Syria: A rogue state’s new low

As grim as the headlines may be, the world is safer than it was a generation ago when it comes to chemical weapons

(Ammar Dar/Reuters)

Update: John Kerry has said samples from those first on the scene in Damascus on Aug. 21 have tested positive for sarin gas exposure. The U.S. Secretary of State made and repeated the comments on Sunday-morning talk shows.

The scenes from what was almost certainly a chemical weapons attack on rebel-held Damascus suburbs were horrific. People writhing in agony, some foaming at the mouth, lifeless bodies sprawled on the streets where they fell; dead children lined in a neat row in a makeshift morgue. The Aug. 21 attack, in which at least 10 rockets slammed into communities outside the government-controlled Syrian capital, injured hundreds if not thousands, while estimates of the dead range from 355 to more than 1,300.

For days the Syrian government delayed access to the areas by United Nations chemical weapons inspectors already present in Damascus, making it difficult to collect credible evidence to confirm what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calls Syria’s “undeniable” role in the attack. Finally on Monday, Aug. 26, a UN convoy was allowed in, although one of the vehicles came under sniper fire in the buffer zone between the two warring camps.

Washington and most Western powers dismiss denials by President Bashar al-Assad’s government that it gassed its own people. If verified, it’s the largest use of chemical weapons since 1988, when Iraq used mustard gas and nerve agents, killing as many as 5,000 Kurds in the north of the country. The Syrian attack may yet force U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western allies into a military response no one has much stomach for.

It’s long been suspected Syria has a cache of a nerve agent, most likely sarin, an odorless, colourless toxin. Certainly the symptoms match observations by representatives of Doctors Without Borders, who reported patients with convulsions, excessive saliva, poor vision and breathing difficulties. The man-made chemical breaks down an enzyme that allows nerves to communicate, creating a massive short-circuit that results in confusion, convulsions, paralysis and death. Aid workers saw no evidence of the burn-like blistering that results from mustard gas, part of the arsenal Saddam Hussein loosed on the Kurds.

As grim as the news is, though, the world is a safer place today than it was a generation ago when it comes to the threat of chemical weapons. For all the cynicism attached to resolutions from UN and other world bodies, one of the most effective disarmament treaties ever reached came into force with the signing in Paris in January 1993 of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It took 20 years of negotiations to put in place the first multilateral treaty aiming to ban an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. The treaty began with 87 so-called “states parties.” By this June, when Somalia signed on, the number had grown to 189 member states.

More than 98 per cent of the world’s population now lives under the umbrella of the convention, and almost 80 per cent of all declared chemical weapons stocks have been verified as destroyed, says the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which implements the treaty.

Full compliance hasn’t been achieved, obviously, as the Syrian slaughter confirms. The rogue state is among seven countries that have not acceded to the convention. Besides Syria, the holdouts are Angola, Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan. Both Israel and Burma were signatories, but they’ve never ratified the treaty and aren’t bound by it. Several of those states are suspected of having chemical weapons programs. One known offender is North Korea, which has had goods seized that were destined for Syria’s program.

No toothless tiger, the treaty carries binding protocols for verifying the destruction of existing stockpiles, as well as a unique mechanism of “challenge inspections,” allowing one member state to trigger an inspection of another signatory if it doubts compliance. “States parties have committed themselves to the principle of ‘any time, anywhere’ inspections with no right of refusal,” says The Hague-based implementation organization. The treaty’s very strength may be its weakness in the eyes of non-signatory nations who don’t want outsiders mucking about in their arsenals or critiquing their tactics.

Today, chemical weapons merit near-universal condemnation in part because of the appalling toll taken by chlorine and mustard gas in the trench warfare of the First World War. Some 124,000 tonnes of chemicals were dispersed, killing 90,000 people and injuring one million, many of whom lived with the effects for the rest of their lives. During the 1920s, the League of Nations drafted a Geneva protocol banning chemical and biological warfare. While chemical weapon use was drastically curtailed in the Second World War, it didn’t stop governments of every stripe from stockpiling chemical weapons and their delivery systems as a defensive measure.

Canada played a top-secret wartime role in such weapons production at the Chemical Warfare Laboratories in Ottawa, at the massive experimental station at CFB Suffield, Alta., and at a biological facility on Grosse-Île, Que., which produced anthrax for Britain and the U.S. Postwar, Canada, its allies and Russia dumped thousands of tonnes of chemical weapons into the oceans, still a potential environmental time bomb. Canada destroyed the last of its land-based caches of nerve agents in 1989 and 1991, as it readied to sign the chemical weapons convention.

The treaty spurred the U.S. to launch an estimated $24-billion program to destroy its caches. In 2003, Maclean’s toured one of the U.S.’s largest sites, the heavily guarded Umatilla Chemical Depot in northeastern Oregon. It was an otherworldly scene of rows of earth-mounded concrete “igloos” holding 2,800 tonnes of mustard blister agent, sarin and VX. A multi-billion-dollar incinerator destroyed the last of those weapons just two years ago. Two U.S. storage sites, in Kentucky and Colorado, are preparing to destroy the country’s remaining stock, a dangerous and environmentally challenging project.

If the U.S. and other allies do attack Syria, how to deal with its chemical weapons? Bombing storage facilities, if they are found, has the potential to unleash a chemical nightmare. Yet if the weapons aren’t destroyed, a spokesman for the Syrian regime gave a chilling warning last year. Such weapons won’t be used, he said, “unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.”

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