision possible in view of the many witness accounts and footage available on internet sites. However, the hope that the announcement of the fact-finding mission on 29 April might deter the perpetrator from future chlorine attacks was quickly dashed: a new chlorine bombing took place a day later.

The symbolism of the date cannot be overstated. 29 April was the 17th anniversary of the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). 29 April is the UN’s annual Day of Remembrance for all Victims of Chemical Warfare. And now, 29 April is also the day on which for the first time the potential violation of the ban on the use of chemical weapons (CW) by a state party to the CWC was officially recognised. A mere six months after Syria joined the convention. And 99 years after chlorine ushered in the age of modern chemical warfare.

On the same day, a British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, felt the need to headline that it had the proof that Assad launched the chlorine attacks. It caused a stir, not in the least because the article ended with the claim that the newspaper’s investigation was on a par with OPCW procedures. Hardly.

No stranger to the battlefield of world opinion

It is worth recalling that initial accounts on the chemical attack at Khan al-Assal (near Aleppo) on 19 March 2013 referred to chlorine. Early press reports mentioned 26 fatalities, a figure that would eventually rise into the low thirties, and scores of otherwise harmed individuals. I was not convinced that the observed effects correlated with claims about the agents used. In a March 2013 brief for the EU Institute for Security Studies I wrote:

This claim is intrinsically problematic. Exposure to chlorine stored in a warehouse or near a production installation hit by a shell could account for respiratory problems and skin irritation, but not for a high number of fatalities. One would need a very high volume of the agent to obtain lethal doses in open air; the explosion would most likely destroy part of the agent; and highly recognisable evidence of corrosion at the site of attack could not be missed.

More recent accounts specify that Islamic extremists filled a home-made rocket with chlorine dissolved in a saline solution. The agent would thus amount to Eau de Javel (bleach). Even in its highest industrial concentration of 40%, the agent cannot explain the fatalities, even if one were to assume that a very large number of home-made rockets hit the target in a tight cluster.

A month later, I remained just as unconvinced. In the meantime, having reviewed all CW references I had collected since the start of the Syrian civil war, I was struck by how stories on a particular incident may change with time. As a rule of thumb, everything ultimately turned into sarin. And as suggested in the quote above, sarin could become bleach. It is worth retracing that metamorphosis.

The Khan al-Assal attack of 19 March prompted the Syrian Government to request the UN Secretary General to conduct an investigation of alleged use. As already mentioned, reports at the time were referring to chlorine or witnesses recalling a chlorine smell. Chlorine was also what the Syrian government reportedly cited in its letter to Ban Ki-moon. Already early in December 2012, the Syrian Foreign Ministry had warned of possible insurgent use of CW in letters to the UN. It alluded to a Syrian-Saudi factory SYSACCO near al-Safirah (southeast of Aleppo), which had just been captured by militants from the jihadist Al-Nusra Front. That factory produced  sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) and hydrochloric acid (HCl). Not only did this claim prepare a plausible foundation for the chlorine allegations three months later, it also got close to the bleach (sodium hypochlorite), commercially known as Eau de Javel in Europe.

Four days after the alleged attack we learned that ‘the Syrian military believe that a home-made locally-manufactured rocket was fired, containing a form of chlorine known as CL17, easily available as a swimming pool cleaner. They claim that the warhead contained a quantity of the gas, dissolved in saline solution’. Now, what form of chlorine is Cl17? A look at the Mendeleev’s Periodic Table teaches us that Cl is the chemical abbreviation of chlorine and 17 is its chemical number. However, this demystified CL17 is contained in a saline solution, which is, of course, sodium hypochlorite. I use it to disinfect my toilet. Eau de Javel as a chemical warfare agent, that was new to me. (However, do note the source of that story.)

So, please forgive me if I seem to demand a higher level of convincing.

Questions I would like to see answered

  • From some of the footage available on the internet, I do think that a toxic substance must have affected a number of people. However, I am less sure about the more precise elements in the accusations. For example, based on the pictures of one of the flasks, I gather that a substance (in this case, liquid chlorine, I presume, but then letters with white powder are also often marked ‘anthrax’) was contained in a small industry-standard vessel (apparently of Chinese origin & and marked Cl2). What I would like to know is how much explosive it would take to break open such a container? How much chlorine (if this is what was inside) would have been destroyed or burned by that explosion? What are the dynamics of chlorine release in the scenario that the amount of explosives is sufficient just to break the seal / valve of the vessel? I have been told that such an amount would be very small, but how does the resulting aperture affect the dynamics of gas release? Was the vessel contained inside a drum (i.e., a confined space), as some reports suggest? If so, how does that affect the dynamics of the explosion and gas release? What would the impact of an explosive devise have on the rate of release of the chlorine and how much of the chlorine would actually remain after the rupture of the container?
  • How much chlorine (if this was what it was) was inside the vessel? How would sufficient chlorine be built up locally to seriously injure or even kill people? In what environment was the chlorine released (e.g., closed space of a room or outside in the open air)? Chlorine is perceptible to humans in very low concentrations, so why would people remain in close vicinity of the devise long enough to absorb a harmful dose of chlorine? Following the blast, I have been told, people in close proximity of the bomb may be dazed and confused and in their disorientation may consequently not escape from the area. Was this the case?
  • Would an industry-standard container rupture simply by dropping it from a helicopter?
  • One film clip on Brown Moses’ blog shows a helicopter dropping something, followed by a – in my mind – big flash. Would chlorine withstand the forces and heat of such a detonation? Detonation of chlorine was pretty ineffective in Iraq (at least as regards the impact of chlorine on the targeted group of people).
  • Are there any reports of corroded metals in the vicinity of the area of release? (Moisture in the air acts as a catalyst for chemical reactions with chlorine, and the agent is very aggressive on metals and alloys.)
  • Why do press reports refer to a ‘yellow’ smoke or powder (as one Beirut-based journalist described the observations to me)? Chlorine tends more towards pale green, sometimes with a yellowish hue. However, the yellow might dominate in a sun-swamped environment and an overall sandy-colour backdrop. I do not know. A BBC clip (2nd clip, middle article, final seconds) posted on 28 April, shows yellow smoke from a barrel bomb attack in which no chlorine was used. So, can we see similarities of symptoms and phenomena between different types of attack, but which witnesses do not or cannot differentiate? Another example: as for the reports of a chlorine smell near the scene of the Khan al-Assal attack in March 2013, chemical weapons expert and chief operating officer of SecureBio, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, then said that conventional high explosives can also produce an odour which might be mistaken for chlorine.
  • Would one expect a hissing sound as the chlorine under pressure escapes from the container? Have we seen any such witness accounts?
  • Are we looking at a case of what I call ‘opportunistic use of toxic chemicals’, where people (government soldiers, their allies, or insurgents) took hold of containers at an industrial site and improvised a new device of war? In other words, are we looking at a case of deliberate preparation for chemical warfare by whoever is responsible for the events?

A good call

The OPCW Director-General’s decision is the right one. Ambiguity and speculation must be removed—and fast. The lack of precise timing (or explanation of the necessary preparations and precautions) in the OPCW press statement is worrying, and not just because this is the first time the organisation is called upon to launch an investigation of use all by itself (in previous investigations the OPCW assisted the UN Secretary-General, as Syria was not yet a party to the CWC). Chlorine is a very volatile element, so the critical question is how long the agent might reside in the soil, on other surfaces or inside containers? The answer is not long, especially not in the heat of Syria.

Still, the exercise should not be futile. Investigations of alleged use typically apply various methods (medical analysis, identification of plausible witnesses and corroboration of individual stories, matching pictures and film footage based on the stories by the carefully selected witnesses, etc.), whose independent results should contribute to building a more or less consistent picture of events. The OPCW inspectors would deploy sophisticated detection equipment. Any evidence brought back from the incident sites would be subject to strict procedures to preserve the chain of custody and then divided over multiple OPCW-certified laboratories for analysis.

And oh, just as a small afterthought: with an OPCW investigation, one of course does not have to wonder who has paid the piper.