In the period of 16–18 March 1988 Halabja and its surroundings were attacked with chemical weapons (CW). According to Iranian figures, there were 12,500 casualties, including more than 5,500 fatalities. A Kurdish researcher later concluded that at least 3200 residents are known to have died. It is impossible to reconstruct exactly the events in and around Halabja. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted that the Iraqi military forces were solely responsible for the attack against a civilian target. Yet, shortly after the events sources in the United States began to hint that Iranian troops might have actually killed the majority of the civilians. The latter version assumes that the Iranians had not occupied Halabja and that the Kurdish inhabitants were killed by a chemical warfare agent that was never in the Iraqi arsenal. Most significantly, it suggests that Iran had achieved an advanced stage of assimilation of CW into its military doctrine.
Two factors definitely contributed to the change in Iran’s views on chemical warfare: the systematic Iraqi attacks with CW from 1983 onwards and the lack of response from the international community for the Iraqi violations of international law. Iran’s chemical weapons (CW) armament programme started late into the war. Such a programme is complex and involves many phases, including research and development, setting up a production base, weaponisation, offensive and defensive doctrine development, establishment of logistics and operational support, training, and protection and defence. Consequently, Iran cannot be expected to have developed an advanced chemical warfare capability before the cease-fire in August 1988. Iraq, in contrast, is known to have embarked on a CW armament programme in the 1970s (although there are earlier indications), but it still required several years of war fighting before it was able to integrate CW in its overall military operations and field a variety of agents.
In the 1980–88 Gulf War Iraq repeatedly attacked Iran with chemical weapons (CW). At the beginning of the war both countries were contracting parties to the Geneva Protocol. According to Iranian statements, the first Iraqi CW attack occurred in January 1981. One of the first independent news reports appeared in August 1982. Iraq gradually integrated CW into its defensive and offensive military operations.
Initially Iran appears to have been totally unprepared for military operations in a chemical environment. Throughout the war Iranian troops remained poorly protected and, in the light of the missile war against cities, the country would have been unable to protect its civilian population from Iraqi missiles armed with chemical warheads. Although CW accounted for only a small proportion of Iranian battle casualties, the threat and the inability to retaliate in kind against Iraqi population centres contributed to the demoralisation of the Iranian leadership, military personnel and civilians.
Allegations that Iran is a chemical weapon (CW) proliferator originated in part with claims that it had used CW during the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq war. Iraq was the principal user of CW during the war. According to Iranian accounts, the first chemical attacks began in January 1981, but independent reports were not published until one and a half years later. Iraqi chemical attacks definitely escalated during the second half of 1983, which eventually led to the first of several investigatory missions organised by UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuellar in March 1984. Despite the overwhelming evidence of chemical warfare, confirmed by the UN missions, the international community represented by the UN Security Council chose not to brand Iraq as the violator of the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons in armed conflict. Instead, it repeatedly called upon both belligerents to respect the protocol and only accused Iraq by name of waging chemical warfare in the final stages of the conflict. Iran—internationally isolated because of its inflammatory rhetoric, subversion of governments in the Middle East, and the hostage taking of US embassy personnel following the 1979 Islamic Revolution—meanwhile felt increasingly frustrated by the lack of will to uphold international law and threatened to resort to CW in retaliation.
Whether Iran launched chemical weapon (CW) attacks against Iraq during the 1980-88 Gulf War has been the subject of a long-lasting controversy. Iraq was responsible for initiating chemical warfare in the early 1980s in blatant violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting CW use in war (since then, more broadly termed ‘armed conflict’). Negotiations for the Chemical Weapons Convention were ongoing and would not be concluded until September 1992. Nothing in the Geneva Protocol prevented Iran from developing, producing and stockpiling CW. Little stood in its way to retaliate in kind.
In my blog posting of 16 January entitled ‘Palestine: From a “will-be” party to the CWC to a “would-have-been”?’, I described how Palestine submitted its instrument of accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) with the UN Secretary-General on 29 December, only to withdraw it on 8 January. Since having achieved the status of ‘UN non-member observer state’ in 2012, Palestine has joined over 50 international agreements, including the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, to which it became formally a party on 16 January. The CWC is the only treaty on which it reversed its position.
Something really remarkable happened in the first two weeks of 2018. On 2 January, quite out of the blue came the notification by UN Secretary-General António Guterres that the State of Palestine had deposited its instrument of accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). It was to become the 193rd state party on 28 January, thirty days after having submitted the document (29 December). Indeed, ‘was’. Guterres formally informed UN members on 11 January that Palestine had withdrawn its instrument of accession three days earlier.
Speaking notes for the side event to the 2017 Preparatory Committee of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), organised by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) and Academic Peace Orchestra Middle East (APOME), Vienna, 8 May 2017.
It builds on and updates an earlier posting of 13 March 2015.
Operation of the CWC in the Middle East
- As of 1 May 2017, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) comprises 192 states parties. The CWC entered into force 20 years ago, on 29 April 1997. It has the largest number of parties of any weapon control treaty.
- Four states, including two from the Middle East, are still outside the convention: Egypt, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan. (Israel did sign but not ratify the convention.)
- Given the armed conflicts in different parts of the Middle East, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has intervened in Syria and Libya to secure declared chemical weapons (CW) and have them destroyed in other parties to the CWC so as to prevent their use by any one of the belligerents in either country. The Libyan operation took place in August 2016. It drew on the precedent set by and experience gained from the evacuation of chemicals from Syria.
Situation in Syria
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has just announced the accession of Angola to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The country deposited its instrument of accession with the UN Secretary-General on 16 September, which means that it will become a party to the CWC 30 days later, that is, 16 October.
Angola will thus be the 192nd state to join the OPCW. No other treaty limiting possession or use of a particular type of weaponry can boast that many parties. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has 191; the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) 173.
Using the Momentum of Syria’s Chemical Weapons Dismantlement and Identifying Spill-Over Potentials
Discussion note prepared for: Academic Peace Orchestra – Middle East (APOME), Tackling the Middle East WMD/DVs Arsenals in the Context of Military Asymmetries Towards Zonal Disarmament, Berlin, 11–12 March 2015
- Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on 14 September 2013 and formally became a state party on 14 October. This was the outcome of a framework agreement on the elimination of Syria’s chemical warfare capacities between Russia and the United States reached in Geneva on 14 September. This accord averted military strikes by France, the United Kingdom and the United States as reprisal for the use of chemical weapons (CW) in the Syrian civil war. In particular the attacks against the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August represented a major escalation in the conflict. The sarin nerve agent killed hundreds of people and injured many more. At the time of the attacks a UN team comprising experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) were in Damascus in response to an earlier request by the Syrian government to investigate alleged CW use during the spring of 2013. After modification of its mandate, it investigated the Ghouta attacks and issued their preliminary report on 16 September, two days after the Geneva accord. The findings all but blamed the Syrian government. The team submitted its final report covering all chemical warfare allegations from the original mandate as well as some additional attacks after the Ghouta incident on 12 December.
- After becoming a party to the CWC the verification activities have consisted of four types of activities:
- Syrian declarations on CW holdings, CW-relevant infrastructure (production and storage sites), and on the history of its chemical warfare programme since 1 January 1946. Given the special circumstances that have led the country to accede to the convention, Syria was requested and has (or is in the process of ) providing information on the destruction of CW before becoming a CWC party. As illustrated by the cases of France and Iran, a state party is not normally required to declare this type of information. However, in order to ensure that Syria is not hiding secret stashes of CW, the requested data contribute to establishing a baseline for its past capacities.
- The OPCW verifies those declarations, resolves anomalies and where required requests amendments to those declarations.
- The OPCW conducted inspections at the declared production and storage sites. It oversaw the removal of chemical warfare and precursor agents from Syrian territory and the destruction of delivery means, relevant equipment and installations, and precursor chemicals. It also oversaw the hydrolysis of mustard agent and the neutralisation of a range of precursor chemicals aboard the US vessel Cape Ray in the Mediterranean and the destruction of the resulting effluents in incinerators in Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. At present the OPCW is also overseeing the destruction of the former Syrian CW production facilities. To date, two out of twelve buildings have been destroyed and completion of this task is envisaged for this summer.
- The OPCW carried out field investigations into the alleged use of chlorine during the spring and summer of 2014.
Adaptation to specific circumstances
- Nobody anticipated that the OPCW would ever have to evacuate CW from a state party under conditions of war. Such a situation never occurred before. Even the disarmament of Iraq during the 1990s took place after a cease-fire agreement, endorsed by the UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991). Syria joined the CWC as a CW possessor state, which was also a first after the treaty-defined destruction deadlines had expired. As a consequence, the responsibility to determine Syria’s interim and final destruction deadlines fell to the Executive Council. Its decision of 27 September 2013 was an adaptation of the US-Russian framework agreement. That same night the UN Security Council endorsed the decision in Resolution 2118 (2013). However, given the virtual impossibility to destroy the CW inside a country at war and the extremely tight deadline to complete destruction operations, the EC adopted several exceptional measures in a second decision of 15 November, none of which are precedent-setting.
- A first major departure from the standard CWC process concerns the initial declaration. Under Article III this document is due within 30 days after the convention enters into force for a state party and establishes a baseline for the country’s status as CW possessor, plans for the destruction of CW and related installations if so required, a description of any CW-related activities after 1 January 1945, the types of chemical facilities on its territory and the types and quantities of treaty-relevant chemicals they produce. Following that submission OPCW inspectors will verify the accuracy of the initial declaration, upon which the state party can submit amendments if so required. In practice OPCW staff will assist a country preparing to join the CWC with compiling the initial declaration and other measures to be undertaken (e.g., national legislation). In the case of Syria inspectors entered the country even before it had formally become a state party (i.e., 30 days after accession) and such an initial declaration was submitted. The Syrian government had agreed to the accelerated pace. While it enabled the OPCW to quickly secure key CW sites that were accessible (some were in combat zones or under the control of insurgents), prepare inventories and render the delivery systems and special equipment useless, it also created a situation in which the OPCW received a lot of information piecemeal. Combined with the chaos of war, Syrian claims of poor bureaucratic administration of the chemical programmes and quite possibly reluctance to cooperate in full, this led to quite a few corrections of the initial declaration and submission of fresh data. Within the Technical Secretariat a small Declaration Assessment Team was set up to raise questions based on the initial declaration, to identify the gaps, find discrepancies, and so on, in order to correct the declaration. In this way, the OPCW has been able and is still continuing to develop the full picture of Syria’s past CW capacities and programmes.
- Under the terms of Article IV of the CWC, each state party remains the owner of the CW that must be destroyed, destroys those CW on its own territory, and pays for the destruction operations and the OPCW verification activities. Given the inability to destroy the CW inside a country at war and the extremely tight deadline to complete destruction operations, the EC adopted several exceptional measures, none of which are precedent-setting:
- With the exception of one precursor chemical that had to be destroyed in-country, all warfare agents and other precursors were evacuated by sea from Syria.
- Once they had left the territory, the international community as represented by the OPCW assumed responsibility for the toxic substances. The legal status of the weapons outside of Syria, and therefore the liability in case of a mishap, was never precisely determined.
- The toxic substances were neutralised or hydrolysed aboard the specially adapted US vessel Cape Ray in the Mediterranean, and then transferred to commercial incinerators in Finland, the United Kingdom and the United States and a dedicated CW destruction facility in Germany.
- Both the UN and the OPCW set up special trust funds to finance the operation as Syria claimed to be unable to pay for the destruction and verification costs. Many countries offered funds or contributed in kind.
The emerging challenge of opportunistic use of toxic industrial chemicals
- Opportunistic use of toxic industrial chemicals occurs when a particular entity resorts to a mode of chemical warfare using toxic chemicals that are readily available at a chemical plant or storage site, but does not undertake steps to develop and produce such weapons. The types of agent thus used can range from extremely common chemical substances, such as chlorine (often used in liquid form for water purification), to compounds such as insecticides and pesticides that, just like sarin or VX, belong to the family organophosphates. A typical characteristic of opportunistic use of toxic chemicals is that the attacks cease as soon as stores have been depleted or access to other sources of supply cut off. Delivery is extremely crude, but some indicators suggest a development process for dissemination devices may take place to enhance the impact of the attacks.
- Through the spring and summer of 2014 there were several reports of chlorine strikes in Syria. Barrel bombs filled with liquid chlorine were dropped on villages from helicopters, strongly suggesting that government forces were responsible for them. As chlorine (or any other toxic chemical) falls under the General Purpose Criterion (GPC) of the CWC, any use as a method of warfare is prohibited. With Syria a state party to the CWC, the OPCW launched an investigation of alleged use. The fact-finding mission arrived in Damascus on 3 May, five days after its creation by the OPCW Director-General. During an onsite investigation on 27 May the team’s vehicle convoy was hit by an explosive device and came under fire. While this part of the mission had to be discontinued, the investigators were able to collate considerable data by means of other techniques, including victim and witness interviews, analysis of medical records and discussions with medical staff, and the analysis of flight paths of helicopters and correlating them to the precise time and site of the barrel bomb attack. It presented three reports in June, September and December 2014. On 4 February 2015 the OPCW Executive Council’s decision formally determined that chlorine had been used as a method of warfare and condemned the acts as a major breach of the CWC. Even though the conclusion did not identify the culprit, it is clear that as a state party Syria bears responsibility for preventing any violation on its territory.
- Other allegations of opportunistic use of toxic chemicals attributing responsibility to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) emerged during the second half of 2014. One such claim related to the intense fighting at Avdiko village, 12 km east of Kobani in northern Syria; the other incidents came from Iraq. These occurrences pose a special problem under the CWC. While a state party is responsible for the implementation of the CWC on its territory, the reported events took place in areas not under the control by the government. Moreover the way the alleged use was described in Avdiko, both the perpetrator and the victims were non-state actors, a situation that may potentially create a legal and practical vacuum. Under the terms of the CWC (Verification Annex, Part XI, §27), if use has been alleged on territory not under the control by the government of a state party, then the UN Secretary-General’s mechanism will apply. However, in view of the attacks on the OPCW investigative team in May 2014 and the reliance on the Syrian military for the security and safety of UN and OPCW personnel inside Syria, the question arises how a UN investigation would be able to access an area of intense fighting in which the government military play no role. Thus far no concrete ideas suggestion an international military force to be inserted into a UN member state for the sole purpose of protecting an investigative team have been put forward.