Chemical Weapons Monitors Begin Chlorine Gas Investigation In Syria

OPCW Headquarters in the Netherlands CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PETER DEJONG
OPCW Headquarters in the Netherlands CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PETER DEJONG

Members of the organization charged with ending the use of chemical weapons are currently on the ground in Syria and have been for more than a week now, quietly working to verify if the government violated its pledge to no longer use chemical weapons in its ongoing civil war.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) last month announced that it would be deploying a team to Syria to investigate claims that the regime has taken to using chlorine gas and other abrasive chemicals in its bombing of rebel strongholds and civilian neighborhoods alike. Since the initial announcement, the OPCW itself has made given no updates on the status of the new mission aside from brief comments at other events related to Syria, with the last press release on Syria as of press time still dated April 29. But the team has been on the ground working for a week now, according to the OPCW.

“An advance team deployed to Syria within days of the [Director-General’s] announcement, on 2 May, to lay the groundwork for the mission, followed by a team of inspectors who arrived last week and began their fact-finding activities,” OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said in an email to ThinkProgress. “There is no fixed time period for the mission but it will more likely be weeks, not months.” The team includes five inspectors at the moment, Luhan said, who can be “supplemented with another 3 inspectors if the situation requires.”

So far, the Syrian government has proven cooperative with this new mission. “The Syrian government, which has agreed to accept this mission, has undertaken to provide security in areas under its control,” the OPCW said last month. But the team won’t be operating in government territory. Instead, they will “attempt to access one or more of the sites where alleged chemical attacks have occurred, which are located in areas controlled by opposition forces,” Luhan said. “So safe access will have to be negotiated and is uncertain.”

The current OPCW investigation marks its third mission on the ground in Syria in less than a year. The first — to investigate allegations that sarin gas and other deadly chemicals were used against civilians — was delayed from entering Syria for months. Then, in late August, the mission took on a new imperative with videos showing hundreds of people suffering from the effects of chemical weapons. The team’s mission shifted towards verifying that the attack had taken place and the government granted them immediate access as the United States and other western governments mulled military action.

The subsequent report determined that sarin had been utilized and while the document did not explicitly name the regime as the culprit, most of the circumstantial evidence indicated that the rebels were unable to carry out such an attack. That led to the most recent mission, a joint expedition with the United Nations, to carry out the agreement that Russia and the United States forged to prevent a Western attack and ensure that Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is destroyed.

On Tuesday, the joint mission announced that only 7.2 percent of Syria’s declared chemical weapons materials remain in country ahead of the final June 30 deadline. The Syrian government has said that the delay is due to violence in the area around the last warehouse where the chemicals are being stored. The Pentagon said on Tuesday that those stockpiles are now being moved for destruction. In contrast, however, the British representative to the OPCW on Thursday said there of the remaining chemicals there is “still no sign of any movement of chemicals, nor any indications of a time scale for a move.”

Over the last few weeks, the accusations that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government has been using chlorine gas as way to boost the lethality of their attacks have begun stacking up. Reports claim that in mid-April helicopters dropped a “barrel bomb” — a crude bomb composed of makeshift oil drums — that rather than containing the usual explosives and shrapnel, instead was filled with toxic gas. Last week, Human Rights Watch said that evidence “strongly suggests that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas.” And a doctor with the Syrian American Medical Society recently told Buzzfeed that a report from his organization documenting chlorine use has so far gone without a substantive response from the U.S. government.

The U.S. hasn’t been completely silent on the matter, however, and appears to be leaning towards acceptance of the allegations as fact. “And I have seen evidence, I don’t know how verified it is — it’s not verified yet — it’s hasn’t been confirmed, but I’ve seen the raw data that suggests there may have been, as France has suggested, a number of instances in which chlorine has been used in the conduct of war,” Secretary of State John Kerry said. “And if it has, and if it could be proven, then that would be against the agreements of the chemical weapons treaty and against the weapons convention that Syria has signed up to.”

Chlorine isn’t one of the chemicals banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Assad’s government signed as part of the deal, so it’s destruction wasn’t mandatory. But should the allegations of it being used as a weapon prove true, the United States will be put in a difficult situation. So far, there has been no indication that the U.S. is looking to call out Syria as in violation of the deal just yet, which could result in further action being taken in the U.N. Security Council, but that may well change once this latest OPCW mission has completed its investigation.