A number of stories have been coming out of Syria in the past 24 hours. Some are correct. Some have been misleading. With some reluctance we feel we should point this out. The latest press coverage states:
- There has been a chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburbs of Adra and Douma: This report is at best misleading.
- An airbase in Northern Syria has been taken by rebel forces: The airbase has been taken. It has been besieged since December and was no longer functioning as an airbase (nor has it been for some time) but the base was still held by Assad's forces and has now fallen to the rebels though there are still pockets of resistance by government troops who may or may not regroup (surrender is of course not an option in this civil war since - under most circumstances - both sides kill all prisoners).
- Rebel forces have pushed into the Alawite heartland near the Al Assad home village of Qardaha. This report appears to be true. It is a mountainous region and four villages appear to have been taken but it is unlikely they will be held. None the less the symbolism this push represents is powerful.
- Bashar al-Assad has adopted a more hardline approach stating, “No solution can be reached with terror except by striking it with an iron fist,” and placing war before peace.
The chemical weapons story is of gravest concern because this is ground that has been covered before. The NCF issued a report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria on 16th June. For the record we append it to this e-mail. In that report we made a commitment to provide you with a record of all "Credible chemical weapons attacks". We have not fulfilled this promise because we were unable to provide sufficient evidence. We stopped work because we were only able to identify 29 possible deaths from chemical weapons (25 of which were deaths of civilians who were presumably government sympathiser in so much as they lived in a government held area) which simply did not gell with press reports. The table we compiled is below. Our researcher on this project stated "this (29) does not seem a very reliable figure as I have seen footage of many people suffering from vomiting/difficulties breathing but often no precise figure for the number of dead could be found":
In the above table only one source per incident (where possible) has been listed but it should be stressed that we did look at all available sources.
What has proved interesting is that in a number of alleged chemical weapons attacks there is clear evidence of riot control gas canisters present as with the attack in Sheikh Maqsud, Aleppo, on April 13th. There have been a number of such instances of the abuse of riot control gas by government forces. Tear gas in a confined space often proves fatal, especially to children. Note the pictures / video of the remains of canisters on this link. Now compare this to the picture below of the standard tear gas canister used in Egypt today (please forgive the highlighting of the made in USA strapline - we are not trying to make a political point - it was simply the best image of this type of canister available on the internet):
Syria's President Assad has now agreed to UN chemical weapons inspections. We can but hope that the weapons inspectors prove more scrupulous than their predecessors in Iraq. The latest reports of chemical weapons use are probably the most questionable yet. We hesitate to say that the footage has been fabricated in an amateur fashion. We leave you to draw your own conclusions. Clearly had it been fabricated a great deal of cooperation would have been required - but are we viewing the aftermath of the use of riot control gas as so often seems to be the case in Syria - or is this indeed an instance of the use of chemical weapons?The following is our earlier chemical weapons report:
THE 16th JUNE REPORT ON CHEMICAL WEAPONS FOLLOWS:
The Syrian Government’s use of Chemical Weapons
From the NCF Secretary General:
Chemical weapons have been around a long time. The first to use chemical weapons in the Middle East were the British who employed them in the Second Battle of Gaza against the Turks in 1917. Since then they have been used repeatedly, most notably by Saddam Hussein against the Iranians from 1983 to 1988 and the Kurds from 1987 to 1988.
That the Syrian government has chemical weapons is without question. Their existence has been confirmed by the Syrians in oblique statements, most notably by onetime Syrian spokesman Jihad Makdissi who apparently lost his job over the remark.
Syria’s main chemical weapons base, though there are others nearby, was at the Safira base just to the East of Aleppo.
The Free Syrian Army destroyed the Safira base on 29th November 2012. The artillery base was utterly demolished but the nearby air defence base was fought over for some time. Safira was a sprawling military complex. However, the Islamist group Al Nusra joined the fight and by mid February 2013 the entire town had fallen into rebel hands.
There were allegations that the Syrian Government had used chemical weapons in Homs on December 23rd but the USA claims that investigation seemed to have proved fairly conclusively that this incident had in fact been misuse of riot control gas though the Syrian government has been curiously reluctant to allow further investigation by the UN in this instance (they have subsequently revised their position and the UN will now go in). Contrast this, however, with a leaked US cable that seems to imply that chemical weapons were indeed used in Homs (unless this earlier report is an example of bias by an over enthusiastic diplomat - you can make your own mind up from the limited information available - we can but hope that the forthcoming UN investigation will be credible). Subsequently allegations that chemical weapons were being used in Syria emerged from anonymous British secret service sources. Specifically the British claimed that there was a chemical attack in Darraya near Damascus in April. There is indeed clear evidence of fighting including government bombing but no substantiated evidence of chemical weapons use in this instance. However, there is clear evidenced of the use of a chemical attack in the same area as recorded on 24th March by French reporters. There were at least two fatalities and though it had initially seemed possible this was a severe tear gas attack, samples brought back from the area by French reporters proved sarin nerve gas had been used. There was also a report of chemical weapons use in Damascus on April 13th but this may indeed have been tear gas. In the same month there was an attack in Saraqib near Idlib on April 29th. Here at last there is credible video evidence, which appears to show at least four people severely injured by chemical attack (which later analysis proved to be sarin).
Subsequent to which the United States has determined that sarin was used in:
1. A March 19 attack on the Aleppo suburb of Khan al-Assal. This attack hit a government controlled area (a point which the rebel commander acknowledged at the time). The Syrian government said the attack killed 25.
2. And in an April 13 attack on a rebel held neighbourhood of Shaykh Maqsud in Aleppo. This was an isolated incident that appeared to affect a single house. Video evidence seems to show four dead including a baby and twice that number injured in what is clearly a chemical weapons attack of some kind.
3. Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN, also said unspecified chemicals, possibly including chemical warfare agents, were used May 14 in an attack on Qasr Abu Samrah. The NCF has been unable to find any evidence to substantiate this claim. The absence of evidence is interesting, because in Syria there are an abundance of citizen journalists who would normally substantiate such a claim.
4. And in a May 23 attack on Adra. Here there is video evidence of four people in grave difficulty from what may be a chemical weapons attack. There is no video evidence of any deaths.
The next incident we have to report on the chemical weapons front is extraordinary. On 29 May seven members of Al Nusra were arrested by the Turkish authorities near Adana in possession of two kilos of sarin nerve gas. The Turkish authorities claimed that the Al Nusra members were planning an attack in Adana on 30 May, presumably to implicate the Syrian government and draw the Turks into the Syrian war. Subsequently the Turkish authorities switched their ground and denied that the chemical agent found was Sarin but refused to say what it in fact was.
What then, overall, is the probable truth? Clearly the Syrian government has regularly and repeatedly misused riot control gas. Clearly the rebel Al Nusra front group has supplies of Sarin gas. Clearly there was a significant attack against civilians in a government controlled area on March 19th. Clearly there were some smaller chemical weapons attacks or incidents affecting civilians in rebel held areas. There appear to have been up to 40 chemical weapons related deaths in total in Syria to this point in time, culpability for which remains unproven.
The US government have proved unable to provide evidence to support the claim by US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes that between 100 and 150 have died from chemical attacks at the hands of the Syrian government.
The NCF team will commit to preparing a record of all credible reports of chemical weapons attacks. This will be an ongoing investigation to be undertaken along with our existing reports into Syrian war casualties.
All of this does however highlight one issue. There is an acute need to promote the Chemical Weapons Convention in the Middle East today. The are only eight countries in the whole world which have either not signed and / or not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. They are:
They should all be brought onboard urgently.
And if we are to use alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Government as an excuse for overt weapons supply, we should be careful.
A new Sunni-Shi’a war far more serious than the one we had in 1979 is looming. If we are to open the floodgates for weapons to be channelled to rebels inside Syria, it may accelerate the fall of the Assad government but at what cost? What will be the imminent danger of that move for the security of the region? Will Jihadists then wage a war against other regional states? We should safeguard, monitor and control the use of these weapons. It is by no means easy to ensure that sophisticated weapons do not fall into the hands of Al Nusra.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the Al Nusra Front is allied to Al Qaida. That this group has sarin gas in its possession has to be a concern. It is no coincidence that there have been announcements that tests are to be carried out this month to see what the effects might be if sarin gas were released on the London Underground.