Syria Got Rid of Its Chemical Weapons — But Reports of Attacks Continue
A Syrian man receives treatment at the Sarmin field hospital following a suspected chlorine gas attack by Assad regime forces in Idlib, Syria on April 17, 2015. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
In mid-March, residents in Sarmin, a rebel-held village in northwestern Syria, heard a helicopter and rescue workers in the town prepared for the worst: barrel bombs. There was no explosion, but within minutes, the wounded started arriving at a field hospital. They didn’t have physical wounds. Instead, the patients were coughing, they struggled to breathe and reported burning sensations in their eyes and throats.
“There was a very strong chlorine smell there,” Muhammad Yazan, a local activist, told Human Rights Watch. Yazan went to the impact site in Sarmin, as well as to another village that was attacked in Idlib province. “One of our team members passed out due to the smell. It was horrible. My eyes were burning. I wanted to throw up. My skin felt like I had rashes.”
By the time the attacks ended, six civilians — including three children — were dead and at least 110 others were struggling with various symptoms associated with a chlorine attack.
The attack was not an isolated incident. Since mid-March, rescue workers and doctors have documented 35 barrel bomb attacks mostly in Syria’s Idlib province that allegedly involved chlorine. The attacks resulted in more than 1,000 injuries and nine deaths. Sarmin alone was reportedly targeted in at least three separate attacks in March, according to Human Rights Watch.
The bombings come despite the Syrian government signing the Chemical Weapons Convention — which bans the use of chemical weapons in warfare — in 2013, and turning over its stockpile of chemical weapons as part of a deal brokered by the United States and Russia. And although the attacks have not been definitively linked to the regime by independent investigators, most observers suspect the Syrian government is responsible. If the reports are confirmed, it would mean Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is violating the international ban on chemical weapons by using chlorine as a weapon of war against his own people.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced the removal of all declared chemical weapons from Syria in June 2014. But chlorine was not included in the list of agents that were removed, because it has many benign and essential uses — making drinking water safe, sanitizing hospitals, making medicine.
“There are specific agents of destruction like sarin gas, which has no applicable civilian use ever,” Annie Sparrow, an assistant professor at the Arnhold Global Health Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai told FRONTLINE. “Chlorine is what we call a dual agent, because it’s so widely used in industry and medicine.”
In a May essay in The New York Review of Books, Sparrow, who has trained Syrian doctors and researched the impact of the Syrian civil war on its health infrastructure, wrote about the Syrian government’s alleged withholding of “good chlorine” — for medical and sanitizing purposes — and its use of “bad chlorine” — in the form of a weaponized poison gas. Sparrow says that both actions have hurt Syrian civilians, subjecting them to chemical attacks in addition to leaving them vulnerable to diseases such as polio, cholera and typhoid.
“Chlorine itself is not so effective as a weapon of death,” Sparrow told FRONTLINE, pointing out that other chemical weapons are far more deadly. “It’s incredibly effective as a weapon of fear and terror.”
But concentrated chlorine gas is still fatal, and its use as a weapon is a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
“A baby died just two weeks ago,” Sparrow noted, describing the effect of chlorine gas. “Young kids are always the most vulnerable, because they just don’t have the resilience that adults do. The lungs are smaller, they’re more likely to breathe in more, and they literally die as their lungs dissolve into hydrochloric acid as the chlorine meets the moisture in the lungs. It’s a vicious way to die.”
These aren’t the first reports of chlorine gas being used in the Syrian conflict. Last fall, the OPCW’s fact-finding mission released a report saying it had found “compelling confirmation” that chlorine gas had been used “systematically and repeatedly” in three northern villages — Talmanes, Al Tamanah and Kafr Zeta — in April 2014.
While the OPCW confirmed the use of chlorine as a weapon in those attacks, it could not assign blame. Other reports have mentioned the alleged use of ammonia in attacks within Syria.
However, experts note that the barrel bombs reportedly carrying chlorine are dropped from helicopters, which only President Bashar al-Assad’s forces use in the Syrian conflict. A majority of the attacks reported since March took place in Idlib province, where the Assad regime has lost ground to rebels. Investigations by the United States and the United Nations have also implicated the Assad regime in at least one chemical weapons attack with sarin gas that killed 1,400 men, women and children in 2013.
“They’re a terror tactic,” said Noah Bonsey, International Crisis Group’s Syria analyst, told FRONTLINE. “The regime uses chlorine bombs, like barrel bombs in general, in part as an element of its collective punishment strategy — to raise the cost of opposition to the regime, to punish civilian areas that come under rebel control, to punish areas that rebel fighters tend [to] come from.”
The Assad regime’s alleged use of chlorine bombs adheres to a trend, Bonsey noted, of slowing pushing the envelope. “Once the regime realizes it can get away with a new tactic — it will use it sparingly at first and then apply it more regularly as it feels that there’s no consequence for that escalation.”
And so far, reports of chlorine bombs have not provoked a similar reaction from the U.S. and U.N. that the sarin gas attack in August 2013 did. In the aftermath of that attack, President Barack Obama — who had described the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war as a “red line” that would carry “enormous consequences” — ordered the military to get ready.
“Our finger was on the trigger,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told FRONTLINE. Ultimately, the U.S. and Russia brokered a deal to remove and destroy Assad’s chemical weapons. Derek Chollet, former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told FRONTLINE, “The credible threat of force brought about an opening for diplomacy to come in, which then led to something that no one thought was possible.”
That reaction was a marked contrast to how Obama reacted when asked about the alleged chlorine attacks. On May 14, when asked about reports of chlorine bombs, he said, “Chlorine itself, historically, has not been listed as a chemical weapon, but when it is used in this fashion can be considered a prohibited use of that particular chemical.” He added that the U.S. was working with the international community to investigate the reports.
“The U.S. has condemned the ongoing use of chlorine bombs, but at the same time, they’re not using their diplomatic weight to make clear that such attacks will not be tolerated,” Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director, told FRONTLINE. “In a way, there’s no sense of urgency in their actions … It just seems like rhetorical condemnations. There’s a real erosion of the global prohibition on using chemicals in war.”
“The issue here is the regime doesn’t fear any consequences for the use of this weapon,” Bonsey said. “That’s in part because the regime doesn’t see a credible threat coming from the United States.”
On March 6, the U.N. Security Council condemned the use of chlorine gas as a weapon in Syria. It is now discussing a draft resolution that would create a panel to attribute attacks to the responsible party.
Meanwhile, reports of attacks are ongoing.