Monday, June 18, 2018, 09:46 (GMT+7)
The issue of chemical weapons in Syria and international opinion

The war in Syria has lasted for more than seven years with various subjective and objective causes and reasons from both outside and inside. Among them, chemical weapons are considered as one of the important and sensitive aspects. This problem has been becoming a target as well as an excuse for parties’ involvement and major powers’ intervention in Syria. This is a very complicated matter; therefore, it is not easy to properly and fully understand the nature of it.

Back to history

While the “Arab spring” movement was taking place on a large scale and increasingly dangerous to the political institutions of some North Africa - Middle East countries (including the President Bashar al-Assad’s government), on July 23rd, 2012, Jihad Makdissi, the Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, first publicly confirmed that “The Syrian government owns chemical weapons, and these weapons will never be used against the Syrians, but only against foreign aggressors”.

He also stated that “these chemical weapons are being carefully preserved by Syrian military units in very safe places”. It could not be known whether this statement was true or false, but it caused the curiosity and cravings of many anti-government forces in Syria and was a great shock to the world, especially to major powers. The number of chemical weapons that the Syrian Government “proclaimed in the wrong time”, without verification by prestigious international agencies, also became the target of the United States, the Western countries and many anti-Damascus government armed factions.

According to the sources of US intelligence, Syrian government owned a variety of chemical weapons, such as mustard gas, blister agents, and various neurotoxins such as sarin, VX and so on. In addition, Syria also had the capability of launching chemical weapons such as bombs, ballistic missiles, conventional missiles and artillery, etc. From intelligence information and statements of the Syrian Government, on August 23rd, 2012, US President Barack Obama proclaimed that “We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region, that that's a red line for us, and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front, or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly”. In fact, the US, UK, and French governments proposed military assaults on Syria to their congresses for many times but they were all denied because there were no sufficient evidences that Syria used chemical weapons. The spokesman of National Security Council, Tommy Vietor said information about the attack on chemical weapons at Horm on December 23rd, 2012 was inconsistent with the report that the US had about the chemical weapons program by Syria. This was because Agent 15 was not included in the chemical weapons list owned by the Syrian Government, etc.

Under the pressure from the international community and the Russian proposal on September 12th, 2013, Syria complied with the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). On September 14th, 2013, the United States and Russia reached a detailed agreement on the complete destruction of Syria's chemical arsenals. Just over a month later, on October 31st, 2013, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced that Syria had destroyed and handed over the entire number of facilities to mix and produce chemical weapons. At the same time, most of the chemicals (about 1,500 tons) was delivered to 18 ships and moved out of Syria. However, due to either the irresponsibility or one of the parties deliberate disregard of this practice by Syria, no legal document of the United Nations or of the world's prestigious organizations was saved. This has led to undesirable consequences, especially as mutual trust has not been strengthened, even after Syria announced the complete transfer of chemical weapons. This was the reason why the US and Western countries continued to believe that the Syrian government has still used toxic chemicals over the past time.

UN Security Council’s Meeting on the issue of Syria’s use of chemical weapons,
April 9th, 2018 (photo: Reuters)

Perfect excuse

After repeatedly blaming the Syrian government for using chemical weapons against civilians, on April 7th, 2017, US President Donald Trump unexpectedly ordered to fire 59 missiles into Syria's territory in retaliation. Just a year later, on the morning of April 14th, 2018, after repeated threats, the US and its allies attacked Syria again. More than 100 missiles were fired from the US and its allies’ warships and fighters directly at the targets in Syria.

In both attacks, the US and it allies used the Syrian government's deployment of chemical weapons against civilians as an excuse, and that action of Syria was something that the United States and the West could not accept. In fact, after the IS was defeated on Syrian battlefield, chemical weapons became a “perfect excuse” for the US and Western countries to use when necessary. However, the real story behind the incident was not that simple. In its surprise attack on Syria in April 2017, the United States actually had three different calculations. First, it aimed to deter the President Bashar al-Assad government and tacitly warn Russia, Iran and the pro-President Bashar al-Assad forces. Second, it sought to support the US-backed forces in Syria (free Syrian army, Kurdish militants). Third, it implicitly conveyed a message to China about the issue of North Korea and brought the U.S. advantages over China on the negotiating table.

However, in the rocket attack on Syria's territory in April 2018, there were a number of different points compared to the previous ones. (1). The location of the chemical attack was Douma which was near the Syrian capital Damascus, and the on-field power balance showed that the Syrian government forces were overwhelming. As a matter of fact, the Syrian government did not need to use chemical weapons. (2). The President Donald Trump just announced he would withdraw all troops from Syria. Thus, it did not exclude the possibility that some forces would like to create an excuse to hold the United States and Western countries back on the battlefield of Syria. Different from the surprise attack in April 2017, in this attack, the United States had repeatedly warned Syria early. As a result, Syria had the plan for evacuating most important forces and equipment, such as aircraft, weapons, military equipment, etc. (3). The three targets that the United States and Western countries had chosen to attack were carefully calculated, including: Science Research Center on the outskirts of Damascus capital and two chemical weapons storage facilities in the city of Horm where the United States claimed to have been used to make sarin neurotoxin. All the three targets were far from residential areas and also far from the areas where Russian and Iran armed forces were stationed.

With this attack, the United States and the West want to convey three messages. First, although the United States has announced the withdrawal of its troops from Syria, “the US remains committed to preventing recurrence of chemical weapons use”. Second, the US and the West would spiritually support the US-backed forces in Syria. Third, the United States wants to convey a message to Russia that the US and the West have always played an important role in Syria despite the overwhelming dominance of Russia. The air strike ended rapidly, and since then no further military action against Syria has taken place. However, it seems that the achievements are very limited. The US and Western countries’ attacks did not change the balance of power on the battlefield, but only made the situation more complex.

International opinion

The international opinion on Syria was severely divided, mixed with skepticism. On the issue of chemical weapons in Syria, international opinion generally supported Syria's renunciation of chemical weapons and Russian initiatives on Syria's handover of chemical weapons for destruction in exchange for peace. However, the international community did not have enough information on Syria's chemical weapons transfer process, so it was impossible to provide detailed responses, thus leading to doubts about the true intentions of the parties. At the same time, public sources of information were often distorted for political purposes and could not be verified.

As for the missile strike on three Syrian bases in April 2018, the reactions of the parties were also very different. Russian President Vladimir Putin called it “an action of aggression” and said that “the strike would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, which was already very serious in Syria”. Iran and Hezbollah, important Syrian government’s allies, condemned the strike. Iran's supreme leader, A. Ali Khamenei called the leaders of the United States, UK and France “criminals”, while Hezbollah stated that the attack did not help America achieve its goals”.

In contrast, the US’s allies: UK, France, Canada, Japan all supported America at varying degrees. UK and France had their own reasons to be directly involved in the attack as they are concerned that the use of chemical weapons could spread, especially after the poisoning of former Russian exiled spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in England. Turkey also welcomed the attack and considered it an appropriate response. Despite the support for US action, Germany claimed that it would not join the United States and the West to directly attack Syria.

For international organizations, both the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supported the actions of the United States and its allies. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed his strong support for the air strike. European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker said he supported US action and suggested that the instigators of the chemical attack must take their responsibilities. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Guterres called for calmness and said that member states should restrain themselves in dangerous situations. In reality, with the attack on the territory of an independent, sovereign nation, the United States and Western countries ignored the role of the United Nations and somewhat reduced the value of international law, creating a dangerous precedent in international relations.

In short, with the current practice, the issue of chemical weapons in Syria would not probably end completely. Even though the Syrian government has actually moved all of its chemical arsenals out of its territory, many factions in Syria still want to take advantage of this issue to serve their own selfish calculations. Meanwhile, major powers outside the region still need reasonable excuses to serve their attempts at strategic chess in the Middle East. In that context, those who are most severely affected are Syrian people, and Syria will continue to be wretched, divided, conflicted, and put in the state of a civil war without knowing when it ends to start the national reconstruction.

Dr. Tran Viet Thai, Deputy Director of the Institute for Foreign Strategic Studies

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