The Syrian civil war’s most horrific feature has become its most consistent undertone – one of the threat of war crimes committed with chemical weapons.
Hundreds of attacks have been made with chemical weapons, whose manufacture and use are restricted by international agreement. A report by the Global Public Policy Institute recorded more than 336 incidents in which the use of chemical weapons in Syria was likely. Of those incidents, 98 per cent, the report claimed, were carried out by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Chemical weapons have proven a potent weapon for Damascus, central to its strategy to defeat all opposition by removing every defence that could be used by those living under alternative authority. However, chemical weapons and the international outrage their use represents have placed the regime on the brink of overthrow in the past.
When a regime’s sarin attack killed hundreds in Ghouta in August 2013, it seemed punitive action from powers opposed to Assad was likely. The US President, Barack Obama, had promised a response if the regime used chemical weapons. French jets were reportedly in the air.
The expected reprisal did not occur, derailed by political opposition in the British House of Commons and possible dissent in the US Congress. Instead, the United States agreed, with Assad’s ally Russia acting as the broker, to supervise the surrender of Assad’s newly declared chemical stockpiles. Obama declared a compromise avoiding the use of punitive force a preferable alternative to conflict.
Years of subsequent attacks and high chemical casualties show the limits of that decision. Chemical munitions remain a powerful tool in the regime’s armoury, one which sees frequent use.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons expert and co-chairman of medical NGOs that operate in Syria, said Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Ghouta ‘broke Obama’s “red line” but saved Assad’.
‘The regime knows that bombs and bullets only go so far’, de Bretton-Gordon said.
Likewise, even the threat of chemical weapons only goes so far. For the regime, chemical propaganda goes further.
Every chemical attack, even those identified as having been carried out by aircraft – which only the regime and its allies possess – has been disputed or obfuscated.
The regime’s advocates, sympathetic media and state-owned channels claim that rebel groups made their own variety of ‘bathtub sarin’ and gassed themselves and civilians, or that attacks of which the regime is alleged to have committed are ‘false flag’ efforts designed to draw in foreign support.
Military offensives are often presaged by the suggestion that rebel forces are readying another chemical false flag.
Syrian and Russian officials have made aspersions against the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has made extensive allegations of chemical weapons use by the regime.
This development was coupled with Russia’s state-owned propaganda outlets reporting the Russian envoy to the OPCW warning that rebels were planning a ‘chemical provocation’ in Idlib.
All this is of a piece with the efforts both states have made to discredit investigative bodies that blame chemical warfare in Syria on the regime. One particular aspect stood out: When recounting portions of the envoy’s statement, his words were presented by Russian state media not as a contradiction of the NGO’s reporting but as the verdict of the OPCW itself.
This is not a new trick. An individual submission to the OPCW regarding the chemical attack on Douma in April 2018, an incident in which more than 40 people died and was blamed on the regime, was reported by pro-Assad and Russian media as a leaked OPCW report that exculpated the regime. The OPCW’s declared findings stated the opposite conclusion.
‘The regime and Russia have a well-oiled machine for propaganda in the chemical attack disinformation field’, de Bretton-Gordon said. ‘We saw an incredible Russian campaign after the Salisbury attacks, which initially completely overwhelmed the UK government and took time to counter;.
Parts of Syria remain outside Assad’s orbit. If the regime wishes to conquer them, it will likely rely on Russian support in both propaganda and physical terms.
Chemical weapons serve as both an indispensable part of the regime’s arsenal and as a potent aspect of its propaganda efforts. The widespread deployment by pro-regime media of the suggestion that rebels in Idlib province are preparing a ‘chemical provocation’ needs to be taken seriously. It represents not only a propaganda offensive but also the likely prospect of an assault by chemical means to come.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.