Drawing the red line – The case of Syria’s Chemical Weapons stockpile

Jan 10 2013
VERTIC Blog >> Verification and Monitoring

Russell Moul, London

Recent weeks have seen mounting fears that the Syrian government may resort to the use of chemical weapons against rebel forces seeking its overthrow – a move that could mark a tipping point towards international military engagement.

In a related development, as the civil conflict continues to rage, recent reports from the Netherlands indicate that military vehicles carrying Patriot air-defence missiles are now heading towards Turkey. This follows last week’s announcement from the US European Command that initial equipment and staff are already in Turkey as part of NATO’s pledge to protect the Turkish border from feared chemical weapons strikes, and other offensive threats from Syria.

Patriot (Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept on Target) missiles are surface-to-air guided missile defence systems notable for their short response time, their ability to intercept multiple targets simultaneously, and their resistance to electronic jamming. Ankara, Turkey’s capital, requested air-defence support from NATO late November last year – after several Syrian shells landed in Turkish territory, killing several people. As a result, NATO foreign ministers declared their determination to deter the possibility of a Syrian attack on Turkish territory. They welcomed the intention of Germany, the Netherlands and the U.S. to each provide two Patriot batteries – each launcher is capable of firing four missiles or sixteen if they are the ‘Pac-3’ version – and hundreds of personnel to aid Turkey’s defence. NATO has stated that these batteries are purely a defensive measure and will not constitute a no-fly zone.

Throughout 2012, Syria’s civil war was a persistent cause of both regional and international anxiety. Fears over chemical weapons use mounted in July when Syria’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, acknowledged the existence of an extensive chemical weapons stockpile which could be used against ‘external aggression’. Then, in late November last year, troubling satellite intelligence emerged from Israel: Syrian forces appeared to be preparing chemical mixtures, most likely the deadly sarin nerve agent, for potential attacks against rebel forces. 

Syria is a party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol and is also obliged by customary international law not to use chemical weapons under any circumstances. However, it has not signed the 188-member strong Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and is so free to produce and stockpile – see Scott Spence’s recent blog post Syria: international law and the use of chemical weapons. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is the implementing body of the CWC, and is responsible for the treaty’s verification regime. Since Syria is not a party to the treaty, the organisation lacks a direct legal mandate to conduct inspections in the country. However, such a mandate could be given through the United Nations. The Secretary-General may, if there is an alleged violation of the 1925  Geneva protocol, deploy a fact-finding team to the site of the alleged violation. This team would be tasked to ascertain the facts in an ‘objective and scientific’ way.

Part XI, paragraph 27, of the CWC Verification Annex reads, ‘In the case of alleged use of chemical weapons involving a State not Party to this Convention or in territory not controlled by a State Party, the Organization shall closely cooperate with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. If so requested, the Organization shall put its resources at the disposal of the Secretary-General of the United Nations.’

The Secretary-General’s team may also be supplemented by staff from the World Health Organization (WHO), according to the terms of a 2011 UN-WHO Memorandum of Understanding.

In other words, the OPCW has a stake in the matter. In response to the news that Syrian government forces were preparing chemical agents, the OPCW Director-General, Ahmet Üzümcü, contacted the Syrian Foreign Minister to urge the Syrian Government to ‘accede to the Convention without delay’. By signing the CWC, Syria would assure the international community of its intentions and would enable the OPCW to conduct detailed verification activities, including verifying the destruction of the chemical weapons that already exist.

Concerns remain that Syrian government forces now have chemical weapons ready for use on short notice. Moreover, as the fighting continues in the Syrian capital Damascus, government forces have reportedly moved towards more sophisticated forms of conventional weapons. Facing growing rebel antiaircraft capabilities, Syria’s military is recently thought to have launched several short range ballistic missiles. The missile are believed to be Fateh-110s, which are short-range, road-mobile missiles capable of carrying chemical-tipped warheads. No chemical munitions have been used so far.

This week, the political counsellor of the Syrian rebel group The Free Syrian Army, Bassam al-Dada, claimed to have possession of precursor substances and technical knowledge for manufacturing chemical agents. He stated that such weapons would only be used in retaliation against chemical attacks from President Assad’s forces, adding that: ‘If we ever use them, we will only hit the regime’s bases and centres’. 

Last changed: Jan 10 2013 at 7:39 PM