Use of Syrian chemical weapons

Damascus adopts contradictory line

A man cries at a site hit by what activists said was a Scud missile in Aleppo’s Ard al-Hamra neighbourhood, in this February 23rd file photograph. The US believes that Syria’s regime has used chemical weapons. Photograph: Reuters

A man cries at a site hit by what activists said was a Scud missile in Aleppo’s Ard al-Hamra neighbourhood, in this February 23rd file photograph. The US believes that Syria’s regime has used chemical weapons. Photograph: Reuters

Sat, Apr 27, 2013, 06:00

Since the issue of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict was raised last summer, Damascus has adopted a contradictory line on possession and use of these weapons.

Information minister Omran al-Zoubi yesterday denied not only US and British accusations that the army has used chemical weapons during the conflict, but also that it even has such weapons.

Other officials have called the charges “lies” and compared them to false allegations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction used to justify the 2003 war.

However, in July 2012, as western intelligence agencies suggested Damascus was moving chemical weapons stocks to safeguard them, former foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi appeared to admit that Syria possessed chemical weapons.

To deter outside involvement in the conflict, he warned that they would be deployed “only in case of foreign aggression”. He said they would never be used against Syrians.

Last month Damascus accused rebels of using chemical weapons in an attack on a village in Aleppo province and invited the UN to send a team to investigate. When the UN demanded access to the entire country, this was refused.

Weapons stockpiles
Syria, which is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibiting the manufacture and use of such weapons, is said to have a large stockpile, including sulphur-based mustard gas, a blister agent, and tabun, sarin, and VX.

As a producer of phosphates, Syria could manufacture the phosphorus-based agents from its own resources. However, until unrest erupted two years ago, it reportedly depended on foreign sources of raw materials and equipment.

Before the conflict engulfed Aleppo, the centre of the country’s pharmaceutical industry, Syria produced 85 per cent of its needs and, it is also alleged, could have diverted some materials imported for medicines to the manufacture of chemical agents.

Four sites have been mentioned as housing facilities for the production and stockpiling of chemical warfare agents. These are located north of Damascus, near Homs and Hama, and at Cerin.

Syria is believed to have thousands of shells, bombs and rockets as well as warheads on ballistic missiles armed with sarin and other agents.

Last December, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Syria’s chemical weapons have been consolidated in one or two locations in order to safeguard them. He admitted, however, that such weapons could be captured by rebels.

Reports that Syria could have 1,000 tons of chemical weapons stored at 50 sites in the north are contradicted by the fact that these deadly weapons could now be located in areas occupied by rebel factions.

No claims have been made of large-scale use of chemical weapons by the Syrian army, which would have to be ordered by president Bashar al-Assad and his senior military commanders, knowing that full-scale western intervention could ensue.

International Strategic Studies Institute analyst Mark Fitzpatrick suggested, however, that chemical and conventional shells could get mixed up in the “fog of war”.

Chemical weapons expert Ralf Trapp argued that it does not make strategic sense to use small amounts of chemical weapons in this case.