August 21st, 2019 will mark six years since the Syrian government attacked Eastern Ghouta with Sarin, killing an estimated 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. The attack gained international attention, and ultimately led to a joint US-Russian effort to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program. However, this effort ultimately failed to stop the proliferation of chemical weapons in the conflict. By 2018, Human Rights Watch had documented 85 chemical weapons attacks in Syria since the 2013 attack in Ghouta and accusations of new attacks continue to this day. Meanwhile, the perpetrators of the Ghouta attack and others remain unpunished.
The Terror of Chemical Warfare
Many observers of the Syrian conflict have critiqued the focus of human rights groups and activists on chemical weapons, arguing that other types of weapons have caused more death and destruction. However, amplifying the horrors of chemical weapons is not meant to undermine the suffering caused by other types of violence. Rather it is meant to highlight that chemical weapons can be a uniquely horrific weapon of war. They are inherently indiscriminate, and their purpose is not just to kill, but to terrorize. Chemical attacks inflict psychological trauma on communities and humanitarian and medical aid workers. Because different chemicals cause different reactions, victims often do not know the particular dangers of the chemical until physiological effects begin to show, making them feel helpless and out of control. The invisible and unpredictable nature of chemical weapons can cause deep anxiety even for those not exposed. After a bombing in Israel in 1991, in which there had been widespread fear that chemical agents may be used, hundreds of healthy patients sought medical attention based on feared contamination and symptoms such as difficulty breathing. Even survivors who do not suffer from have lasting physical effects, will not forget the feeling of not being able to breathe, and the traumatizing effects the chemicals had on their bodies. In an interview with CBS News following the 2017 sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Dr. Mamoun Morad described what he witnessed as “more desperate than I can describe. There are no words. It was like Judgment Day, the Apocalypse,” saying that he had been affected after the attack, struggling to speak clearly.
In a study of the 1988 chemical attacks in Halabja, Iraq, survivors were found to suffer from PTSD, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, among other symptoms. The low morale of those who survived the attack, even decades later, has reportedly affected work ethic and social behavior. Another study from the Iran-Iraq war found that Iranians exposed to chemical warfare and conventional warfare suffered higher rates of PTSD, depression, and anxiety than those exposed to conventional warfare alone. While there are not yet any long-term studies on the survivors of Ghouta, Kassem Eid, a Syrian activist and survivor of the 2013 Ghouta attack, wrote about what he witnessed when the Syrian government dropped poison on the city in the middle of the night, saying, “What I saw eclipsed every horror I had seen so far.”
The unique horror of chemical weapons has long been acknowledged by the international community, leading to a series of treaties banning their use and culminating in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1997. Syria’s use of chemical warfare during the conflict was the first state use of chemical weapons since the creation of the CWC. Shortly after the attack in Ghouta there was hesitant optimism. The Obama administration, after stepping back from a threat of military action, agreed to a Russia-brokered deal requiring the Syrian government to sign the CWC and destroy its stockpile of 1200 tons of chemical weapons. However, the deal was not sufficient to stop the use of chemical weapons in the conflict. The Syrian government has continued to utilize chlorine as a weapon (chlorine stockpiles were not destroyed under the agreement, since there are legitimate, civilian purposes for chlorine) and has also used Sarin, suggesting that it either failed to destroy its full arsenal in 2014, or has resumed production. According to a report by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) in 2016, of the chemical attacks in Syria, 77% have occurred after the passage of UNSC resolution 2118, which created a framework for the destruction of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles.
Not only has the international community failed to prevent the use of chemical weapons, but it has struggled to properly investigate chemical attacks. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Fact Finding Mission was created in 2014 in order to investigate alleged attacks in Syria, but it did not have the power to identify perpetrators, making it of limited help for future accountability. The following year, the United Nations created the OPCW – Joint Investigative Mechanism (OPCW-JIM), which was mandated to investigate and identify the perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks. While this was an important step forward, in 2017, Russia vetoed the renewal of the OPCW-JIM’s mission. This veto was part of a broader pattern. Russia has used its veto to block investigations into the use of chemical weapons in Syria four times, as well as blocking sanctions imposed on the use of chemical weapons. However, despite Russia’s continued opposition, in June 2018, the OPCW was given the ability to assign blame. Under this new regulation, the group will look into all attacks previously investigated in Syria, with the intent of identifying the perpetrator, an important step towards future accountability. Their work will be significantly hampered, however, by the Syrian government’s refusal to grant the investigative team access into Syria.
For those killed and those who survived the chemical attacks in Ghouta in 2013, in Khan Sheikhoun in 2017, in Douma in 2018, and many other documented incidents of chemical attacks; there must be accountability. We cannot wait until the next attack to reopen these conversations. The international community must insist that the Syrian government destroy its chemical weapons stockpile, in line with the obligations imposed by the CWC, and support robust investigations into all accusations of chemical weapons use. These investigations may one day provide the evidence needed to drive accountability mechanisms.