Seven possible cases of chemical weapons use in Syria — including chlorine and mustard gas — have been identified in a preliminary report released by a United Nations panel investigating who has deployed toxic weapons in the country’s civil war, now heading into its sixth year. No one has been apportioned blame by the panel, but that step is meant to resolve by late September. The cases represent those that might lead to identification of perpetrators of the crimes.
The report has been made public as the UN announced on Feb. 22 that a nationwide “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, brokered between the United States and Russia, will start on Feb. 27.
The chemical weapons report also comes as the independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, established in 2011 by the UN Human Rights Council, has released its latest report, saying that increased aerial bombardment on schools, hospitals and homes has left the country on the verge of collapse. The Commission is also looking into chemical weapons use in Syria, suggesting some duplication of services in the UN.
The United States was the primary mover behind the panel’s mandate from the UN Security Council to assign blame after a sarin gas attack occurred in the summer of 2013 in a Damascus suburb. Months earlier, the US had threatened that such an assault would cross a “red line,” although no military intervention followed.
The panel entrusted with the yearlong mandate is led by Virginia Gamba, an Argentine and disarmament specialist with 30 years’ experience, along with Eberhard Schanze of Germany on the investigation side and Adrian Neritani of Albania on the political end.
The UN resolution authorizing the investigation required Gamba’s team to report on initial findings 90 days after the group’s start-up (in mid-November) to identify and bring to justice, to the greatest extent possible, “those individuals, entities, groups, or governments responsible for any use of chemicals as weapons, including chlorine or any other toxic chemical” in the Syrian war.
The mandate also called on the UN team to identify the co-conspirators, organizers, financial backers and other sponsors to the chemical weapons use.
The team has narrowed its focus so far to four alleged cases of chlorine use against rebel-held areas, dropped by barrel bombs on various dates in April 2014 and March 2015, namely in Kafr Zita in Hama province; and Talmenes, Qmenas and Sarmin in Idlib.
A fifth case involves mustard gas, possibly used by Islamic State extremists in Marea, Aleppo province, near the Turkish border, in August 2015 (and which the Commission of Inquiry is also looking into). According to the Chemical Weapons Convention, mustard gas is a substance that has no use other than as a weapon. It was first used that way in World War I by Germans against British and Canadian troops in Ypres, Belgium.
A sixth attack, in Binnish, Idlib province, on March 23, 2015, is also being pursued, the panel report says. A seventh attack using a “chlorine-like” substance in Al-Tamanah, Idlib, in April and May 2014 is now on the list, Gamba told reporters at the UN. “Any use of toxic substances, weapons, by anybody, anywhere under any circumstances is totally abhorrent,” she said.
The chlorine attacks were conducted through barrel bombs dropped by helicopter, which are not equipment in the hands of rebels. Overall, the UN team studied 23 previously cited attacks occurring from April 2014 to August 2015. They traveled to Damascus, the Syrian capital, in December; follow-up visits and more in-depth analysis will continue in March.
What the investigation uncovers, said a person knowledgeable with the UN mandate, reveals a potentially more ominous hazard involving a broader range of chemicals as toxic weapons. Besides chlorine, which is normally used to purify water, other everyday materials, like ammonia-based fertilizer, could become insidious weapons in conflicts, as they are harder to detect, deter and prosecute.
Although the preliminary report does not point fingers, that was the foremost goal of the UN resolution passed last summer ordering the panel’s work (titled the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism, or JIM). The team is also relying on a technical office in The Hague, where the OPCW, as the group is known, is based.
The report lays out the next steps in determining who did what, how, why and when. Gamba is required to name the culprits by late September, when the mandate ends. Until recently, she was the director and deputy to the head of the UN’s Office on Disarmament Affairs.
Much of the information the team is working with is based on a fact-finding mission led by a Swede, Ake Sellstrom, from 2013, as well as open source material and details provided by Syria’s government and about 20 other nations. Sellstrom, a chemical weapons expert, was tasked by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, to carry out the fact-finding mission in Syria to determine whether, where and when chemical weapons were used.
Chemical weapons allegations had emerged in some UN reports years ago, but it was in March 2013 when the Syrian government reported to the UN that terrorists had fired chemicals from a rocket in Aleppo; the accusations were countered months later by the US, which said the Assad regime had unleashed sarin gas in Aleppo.
It was in Aug. 21, 2013 when international reports describing a sarin gas attack outside Damascus riveted the world. The attack killed hundreds of people, including children, their bodies blistered as if showered with poison, their corpses eventually wrapped in white as if mummified angels.
Sellstrom’s team had just begun its fieldwork in Damascus on Aug. 19 when it was told by the UN to switch priorities and conduct an on-site investigation into the gas attack. Sellstrom confirmed that chemical weapons were used in the Ghouta neighborhood “on a relatively large scale.” The mission did not ascribe blame, given the limits of its mandate. Nor did the mission declare that people had died directly from the attack.
Yet the US and other sources concluded that the Syrian government was the trigger behind the weaponry, based on data from Sellstrom’s findings, which placed the location of rocket trajectories delivering the gas to a government location. Russia and Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, claimed that rebels set off the attacks. No formal conclusion, however, has ever been made by the UN.
Pressured by major world powers, including Russia, Syria’s ally, the Assad government soon agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. Doing so forced the country to comply with the treaty’s ban on chemical weapons and compelled it, through an additional UN resolution, to destroy its substantial arsenal. The use of chlorine as a weapon is banned by the Convention, but the Syrian government was not required to eliminate its inventory because of chlorine’s legitimate uses.
A year later, in September 2014, Sigrid Kaag, a Dutchwoman who coordinated the UN-OPCW mission to manage the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stock, done mostly at sea on ships, announced that virtually all declared chemical stockpiles had been eliminated.
Gamba’s job is even more complicated, as no one has been instructed till now to say with certainty who was responsible for deploying chemical weapons in Syria. Her team is working under tight deadlines with a mandate riddled with loopholes, making it impossible to fulfill, suggest some nongovernment organizations, scoffing at the investigation’s goal.
For example, advocates focused on the continued use of cluster munitions, which are banned by many countries through an international treaty, point out that these weapons have resulted in many more deaths in Syria than chemical warfare. One activist wrote in 2014 on a Pax blog that the chemical weapons inquiry would signal the only “diplomatic feat of arms during the entire three-year Syrian crisis so far.”
As to what specifically happens to the culprits who have been found using chemical weapons is not mentioned in the UN resolution. The work by Gamba’s team is further magnified by the fact that if chemical weapons use is found to have occurred on Syrian soil after it joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, it could incite a military intervention under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, a UN official noted.
Not only does the politicized nature of the investigation mean that methods will be scrutinized but also that conclusions could be discredited or even ignored. The Gamba team, the UN official said, does not have the relative comfort of being a commission of inquiry or a court that determines guilt by addressing postmortem crimes. Instead, it functions on a mandate with room for wide interpretation by everyone involved.
The UN official added that the investigation’s lack of clarity about an end report — the mandate calls for only an initial one — puts the onus on Gamba’s team to direct the inquiry as best it can as it travels next into the heart of a war zone.
One member of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Vitit Muntharborn, confirmed that it was also studying chemical weapons use in Syria, specifically in Idlib, Aleppo and Hama provinces. He said that the Commission had a different mandate than Gamba’s team, but that it would cooperate with the group and welcomed the chance to travel to Damascus with Gamba’s team, as no Commission member has been inside Syria since October 2012.
“We don’t have access to Syria; this is a big obstacle,” Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, chairman of the Commission, said at the UN.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.