Security forces simulate chemical attack outside Israeli Parliament. Demotix/ Yaniv Nadav. All rights reserved. Although the Organisation for the Prohibition
of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize for the
courage and inventiveness displayed in removing Syria’s chemical weapons (CW)
from Syria for destruction elsewhere, it is now ineffectual and powerless in
the face of the proliferation of CW by extremist groups such as ISIS and Al
Although the proliferation of this weapon of
mass destruction is for the time being confined to the Middle East, the
knowledge and experience already acquired by extremist groups with global
connections will ensure that, sooner or later, CW will be used elsewhere.
When the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was
negotiated, during and immediately after the Cold War, the negotiators – all
governments – could not anticipate the emergence of powerful, well-funded
internationally-connected terrorist groups with the capacity to produce and use
their own CW. The CWC negotiators also could not have anticipated the speed
with which new production technologies would develop, making it possible for at
least some CW to be produced with relative ease in backyard laboratories.
In March 2013 the government of Syria angrily
alleged that CW had been used by Al Nusra in the village of Khan Al Asal, formally
requesting that the UN Security Council (UNSC) investigate just one day after
the incident. The US was then supporting extremist ‘rebel’ groups in
Syria in the hope that they would bring down President Assad, and did not want
them to be discredited. The west was of the view that the Assad government was
about to fall. In the absence of any supporting evidence, the US supported
‘rebel’ claims that Syria had itself used the CW. The aim of the US, a
party to the CWC, was to delay a CW inspection by the UN, which could have
discredited its extremist surrogates of the day.
The UN inspection team report eventually
presented nine months later, in December 2013, confirmed that CW had indeed
been used at Khan Al Asal, although the team’s laughable
UNSC mandate specifically prevented it from throwing light on the identity
of the perpetrators, even if it had an informed opinion on this.
The intelligence agencies and media of all key
governments accordingly had a field day interpreting the UN report to the
advantage of their own official or covert allies in Syria, making a nonsense of
the expensive and risky UN inspection process.
The extraordinarily murky political situation
in Syria arising principally from the intensive clandestine involvement of
regional and international governments supporting rival extremist factions
means that there are grounds to suspect that at least one of the following
governments may have covertly known of or even supported anti-Assad groups’ use
of CW during this period: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the US.
Although Israel has officially pursued a
policy of non-involvement in Syria except where arms deliveries to Hezbollah are
concerned, one must note that the complete destruction of Syria’s formidable CW
arsenal under UN supervision eliminated the sole remaining major threat to
Israel’s military domination of the region. Moreover, the dismemberment of
Syria, formerly a cohesive unitary state, clearly serves the interests of both
Israel and regional Sunni states spearheaded by Saudi Arabia.
A Haaretz article has just commented: “The only
thing that interested the United States was getting the chemical weapons out of
Syria to ensure Israel’s security and let the Syrians massacre each other
In May 2013, Turkish security forces detained
several Al Nusra militants in possession of a cylinder containing 2 kg of sarin
gas. When Russia’s Foreign Ministry later asked Turkey to explain what had become
of the case, Turkey replied that, not sarin, but antifreeze had been
involved. As there is no evidence of an independent investigation of the
incident this denial lacks credibility, especially in the context of recent
allegations in Turkey’s parliament reported on below.
One month later, in June 2013, news media
reported the arrest of Al Qaeda members who had been producing mustard gas and
sarin at two
locations in Baghdad.
In February 2015, in an immaculately executed
nocturnal operation, large quantities of CW were stolen
from a CW storage facility in Libya. ISIS was a presence in Libya at
In October 2015 Today’s Zaman reported
that two Turkish opposition MPs had asked questions in parliament demanding
that the government should throw light on police investigations into evidence
that sarin smuggled out of Turkey may well have been used in the notorious
large-scale sarin attack in Ghouta, Syria.
Contrary to the western narrative of the time,
this may well have been a false flag incident designed to precipitate US
military action to bring down President Assad. The Turkish MPs were
clearly suggesting that their
government knew of this, and may even have been involved in it.
Strangely enough, with the sole exception of
the Ghouta incident, which was massively publicized in western media to the
disadvantage of Syria’s government, none of these CW incidents received
Western governments and intelligence services
must have known of all these CW incidents, but turned a blind eye to them, as
they were exclusively interested in CW use that could be exploited to discredit
the Assad government. To his credit, Russia’s Sergei Lavrov has occasionally
endeavoured to draw attention to this, with dry irony. In acting in this
way, the west was effectively sanctioning the development and use of CW by
It is supremely ironic that, in the light of the
ISIS terror attacks in Paris and elsewhere, France is now, overnight, declaring
that de facto recognition of the
Assad government is the precondition for a clearly focused military campaign
against ISIS in Syria. Other western governments will be forced to
reluctantly follow suit.
We now know that both Al Qaeda and ISIS can
produce and use at least some CW, and have apparently done so in Iraq and
Syria. This was confirmed by
Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a press briefing on 12 November
2015. Both organisations are also known to have been trying to recruit
individuals with CW expertise. In Iraq, Syria and Libya, relatively large
numbers of former CW specialists must now be seeking employment, given the
closure and destruction of all CW facilities in these three
The chemical weapons cat is well and truly out
of the bag.
The use of CW by extremist non-state entities
is tearing a gaping hole in the fabric of the CWC’s non-proliferation regime.
In a recent article Ralf Trapp, one of the world’s foremost CW experts,
perhaps naively contends that terrorists may be constrained by fear of future
prosecution in accordance with standards of international humanitarian law.
In doing so he overlooks the proven fact that today’s terrorists are
utterly indifferent to such standards, and apparently
revel in flouting them. This is not likely to change.
The invocation of the future jurisdiction of
arcane international legal tribunals is not a satisfactory response to the very
real threat posed by the rapid proliferation of CW and CW technology on the
part of focused and ruthless terrorist organisations.
Also, the primary aim of the OPCW is to
abolish CW, not to retrospectively prosecute their terrorist users into an
indeterminate future. Even if all world governments were to join the CWC,
terrorist groups could continue to produce and use CW, possibly with
clandestine support from governments that are parties to the CWC.
Although all governments will hopefully one
day sign up to the CWC, CW will probably continue to feature more prominently
on the international landscape than while the OPCW was struggling to achieve
that goal. This is not what the CWC’s godfathers had in mind.
The UN has already sent a special inspection
team into Syria to enquire into the alleged use of CW. The lengthy time
period that had elapsed since the incidents of alleged use had degraded soil
samples and other evidence, also providing the myriad warring factions with
ample opportunity to destroy or falsify evidence. A scientifically rigorous
chain of custody was absent. As with OSCE inspections in Ukraine, the UN
inspectors were seriously hampered by the civil war which was raging around
Both ISIS and Al Qaeda are rapidly extending
their networks into North Africa and Central and South-East Asia. And the
ISIS attacks on Paris testify to its capacity to strike targets far beyond
geographical regions in its immediate sphere of influence. The deadly
efficiency with which ISIS plans and executes such strikes has become a
hallmark of its operations. Which member of the anti-ISIS coalition will be
France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls has just
warned of the risk that, in the current troubled international security
environment, terrorists such as ISIS could use chemical or biological weapons.
Will ISIS try to capitalize on the capacity of
CW to strike fear and terror into the hearts of civilian populations? At
this historical moment Al Qaeda is losing the struggle for leadership in the
global marketplace of terrorism. Will it now try to outdo ISIS with its own
The shortcomings of the OPCW and its
implementation regime are there for all to see. Perhaps, precisely because the
OPCW was tailor-made to abolish CW production and use by governments, it is
neither suited nor equipped to deal with CW use by non-state actors such as Al
Qaeda and ISIS?
If this is true, how can the international
community respond effectively and promptly to this growing threat, not just to
the Middle East region, but to the world? The possible use of biological and
radiological weapons by the same well-funded and well‑organised non-state
actors can also not be ruled out.
As this article was being completed the UN
Secretary-General announced the establishment of a UN Joint Investigation
Mechanism (JIM) involving both the UN and the OPCW, initially for one year, to
investigate individuals, groups, entities or governments involved in the use of
chemicals as weapons in Syria.
The novel willingness of the UNSC to empower
its inspectors to establish responsibility for CW use is welcome. However,
given that in almost all cases investigations will take place in a theatre of
war some time after the alleged incidents have occurred, the trail will often
have gone cold, while legally and scientifically acceptable evidence will be
ISIS members will refuse to recognize the
jurisdiction of both the OPCW and the UN. Other parties may, at least in some
cases, submit rigged evidence and false testimony that fits with their
political narrative. The ex post facto determination of guilt or innocence in
accordance with internationally accepted norms of judicial propriety will be
Moreover, if the UN seeks to prosecute rebel
or Syrian army players just as international efforts are being stepped up,
through the UN, to negotiate a peace deal in Syria, this will compromise the
prospects for peace. The UNSC will be forced to behave as though its own
JIM process does not exist.
The OPCW can competently verify whether CW
have been used, but lacks any knowledge or experience of the role of a
prosecutor in relation to the alleged use of CW. But the Achilles heel of the
JIM lies in the fact that it reports back to the UNSC, a Machiavellian
eminently political body crushingly dominated by its five permanent members.
Fact-finding is a concept with which the UNSC is unfamilar. The JIM is likely
to be laid to rest in the enormous graveyard of disused UN acronyms.
There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.