Chemical warfare has dominated the global perception of the Syrian civil war. The use of chemical weapons, banned internationally, attracts its own condemnation but the way the Syrian war is captured and communicated to the world increased the horror and disgust its crimes can inspire.
Video of civilians, especially children, enduring chemical poisoning is hard to deflect or, once seen, to forget.
When the world has seemed most likely to punish or remove the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, chemical crimes have most clearly been the cause.
In August 2013, after a particularly visible sarin attack on Eastern Ghouta and Moadamiya, the United States and its allies came close to intervening against Assad. Since then, on two occasions, the latter joined by Britain and France, the United States conducted air strikes against the regime because of its use of chemical weapons – in April 2017 in Khan Sheikhoun and a year later for the chemical attack on Douma.
Both the aborted intervention and later actions were undertaken regarding a red line drawn by former US President Barack Obama, in which he stated that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would not only constitute a crime but would necessitate and incur international punishment.
Although it may seem as though these were unusual responses to instances of rare horror, this is not the case. The rarity of this action cannot be taken to mean that its spurs occurred rarely or in anything resembling isolation.
“Nowhere to Hide”, a report for the Global Public Policy Institute written by Tobias Schneider and Theresa Lutkefend, highlights how common chemical attacks were during Syria’s war and how central they are to the Assad regime’s military strategy.
The report tabulates at least 336 chemical attacks that likely took place in Syria since the war began in 2011. Of those, the authors estimate, 98% were carried out by the Assad regime, with the remaining two per cent the likely work of the Islamic State. Furthermore, nine-tenths ‘of all confirmed attacks occurred after the infamous “red line” incident of August 2013’, the report’s authors write.
This alone would be a startling revelation, but more concerning is the extent to which chemical warfare became central to the regime’s strategy for taking territory and winning the war.
From the first reported use of chemical munitions in Khalidiya on December 23, 2012, the use of chlorine gas has featured heavily in the way the Assad regime has fought its enemies.
Sarin, the chemical agent in use in the August 2013 attack, is harder to manufacture, with its precursor chemicals heavily sanctioned.
The Assad regime nominally gave up its chemical stockpiles in 2013, making the production of dedicated chemical weapons, rather than derivative chemical products, more difficult.
Schneider and Lutkefend note that chlorine is legal to import and that chlorine gas itself is easy and cheap to manufacture. Chlorine is less lethal than sarin and thus attracts less international attention and less outright condemnation when it is employed.
Since 2012, and intensifying after 2013, the use of chlorine has become a backbone of the regime’s strategy. It is dropped in canisters from helicopters protected by the regime’s air supremacy. When an attack is alleged, defenders of the regime declare that its victims gassed themselves.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons expert who has undertaken extensive humanitarian work in Syria, said: ‘Chemical weapons have proven to be in Syria morbidly brilliant for fighting in towns and cities. I believe Assad was first saved by the Ghouta sarin attack in August 2013 and this highlighted to the regime how good CW [chemical weapons] were.
‘He had been fighting the rebels for two years conventionally in Ghouta and they were making ground. The Ghouta attack, in my opinion, changed the shape of the conflict,’ de Bretton-Gordon said.
The tactic thus proven to work, it was employed in other battles, used to soften up or frighten entrenched urban defenders into surrender.
‘The 4-year Aleppo siege was broken by the use of chlorine barrel bombs in December 2016. Aleppo was razed to the ground and conventional bombs and bullets made no impression on those sheltering underground and in the rubble,’ de Bretton-Gordon noted. ‘The same tactic was used in Ghouta in December 2017 and Douma in April 2018.’
That the Assad regime has made chemical warfare an essential part of its campaign to reconquer Syria is one thing; that it did so without serious punishment is another.
States can use these weapons without punishment and this makes their further use more likely by other nations and by terror groups.
‘But these weapons are abhorrent, indiscriminate and target civilians much more than military’, de Bretton-Gordon said. ‘Civilians, after all, do not have gas masks.’
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.