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Alleged Chlorine Gas Attacks Focus Renewed Attention on Syria

In this image taken from video obtained from the Shaam News Network, posted on April 16, 2014, an anti-Bashar Assad activist group, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, children are seen receiving oxygen in Kfar Zeita
In this image taken from video obtained from the Shaam News Network, posted on April 16, 2014, an anti-Bashar Assad activist group, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, children are seen receiving oxygen in Kfar Zeita
The international organization overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons is now focusing on investigating possible chlorine gas attacks in that country.

If proven, they would add another chapter into Syria’s long history of using chemical substances as weapons.

Under Western pressure, Syria has destroyed the vast majority of the chemical weapons arsenal declared by the Damascus government to be 1,300 metric tons.

Greg Thielmann, an expert on weapons of mass destruction with the Arms Control Association, said Syria’s arsenal contained different types of chemicals.

“They have mustard agent, which is a very old style of chemical weapons, first introduced in World War One. And then even more lethal nerve gas agents that they have like sarin - they have some VX as well," Thielmann said. “And all of those types of chemicals are on a list to be destroyed. In fact, more than 90 percent of those agents have been destroyed or moved out of the country.”

International supervision

The destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal is supervised by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons - or OPCW - an independent entity that has a working relationship with the United Nations.

Last September, Syria agreed to dispose of its chemical weapons after pressure from Russia and the threat of military action from the United States. Syria agreed to destroy all of its chemical weapons by June 30th.

The OPCW is also investigating allegations that the Syrian government in April used chlorine gas to attack civilians and rebel forces.

The Syrian government has allowed OPCW into the country to investigates but denies culpability. Accounts of the alleged attacks vary with the government and opposition activists each trading blame. The Obama administration blames the Syrian government.

Alleged gas attack

Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation focusing on disarmament issues, said “there is a lot of evidence to indicate that Syria is using chlorine gas in these ‘barrel bombs.’

“These barrels are stuffed with explosives and nails and shrapnel, and then dumped, pushed out of airplanes pushed out of helicopters into what are considered to be rebel strongholds or in many cases schools, hospitals, civilian facilities,” he said. “There seems to be evidence that in a dozen, maybe even two dozen incidences, chlorine gas has been mixed in.”

But Ralf Trapp, a chemical weapons expert and former OPCW official, said there is no conclusive proof that the Syrian government used chlorine gas.

“We cannot at this point in time rule out categorically that it may not have been some operation that was put up to pretend that there was a chlorine attack when in fact there wasn’t one - or there was one, but from the other side,” he said. “So there are a number of questions that need to be asked at this point in time. The OPCW is investigating and I think it would be prudent to wait until we have some more details and more information about what actually happened on the ground before we can draw conclusions.”

The OPCW was forced to temporarily halt its initial fact-finding trip after its convoy came under attack. The Syrian government and the rebels blamed each other for the assault.

Chlorine not on prohibited list

Trapp said chlorine is not on the list of prohibited toxic chemicals by the Chemical Weapons Convention because it is a common industrial, albeit toxic, chemical.

“Chlorine is a chemical that is in very wide legitimate use - it’s used for water purification. It’s used in industry and for bleaching purposes - a whole range of uses and in very large quantities. So the accessibility to that material is very large,” Trapp said.

But Charles Duelfer who headed the Iraqi Survey Group investigating the extent of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction after the 2003 invasion, said if in fact "The government of Syria deployed chlorine as a weapon, [it] is not that they have chlorine, it is that they would use it as a weapon,” Duelfer said. “So it’s not a trivial instance but it is not something that is on the same magnitude as the chemical munitions which are being destroyed at this point in time.”

Experts said if it is proven that Syria used chlorine as a weapon, Damascus would be in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention which it signed last September.
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    Andre de Nesnera

    Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.