The Syrian crisis and chemical weapons

Russian veto hampering efforts to rid nation of such weapons

The Syrian crisis and chemical weapons

Ever since the civil war in Syria commenced, there have been rumors and allegations that Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people. 

These reports emerged despite Syria signing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 2013 - which bars countries from using chemical weapons. The CWC allegedly disposed of chemical weapons from Syria that consisted one of the largest stockpiles ever reported. According to reports, Syria destroyed 1,300 tons of the weapons, but reports also claim it still has almost 10 percent of the stockpile. 

However, the continued use of deadly chemical weapons is one of the reasons why despite Syria signing the CWC, Israel has refused to sign, claiming a chemical weapons stockpile still exists in Syria. Time and again Assad has denied using chemical weapons on his people and has accused the West of staging such allegations, but the West continues to claim Syria has used chemical weapons. 

The United States has attacked Syria with cruise missiles, and countries such as Israel have used tactics like bombing to destroy the chemical weapons arsenal or as a response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. But the threat continues. In 2016, Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon raised concerns “the Syrians used military grade chemical weapons and as of late have been using materials, chlorine, against civilians, including in these very days, after the supposed ceasefire, dropping barrels of chlorine on civilians.”

In 2016, Israel also raised concerns over the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade - a group that identifies itself with ISIS - in the southern Golan Heights possessing chemical weapons it is reported to have acquired from the Assad regime. Earlier in 2013, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor warned of the probability of Syrian chemical weapons reaching the hands of Hezbollah. 

In March 2018, retired Syrian General, Zuhair al Sakit confirmed that a large part of the chemical weapons stockpile in Syria had been transferred to Hezbollah. These weapons, he said, were being provided to Syria by Iran, and Tehran was also involved in providing technological know-how to develop missiles capable of carrying these warheads in Syria and across the border. Iran is also reported to have transferred chemical weapons to Syria despite being party to the CWC. 

In April 2018, there were reports Iraqi militias were involved in chemical weapons attacks in Syria initiated by the Assad regime. The groups were reported to be linked to the Iran-backed IMIS militia group. Iran is also reported to be providing these Shia militia groups ballistic missiles that can reach Israel and Saudi Arabia. It could be a dangerous ballgame if these militia groups decide to equip their missiles with chemical warheads. 


While CWC provisions are applicable to Syria, many chemical agents like chlorine do not fall under the category of chemical weapons in the CWC, but can be used as the same. The failure of the Joint Investigation Mandate (JIM) due to lack of Russian support has only complicated matters in Syria, making the threat from chemical weapons there more imminent. The UN Security Council in 2017 failed to renew the JIM due to a Russian veto. JIM is a mandate that aims to determine the perpetrators of the chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Russia claims that such a mandate is not required, as Syria has already destroyed its chemical weapons stockpile. This Russian approach has only given the Assad regime greater opportunity to use them, as well as encouraging the proliferation of these weapons and their delivery systems. 

Syria denies using chemical weapons, with its Ambassador to the United Nations claiming it does not have any chemical weapons in its possession and, hence, it is not possible it could be using such weapons. 

A Syrian chemical weapons stockpile only complicates the process of securing a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) free Middle East. 

Debalina Ghoshal is an independent consultant specializing in nuclear, missile and missile defense-related issues.

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