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Toxic debate over use of chemical weapons in Syria

Syria has fomented a multitude of fearsome debates, but none more toxic than on the use of chemical weapons. The 78-page report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) fact-finding mission is likely to further stir up the debate around the April attacks on Khan Sheikhun, but as ever, Syria will burn as others argue incessantly.

Only one debate has been properly resolved. Prior to 2013, many people — typically those on the far left — were in denial that Syria had chemical weapons at all. So far, all declared stocks of Syria’s chemical weapons and precursor chemicals — some 1,300 tons — were removed by 2014 and have now been destroyed, one of the only positives to the entire crisis.

Who has used such weapons and when is another argument that will go on and on. The OPCW report should lay to rest many doubts as to whether sarin was deployed in Khan Sheikhun, killing more than 80 people. The OPCW is the international community’s chemical weapons watchdog, the gold-standard body for such matters. 

It certainly upends the unsourced, anonymous and unverified claims made by journalist Seymour Hersh in German newspaper Die Welt on June 25 that there was no sarin — claims that many pro-Syrian regime stalwarts were so desperate to believe. 

Hersh’s narrative clashes even with the Russian and Syrian regime’s attempts to explain away events. Moreover, the full OPCW report, to be published on July 5, apparently states that the regime’s own tests proved sarin was used in Khan Sheikhun.

Some critics challenge the mission because it was unable for security reasons to go to the site of the attack. But it did test bodies, interviewed multiple witnesses, and above all tested survivors. The scale of the false-flag conspiracy would have had to be huge, including people voluntarily being exposed to sarin to provide the telling test results. What the report did not do was clear up the issue of responsibility, which is not part of the mission’s mandate.

Another debate focuses on whether the international community over- or under-reacted to the use of chemical weapons. Alleged use of chemical weapons by regime forces in 2013 did what non-conventional mass killings and destruction could not: Open up the real possibility of a US-led intervention in Syria. That threat led to the brokering of the only truly significant US-Russia deal in the last six years of this crisis, to remove all chemical weapons from Syria. 

Chemical weapons use was the spur for a non-interventionist US President Donald Trump to lob 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in April, but like his predecessor, he has not been roused into action over non-chemical war crimes.

As long as regime forces kill civilians by means other than chemical weapons, the US is not bothered as it focuses solely on the fight against Daesh.

Chris Doyle

Around 1,500 people have reportedly been killed by chemical weapons in this conflict. More than 500,000 have died through other forms. The two infamous chemical atrocities were the one in April and the August 2013 attack in Ghouta, eastern Damascus, but many other attacks using sarin, chlorine and mustard gas have been reported.

Many ask why the regime would use such weapons when it hardly needs to. Even if poisonous gases are not the biggest killers, they have perhaps been one of the greatest weapons of fear. 

It serves the regime’s purpose that its opponents believe it still possesses sarin and mustard gas as well as chlorine, and that it is prepared to use them. Moreover, the use of gases facilitates the regime’s desire to alter the demographics of Syria by encouraging the mass shifting of its opponents to other areas.

Yet one issue of real substance is rarely raised, at least in the media. Trump, backed by European leaders, was adamant that the regime used sarin in Khan Sheikhun, flying it from Shayrat air base. If so, why is there no huge outcry that the regime has hidden chemical weapons from the international community in violation of the 2013 agreement, and perhaps more importantly, how much more material does it still possess? 

I may have missed it, but I have yet to hear Trump demand that such stocks are destroyed, merely that they not be used. The OPCW has verified the destruction of 24 out of 27 chemical weapons facilities in Syria; the last three lie in areas too dangerous to operate.

The OPCW has also driven a horse and carriages through Russia’s version of events, and all the Kremlin’s false posturing after the attack. The Russian military would have known that sarin was used.

Will such weapons be used again? Trump issued an unequivocal warning to the regime on June 26 of a “heavy price” to pay if there was a further attack. The US claims preparations were underway for this but have now been stalled, and the regime had got the message.

Who knows if this true or if it is another piece of Trump grandstanding? In any case, the regime will once again take comfort from the other message he delivered. As long as regime forces kill civilians by other means, the US is not bothered as it focuses solely on the fight against Daesh.

• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.