Defense In Depth
Why U.S. Security Depends on Alliances—Now More Than Ever
On October 27, Syria’s citizens might finally see some justice. That day, the United Nations Security Council will meet to discuss the latest report from international inspectors who have gathered copious evidence that Syria has been a blatant violator of the 1997 treaty banning the development, production, stockpiling, and use of any toxic chemical in war.
Nothing in the report should be surprising. As I wrote in 2013, after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad bowed to Russian and U.S. pressure following his use of sarin gas on civilians and joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, it was not likely that he would just “meekly” forfeit his chemical weapons capabilities “barring a miraculous personality change.” Indeed, given his merciless conduct of the war—including the calculated use of poison gas to kill, injure, and terrorize rebel civilians—Assad was practically bound to cheat.
To be sure, after joining the chemical convention, Syria at first played by the rules, declaring 1,230 unfilled chemical munitions and 1,290 metric tons of sulfur mustard and various chemical “precursors” that are used to make poison gas. The treaty’s watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), monitored the destruction of those weapons, certifying the job complete in January 2016. From the outset, however, Syria signaled its intent to thumb its nose at the convention, including by filing requests to convert poison gas sites to peaceful purposes and balking at destroying a dozen underground structures that held chemical weapons production facilities.
Even more ominously, beginning in April 2014, several towns in rebel areas were bombarded with chemical barrel bombs. A September 2014 OPCW report found “compelling confirmation” of chlorine attacks in Talmenes, Al Tamanah, and Kafr Zeta. And August 2016 and October 2016 reports from a joint team of UN/OPCW inspectors determined that chlorine was used in an April 2014 attack on Talmenes and a March 2015 strike on Sarmin. The investigators also found that the victims of a March 2015 attack on Qmenas had symptoms consistent with chlorine exposure.
Damascus and Moscow have argued that the rebels are to blame for several chemical incidents throughout the conflict, but there is no question that Assad’s regime is responsible for the chlorine barrel bombs. For one, the joint inspection team reported that the attacks on Talmenes, Sarmin, and Qmenas were launched from helicoptors. The UN/OPCW inspectors determined that all three of these attacks could be attributed to the 253rd and 255th squadrons of Syria’s 63rd helicopter brigade. The rebels opposing Assad have no aircraft, ruling them out as the culprit. In fact, an easy Internet search reveals many, many images of Assad’s helicopters, some with the Syrian military insignia clearly visible, dropping barrel bombs.
Other evidence points to the Assad regime as well. For example, chemical rockets fired in the early hours of August 21, 2013, killed and injured hundreds in two Damascus suburbs. A UN/OPCW team collected abundant evidence that two delivery systems the Syrian military is known to possess released the nerve agent sarin. One was the chemical variant of the Soviet era 140-millimeter M-14, the other the custom-made 330-millimeter “Volcano” rocket. The Syrian Army had previously posted images of its troops posing with the Volcano rockets, and there is no shortage of videos online of the Syrian military’s launching them. As is the case with the chlorine barrel bombs, the rebels’ lack of appropriate delivery systems and capability to make enough sarin to fill multiple rockets, among other factors, make it ludicrous to assert that the rebels are responsible for the sarin attacks.
In addition to Assad’s fingerprints being all over the sarin and the chlorine attacks, in July 2016, OPCW inspectors reported that the majority of 122 samples taken at declared and undeclared sites since April 2014 strongly indicate that Damascus has not not come clean about its past and possibly continuing chemical weapons program. For instance, readings from branches of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center were positive for two chemicals that remain after the nerve agent VX degrades and for pinacolyl alcohol, a precursor for the nerve agent soman that has no peaceful uses. Meanwhile, Syria has not been able to account for some 2,000 chemical munitions. The OPCW, in short, has labled Syria’s declarations about its purportedly shuttered chemical weapons program—from the facilities involved to quantities of chemical bombs and toxins—as misleading, “technically and scientifically” implausible, and downright false.
Russia might try to defend its ally inside or outside of the Security Council. But, at this point, Moscow has a credibility problem, having boosted Syria’s poison gas program with everything from technical assistance to delivery systems. For example, in the early 1990s, President Boris Yeltsin put Anatoly Kuntsevich in charge of Russia’s chemical and biological disarmament. Under the cover of a 1992 agreement with the Syrian Center for Ecological Protection, Kuntsevich shipped Syria 1,700 pounds of nerve agent precursors and equipment that could be used to make chemical arms. In several trips to Syria, Kuntsevich went on to share Soviet know-how for making advanced weapons such as the nerve agent VX and for the so-called binary method, in which the penultimate chemicals are mixed just prior to firing the weapon. In 1995, the United States sanctioned Kuntsevich for “knowingly and materially” abetting Syria’s proliferation, and Yeltsin sacked Kuntsevich amid a Russian Federal Security Service investigation before he could peddle more precursors to Damascus. The inspectors’ samples from the August 2013 attacks included numerous hallmarks of sarin made with the binary method.
Faced with this mountain of evidence, Russian Foreign Minister Serguei Lavrov is about to have his words tested. When the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2118 in 2013 to condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria, demand Syria’s chemical disarmament, and underscore all the commitments Syria undertook in acceding to the convention, Lavrov said that if Syria did not live up to the treaty’s terms, the Security Council “will stand ready to take action under Chapter 7 of the charter,” indicating the use of force.
No one disputes that the chemical casualties of the Syrian conflict are a mere fraction of those from conventional arms, but justice for war-torn Syria must begin somewhere. The inspectors have provided overwhelming evidence that Syria has repeatedly breached the Chemical Weapons Convention. Should Russia veto any punishment of Syria on Thursday, the treaty’s 191 other members must rally outside the Security Council’s chambers to make one despot pay a price for chemical war crimes and another for abetting him.