Chemical Weapons Inspections in Syria: Preparing for the Pitfalls

By Chen Kane and Egle Murauskite Reports are coming out of Syria of missiles tipped with chemical weapons being fired into rebel controlled areas near Damascus, which, if confirmed, would be the most brutal incident so far. This adds significant complications for the United Nations (UN) team of inspectors, who arrived in Syria on August 18, tasked with the first “on the ground” investigation into the possible uses of chemical weapons.

The inspectors were already facing a daunting task: after months of negotiations with Damascus, they are only allowed to investigate three of the thirteen alleged incidents of chemical weapons use in Syria, and instructed not to seek to identify the culprit. The investigative scrutiny was expected to reinforce the conviction that the use of chemical weapons in any conflict will not go unnoticed, shaken by the White House’s lukewarm response and “receding red lines.”

However, such a major incident of alleged chemical weapons use occurring in the presence of the UN team, with the investigators not allowed to visit this new site – and in all likelihood quarantined in their hotel altogether for the next few days for security reasons, their mission stands on ever shakier grounds. It is important to understand what the UN investigation can and cannot prove, particularly since the Assad government seems to have more to gain than to lose in this case, and to appreciate the uncomfortable possibility of the Syrian opposition forces engaging in increasingly desperate tactics.

While France, Israel, the UK and the U.S. have concluded that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, namely sarin. But these claims were met with skepticism internationally: It was these same countries that were certain of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003. That turned out to be a total intelligence failure and evidence was sexed up by war hawks. The smoking gun that allegedly proves chemical weapons were used was gathered in April from sites in Syria, but this evidence could have easily been tampered with.

The UN team will be headed by Dr. Ake Sellstrom, chemical weapons expert from Sweden, and will include experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the World Health Organization. In order to minimize the potential for political tensions, an effort was made to assemble a team of mostly Nordic European, Latin American, and Asian inspectors, avoiding representatives of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, Arab countries, and Turkey.

Of the just three alleged chemical weapon incidents the UN team will be allowed to investigate, the key one occurred in March 2013 in a village near Aleppo, Khan al-Assal. The Syrian government has invited the UN to investigate this incident involving sarin gas, which killed 26 people, claiming that the rebels were responsible. The rebels blame the government. The other two sites of alleged chemical use to be visited are Homs (December 2012), and Ataybah (March 2013).

In the late 1980s, following allegations of chemical weapons use during the Iran-Iraq war, the UN created the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism to investigate allegations concerning the possible use of chemical, bacteriological (biological) and toxin weapons. The Secretary-General has the power to launch an investigation if requested from any UN member state and this is the first time the mechanism will be put to use. Interestingly, the Syrian government is the one that asked for the UN investigation following the Khan al-Assal incident.

The UN inspector team will face substantial challenges, given the small number of sites it is allowed to visit, the small amounts of nerve agent likely used, the time that has passed since some of the attacks, and the limited mandate agreed prior to the investigation. The investigation would only seek to establish whether chemical weapons were used, without pinpointing a culprit.

The first set of the issues concerns the access to sites. The opposition forces have invited the inspectors to visit additional sites where they claim chemical weapons were used – particularly, the town of Adra, which is now under rebel control. However, given the sensitive political nature of negotiating access with the Assad regime, it is doubtful inspectors would try to deviate from the pre-agreed three sites.

Many sites of interest are in areas of open warfare and combat, raising serious questions about the ability to ensure inspectors’ safety on the mission. The UN team will likely rely on the Syrian army, underscoring how much their mission will depend on the Syrian army for their own safety. Rebel forces control at least one of the sites (Khan al-Assal), a Syrian army escort would likely be refused entry or attacked. A second set of concerns relates to the level of access and measures allowed. In particular, opportunities to interview victims and witnesses of the incidents may be limited by the Syrian government. Assad’s forces can control access to most witnesses.

The most useful evidence the inspectors could hope to obtain would be blood and urine samples from the victims, examine victim’s bodies, and collect soil samples and debris from the attack sites.  While traces of nerve agents could point to deliberate use by Assad’s forces, it is hard to believe Assad would have agreed to the inspections, if he had reason to believe such evidence could be found.

Another option is that the Syrian military may have indeed been exposed to chemical agents, but that they were unintended victims of a “friendly fire” conducted by Syrian forces. Worst case, should the inspectors chance upon traces of nerve agents, Assad could dismiss their findings as an isolated instance of unauthorized chemical weapons use by a rogue commander.

On the other hand, it would be even harder to determine what happened in case the harmful substances used turn out to be industrial chemicals. A possibility that cannot be ruled out is that as the conflict in Syria drags on, anti-government fighters could be trying to stage incidents, made to look like chemical weapons use were used by the Syrian army to trigger direct military intervention or to elicit more aid to rebels.

And with jihadist elements among the Syrian rebels, another possible scenario could involve extremists actually putting chemical weapons to use against their fellow anti-government fighters, who are not jihadists, forcing collective acts of martyrdom of sorts, with the same underlying logic of compelling an international outcry against Assad and possibly military intervention.

Another option is that Assad’s military has been mixing small amount of chemical weapons with “riot control agents,” and conventional munitions to save its chemical weapons and create a confusing blend of symptoms, and mask their source. The UN decision to settle on investigating three sites may have seemed better than nothing at first glance. However, the UN should carefully consider, and hopefully find a workaround, the glaring pitfalls and heavy political implications that the inspections, as currently framed, would produce. There are 13 or more sites where chemicals were allegedly used. Looking only at three of them, and three Assad wants them to look at creates a flawed investigative methodology. 

One possible way of addressing these investigative pitfalls and achieve a better result would be for the UN not to publish its findings, until access to all alleged sites has been granted. In the end the UN investigation can produce one of three possible outcomes. The experts may conclude that chemical weapons were used, or that they have not been used, or that the investigation is inconclusive due to lack of evidence.

In case of “no use,” the Syrian government would trumpet the UN conclusion as a clean bill of heath on anything chemical weapons related, possession as well as use. Similarly, since the inspectors will not be trying to determine who used the weapons, based on the mandate agreed with Syria, in case the use of chemical weapons is confirmed, the Assad regime could still claim (as it has been all along) that they were the victims of an opposition attack, not the perpetrators. No matter how much the inspectors try to qualify their conclusions, such subtle nuances do not resonate well when the investigation is supposed to inform policy makers.

The greatest challenge for the UN team will come in the months following the conclusion of their investigation. Namely, the struggle ahead will be to prevent the outcome from being politically manipulated – by the Syrian regime, by advocates of military intervention, or international parties looking to justify inaction in face of humanitarian disaster.

Dr. Chen Kane is Senior Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and co-editor of Arms Control and Regional Security for the Middle East. She can be followed on Twitter at: @ACRSME.

Egle Murauskaite is a Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, with the focus on Middle East regional security issues and global trends in sensitive technology transfers.

The original article was published by McClatchy-Tribune.