By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme
Yesterday US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said it was likely that chemical weapons (CW) had been used on a ‘small scale’ in Syria. President Obama claimed in August that the use of CW in Syria would change his calculus on US intervention, but the intelligence must be examined carefully to assess whether his ‘red line’ on CW has actually been crossed.
On Thursday, the White House said that although it was likely the nerve gas sarin had been used, the evidence was still too thin and that it needed ‘credible and corroborated facts’. President Obama is being pilloried in some quarters for not following through on his earlier red line. But after the misuse of intelligence to justify an invasion of Iraq ten years ago, the bar for concluding that Assad used chemical weapons must naturally be set high. The standard of evidence should meet at least three conditions: clear-cut evidence of use, meaningful quantity, and purposefulness.
Dina Esfandiary, Research Associate and Project Coordinator of the IISS Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme, has an article in The Diplomat analysing recent claims of chemical-weapons use in Syria.
Syria’s state news agency, SANA, made the first allegations on Tuesday when it broadcast pictures of alleged chemical-weapons victims having difficulty breathing and foaming at the mouth, in what it reported was the result of a ‘terrorist’ rocket attack near Aleppo. The Russian Foreign Ministry then released a statement confirming the opposition’s use of chemical weapons, but presented no evidence to support this claim. An opposition commander also said he had heard secondhand reports that victims were having respiratory problems in response to a chemical attack, but he said the regime was responsible.
What we actually know is patchy, says Esfandiary. Despite ‘proof’ from both sides in the form of photos and videos, there is nothing that shows the attack site, and no indication that any of the victims’ symptoms match those that would result from exposure to mustard gas, Sarin or VX – Syria’s alleged chemical-weapons arsenal – which would have more devastating effects than those reported.
If the use of chemical weapons is confirmed, it could change the character of the conflict because the US and the international community would be pressured to intervene, explains Esfandiary. The US and Europe are therefore rightly proceeding with caution. ‘But if anything, this event reiterates how little is known about the situation on the ground in Syria,’ Esfandiary argues. When the West can be sure of so little, perhaps the real debate should be whether or not it should be arming the rebels.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague was very clear on the need for swift international action to resolve the crisis in Syria when he gave that headline quote. Although none of Saturday’s sessions at the Manama Dialogue were devoted to that country, its 21-month-old conflict loomed large over proceedings. Both speakers and delegates intervening from the floor returned to the subject repeatedly:
‘We …remain committed to a transition to a new leadership’.
US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns on US policy towards Syria
‘In Syria…everything that people said would happen if we did not intervene has now happened because we have not intervened – growing radicalisation, sectarian conflict, the collapse of the state, and now the spectre of chemical or biological weapons being used.’
Senator John McCain takes a robust line
‘I do want to say one thing about Russia. I think Russia can play a pivotal role in working with Iran. They helped in Syria when it looked like Assad was going to use chemical weapons and I think it is important that dialogue continues. Sometimes negatives turn into positives and I think this relationship that we can work with Russia will help us with respect to Iran.’
Congressman Charles Ruppersberger is optimistic about Russia’s role in the region
‘At this stage, after 20 months, I think the people of Syria do not want us to provide them with a no‑fly zone. They want us to provide them with the means for them to impose their own no‑fly zone, I can assure you. They are now ready and prepared to impose their own no‑fly zone. The lack of means is what is holding them back.’
Dr Khalid Bin Mohammad Al Attiyah, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Qatar, on whether his government favours a no-fly zone over Syria
‘Everyone here has heard of the numerous deals that were offered to the Syrian regime to reform or leave; this was done not to set a precedent of protecting leaders who have so grossly crossed the line, but to stem the possibility of reaching the situation which we are in today…’
Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bahrain, on efforts to ensure a peaceful resolution
‘We keep hearing from Syrian opposition leaders that the regime is about to end. Farouk Tayfour, Deputy Head of the Syrian National Council, has been predicting it by the end of this year, which is 22 days away. Last night we heard from Mustafa Sabbagh that the end is imminent, from Representative Rogers that the regime is in its last days of desperation, and all this has been brought about by very disparate rebel groups, most of whom are local village militias, and relatively few of whom are actually taking the battle to the enemy. If all this is real, and the rebels control 70% of the territory, etc., etc., why does anyone still need to do anything from the outside? What are we missing?’
Dr Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is sceptical about calls for intervention
‘We have seen enough evidence to know they need a warning’.
William Hague, again, responding to a question from Frank Gardner of the BBC on US and UK intelligence about the potential use of chemical weapons
‘The first step is to accept that nothing is clear in Syria’ says IISS Research Associate Dina Esfandiary in a new piece for the The Diplomat on the possibility that the regime might be preparing chemical weapons for use against rebel forces.
‘Given the latest developments in Syria, fear that Assad will resort to these weapons is not unreasonable. Pressure must be mounting for Syria’s ruler, as the rebels advance and his army proves increasingly unable to push them back. Logic dictates that if Assad truly fears for his survival, then the use of his most potent weapon may not be so far-fetched.’
However, she cautions: ‘We should measure our alarm. A reckless assumption that Assad will use chemical weapons could get us in all sorts of trouble – remember what happened in Iraq?’
There are only two ways the world can respond right now she concludes: preparation in case of the worst and ‘establishing unequivocal clear red lines’ to deter any use of chemical weapons.
By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme
Anticipating that Iran nuclear questions would feature prominently at the IISS Manama Dialogue, I set to work yesterday updating my briefing papers on the status and options. No sooner had I begun, however, than the phone began ringing, with calls from journalists asking about different kinds of weapons in two other countries in the region. Could we trust reports that Syria was mixing chemical-weapons components, and what were the implications of NATO deploying Patriot missiles to Turkey? Similar questions are likely to come up at the Manama Dialogue.
It is clear to me that there is good reason to worry on the first point, even if there is no guarantee that Syria really is readying sarin nerve-gas weapons by mixing the two main chemical precursors. The media reports of this are all sourced to unnamed US officials, and many simply echo articles on Wired’s Danger Room and CNN from 3 December.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stressed that the reports had not been confirmed. There are ample signs, however. The forceful, pointed warnings from President Barack Obama and other Western leaders reflect the alarming nature of the intelligence information being collected last week.
From Strategic Comments
The debate over external intervention in Syria has grown in recent weeks as the humanitarian toll of its revolution-turned-civil war rapidly mounts, atrocities by government forces multiply, pressure increases on Turkey and other neighbouring states, and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad resorts to the use of air power.
So far, Western countries have exhibited little enthusiasm for military intervention, and Russia has blocked most possible actions by the United Nations. For the United States, President Barack Obama indicated in August that the use or transfer of chemical weapons would constitute a clear red line. However, the crossing of other presumed red lines since the revolution began in March 2011 has not prompted any direct external intervention. The complexity of the crisis, its regional repercussions, the deadlock at the UN and the projected costs of any military operations have deterred other states. None has sought to make a decisive entry into the fray that could tip the balance of power.
By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme
The dangers associated with Syria’s chemical weapons (CW) are a dire example of why non-proliferation of unconventional weapons must be a top international priority. Up until a few short months ago, Syria’s chemical weapons were typically seen as for deterrence purposes only. Offensive use of the weapons was deemed suicidal and hence unlikely.
There is now a real alarm that Syria’s chemical weapons might be used, and not just in response to nuclear threats or foreign invasion. The worry, rather, is that the Assad regime might deploy the weapons against his Syrian opponents or that the weapons could be seized by radical forces aligned with al-Qaeda or other groups that might seek to use them in terrorist attacks elsewhere. Hence President Obama’s stern warning on Monday that Syria would face American military intervention in the event that chemical weapons are moved or prepared for use. An aide later clarified that Obama’s warning about ‘moving’ the weapons meant movement that would make the arsenal more vulnerable to seizure, not movement intended to secure the arsenal.