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The Chemical Weapons Test in Syria

Interviewee: Gregory D. Koblentz, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor, Council on Foreign Relations
June 15, 2013

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The Obama administration has reported with "high confidence" that the government of Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons last year against rebel fighters. Yet the UN's investigation team, which has been denied access to Syria, "will have to be careful in relying too heavily on such [Western] evidence," says Greg Koblentz, a CFR Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow. What is perhaps most puzzling about the alleged attacks, says Koblentz, was the scale at which they appear to have been used. "It is unclear what strategic benefit the regime sees in using these weapons in such a limited way given the risks it runs from crossing Obama's red line," he says.

Is this most recent U.S. intelligence review alleging the Assad regime used sarin a game changer?

There are two major differences between this intelligence assessment and the one released back in April. In the earlier assessment, the Obama administration reported that the intelligence community had "varying degrees of confidence" that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, indicating disagreement within agencies on the reliability of the evidence. In this updated version, the intelligence community now reports that it has a "high confidence" that the Assad regime used chemical weapons.

The second difference is that this report provides more details on the types of evidence underlying this new assessment:"multiple, independent streams of information," including "reporting regarding Syrian officials planning and executing regime chemical weapons attacks; reporting that includes descriptions of the time, location, and means of attack; and descriptions of physiological symptoms that are consistent with exposure to a chemical weapons agent."

Social media and other media reports are also said to be consistent with the reported uses of chemical weapons. In addition, physiological samples obtained from a number of individuals in Syria show that they were exposed to sarin although not how, when, or where the exposure occurred. The amount of detail disclosed so far, however, does not provide a sound basis for making an independent evaluation of this latest assessment.

What are the implications for the UN inspectors?

A UN team of experts, headed by the Swedish scientist and Iraq weapons inspection veteran Ake Sellstrom, was stood up back in March to investigate alleged chemical attacks in Syria. The team forward-deployed to Cyprus in April but never received permission to enter Syria and carry out its mission. In the meantime, Dr. Sellstrom and his team have been busy collecting information from sources outside of Syria. British, French and American officials are known to have briefed Sellstrom on their findings.

While the information provided by Western governments will be invaluable to Sellstrom, it is not without its limitations. After receiving information from the French government earlier this month, the UN released a statement warning that "the validity of the information is not ensured in the absence of convincing evidence of the chain-of-custody of the data collected." Without a way to verify the provenance of physiological samples or to conduct its own analyses on such samples, Sellstrom will have to be careful in relying too heavily on such evidence. Providing as much information and material as possible to Dr. Sellstrom would help ensure that the UN team is able to make an authoritative and credible assessment of the reported chemical weapon attacks within Syria.

What do you see as the CW threat in Syria going forward?

Syria is believed to possess a stockpile of sulfur mustard, sarin, and VX chemical warfare agents as well as missile warheads, aerial bombs, and artillery rockets that can be used to deliver these agents. Sarin, the chemical nerve agent that the Assad regime has reportedly used against the rebels, inhibits a key enzyme that controls muscle activity. It is among the most toxic type of chemical weapons and can cause death within minutes. Iraq also used sarin against Iran and its own Kurds during the 1980s.

One of the more puzzling aspects of Syria's reported chemical weapon attacks are their small scale. The intelligence community believes that these attacks have killed at least 100-150 people. Given that the death toll of the Syrian civil war is already over 90,000, according to UN estimates, and government forces retain the ability to use heavy artillery, aircraft and helicopter gunships, it is unclear what strategic benefit the regime sees in using these weapons in such a limited way given the risks it runs from crossing Obama's red line.

There are two measures that can be adopted fairly readily to mitigate the threat posed by future chemical attacks. The first is to provide the rebels with gas masks, chemical detection equipment and nerve agent antidotes. Giving the rebels the means to protect themselves will not only diminish the military utility of this weapon, but provide the rebels with a psychological boost and greater self-confidence.

Second, it must be made clear that the regime loyalists responsible for planning and executing these attacks will be held accountable. The International Criminal Court provides an international venue for prosecuting war crimes such as the use of "asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and all analogous liquids, materials or devices." The last time a dictator used chemical weapons against his own people -- Saddam Hussein against the Kurds in 1987 and 1988 -- the world turned a blind eye. We cannot let that happen again.

What do you see as the implications for Syria peace talks?

The prospect for peace talks were already looking dreary due to the recent advances on the ground made by the Syrian government. Neither side is likely to take negotiations seriously when they think they have an advantage or believe that the conflict's momentum is shifting in their favor. Now that the United States has opened up the arms pipeline to the rebels, they are likely to seek to reverse their recent losses before entering talks so they can negotiate from a position of strength.

The conflict in Syria will undoubtedly be a central topic under discussion at the upcoming G-8 meeting in Northern Ireland. Since France, the United Kingdom and the United States have all accused the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons and pledged to provide weapons to the rebels, they will likely lobby for support on these issues from the other members of the G-8. The odd man out will be Russia which has backed the Assad regime to the hilt with diplomatic and military support. This means the G-8 meeting will likely be rancorous, but at the end of the day its outcome will not have a major impact on the Syrian conflict.

The more important venue is the UN Security Council. As I have previously pointed out, although Syria is subject to sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union, and Arab League, and others, it has so far escaped comprehensive, multilateral sanctions imposed by the Security Council. Since the beginning of the Assad regime's brutal crackdown, Russia and China have vetoed three Security Council resolutions that would have imposed such sanctions on Syria.

If the United States and its allies don't make progress with Russia at the G-8 meeting, their next move may be a renewed push for UN sanctions on Syria until the Assad government allows the UN team to investigate all claims of chemical weapons use in the country. The sanctions could include a travel ban and asset freeze for high-ranking members of the regime, restrictions on Syria's oil exports, and a ban on exports of weapons and dual-use equipment to Syria. While Russia could wield its veto to block these sanctions, it will find itself increasingly isolated for defending the Assad regime's increasingly reprehensible behavior.