Scientists find evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria

Apr 18 2013
VERTIC Blog >> Verification and Monitoring
David Cliff, London
Over recent weeks, rising tensions between the West and North Korea have pushed Syria and its 70,000 dead down the global news agenda, but as the conflict there goes on, British scientists are now reported to have found hard evidence of chemical weapons use in the country. It is a development that, if correct, marks the first proof of its kind amid a sea of accusations and counter-claims.
The findings were reported by The Times of London on 12 April. According to the paper, scientists at the Ministry of Defence's chemical and biological research establishment at Porton Down, Wiltshire, found traces of chemicals from a weapon in a soil sample brought out of Syria by Britain's foreign intelligence service, MI6. The extraction of the sample reportedly took place last month, though when exactly, and where the soil came from, is unclear. Notably, the tests at Porton Down seemingly ruled out the possibility that the chemicals in question were from riot control substances used by Syrian security forces. One unnamed, unattributed source was quoted being dismissive of suggestions that what was detected was a riot control agent and pointing instead—while ruling out a definitive identification—to the nerve agent sarin.
There are, then, at least three key questions surrounding these tests. First, exactly what kind of chemical was used? Second, where in Syria was the sample taken from? And third, who used the chemical substance that was found? Was it the rebels or the regime?
Questions one and two will likely remain unanswerable unless the British government chooses to release more information. Porton Down may have an excellent idea of what chemical they are dealing with (and the source above seemingly indicates sarin as being a good bet), and MI6 will likely have a very good idea where the soil sample came from—even if they didn't send in one of their own operatives to get it. But question three (who used the chemicals?) is more tricky. Indeed, for weeks observers of the Syrian conflict have been asking just that question in relation to one incident in particular: Khan al-Asal.
The Khan al-Asal attack
Last month the Syrian government and the rebel opposition traded accusations with one another over the alleged use of chemical weapons on 23 March in the Khan al-Asal region of Aleppo province. Confident, presumably, of its innocence, the Syrian government referred the incident to the United Nations, requesting the UN secretary-general to launch an investigation into the matter, which he subsequently did.
The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime has for many months been labelled a 'red line' by the United States, although what the crossing of that line would in practice mean for Western involvement in the conflict has never been defined. The rebel side is far from a cohesive bloc and its patchwork of militias contains a number of increasingly entrenched jihadist groups—one of which, the so-called al-Nusra Front, last week pledged its allegiance to the head of al-Qaeda: Ayman al-Zawahiri. And with the rebellion as fractured as it is, Western governments are caught between a desire to hasten the end of the conflict and fears over what certain kinds of support for anti-Assad forces, or even direct intervention, could mean in terms of unintended consequences.
If rebel forces were revealed to have used chemical weapons, then the more immediate consequences in terms of what that would mean for Western involvement are even less clear than if the regime was proven to have used them. It is, though, a question that the recent exchange of accusations has brought into sharper focus. As reported in April in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, by the end of March intelligence agencies in the West were apparently beginning to suspect rebels of being behind the Khan al-Asal incident—'having succeeded, by an undetermined method, to fire chlorine gas at a Syrian army checkpoint'. (This suggests that the sample analysed at Porton Down may not have been taken from Khan al-Asal, if the Porton Down tests indicated sarin rather than chlorine.)
Meanwhile in the Mediterranean...
The UN investigation set in motion by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon may provide more clarity, but only if it manages to get properly underway. Notwithstanding the acute safety concerns of operating inside Syria, at present a 15-strong investigation team is waiting in Cyprus—ready for deployment—while negotiations continue between Syria and the UN over how the investigation should be conducted.
Discussions have reportedly reached an impasse over where the UN team can and can't go inside Syria. On 8 April, speaking in The Hague at the Third Review Conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention, Mr Ban noted that in addition to Syria's allegations of chemical weapons use near Aleppo, other member states had, he said, brought to his attention 'additional locations where chemical weapons were allegedly used' and requested investigations of those. 'My position is clear,' he went on: 'All serious claims should be examined without delay, without conditions and without exception.'
The following day, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported that the Syrian regime was rebuffing efforts by Mr Ban to widen the investigation beyond Khan al-Asal. Such 'additional investigations' served as indications of 'hidden intentions' on the part of other states to violate Syrian sovereignty, a Syrian government source was quoted by SANA as saying. The 'real negative role' played by the UN in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq was also cited by Syria as a further reason for limiting the extent of the investigators’ freedom of movement.
The additional locations in question refer to Homs, where chemical weapons are alleged to have been used in December 2012, and Damascus, where they were allegedly used this March. Pressure on the UN secretary-general to investigate all three incidents—Aleppo, Homs and Damascus—has reportedly been led by France and the UK. All three incidents are subject to accusations and counter-accusations by the regime and the rebels.
Whether any of the three locations will be subject to proper investigation remains uncertain. Without the sort of covert sampling carried out by British intelligence, investigators need access on the ground to be able to do their investigations properly. And no amount of covert sample-gathering can provide the kind of transparency that goes along with proper site access.
But even if the diplomatic back-and-forth between Syria and the UN is resolved, the question of safety and security is hardly likely to be. Three years into the conflict, Syria remains as much a warzone as ever. For as long as that remains the case, it is hard to see how investigators can conduct an enquiry that begins to clear up some of the many unanswered questions that this conflict continues to pile up.
Click below for VERTIC's past coverage of the war in Syria:
'UN investigation launched into possible chemical weapons use in Syria', David Cliff, 28 March 2013

Last changed: Aug 16 2013 at 5:30 PM