In 2005, the United Nations decided to observe a “Day of Remembrance for all Victims of Chemical Warfare” on April 29 annually. This year, the Remembrance Day must have been more meaningful than ever, as international community is witnessing increasing civilian casualties due to chemical agents used by the Ba’athist regime of Syria. Notably, recent YouTube videos posted on April 30 and April 16 respectively, showing reported victims of chlorine attacks in the towns of al Tamanah and Kafr Zita, have reignited notorious chemical weapons allegations in the Syrian civil war. At the time of writing, the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had issued a statement indicating that it is commissioning inspectors to verify the chlorine and ammonia attacks.
In fact, analysis of the Syrian civil war leaves no room for surprise with respect to the regime’s chemical warfare campaign. As bestselling American author Dan Brown writes in his famous work, Inferno, “the truth can only be glimpsed through the eyes of death.”
In order to understand the military rationale behind the recent chemical attacks, one must pay attention to the reported delivery means, namely barrel bombs, as well as the chemical agents themselves. Starting in early 2014, Assad’s forces have intensified the use of barrel bombs, delivered via helicopter, as a tactical weapon. Lacking precision-guided munitions, the regime has been showing an increasing reliance on barrel bombs as they are cheaper and easier to produce, and can be modified to carry explosives, shrapnel and incendiary sub-munitions. Furthermore, evidence suggests that over time Ba’athist forces have mastered the use of barrel bombs in terms of size, fuse, aerodynamics and operation.
More importantly, the course of chemical warfare in the Syrian civil war has shown that the regime sees chemical weapons as a tactical asset for halting key opposition progress, depopulating geostrategically important areas and conducting psychological warfare. In the light of the recent chlorine attacks, it is thus more than possible that the Ba’athist regime is integrating its “popular” tactical air-to-ground bombing asset, barrel bombs, and chemical agents.
Moreover, according to press sources, Assad’s deal with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) covers sarin, mustard and VX agents, along with chemical precursors. Chlorine is not included in the ongoing disarmament mission, although it was weaponized and used in the First World War.
Another interesting detail regarding the chlorine attacks is the alleged connection with the Chinese Norinco.
The company does business in a wide spectrum of fields, ranging from chemicals to explosives to machinery to the defense industry. Following the Kafr Zita attacks, UK-based blogger Brown Moses released pictures showing the Norinco name on the reported chemical barrel bombs, along with the Cl2 mark indicating chlorine gas. Following the reports, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared that it is investigating the allegations.
In tandem, on April 23, Reuters reported an e-mailed statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry indicating that “chlorine is a raw material that has wide industrial uses, and it is not on any nation’s or organization’s list of controlled items.” Yet, Reuters noted, the Norinco Company has not responded to requests for comment.
Before the civil war, it was known that China and Syria had developed military relations, though Beijing- Damascus ties could not be compared with Iranian or Russian support to the Ba’athist regime. Yet, there is another Asian connection in the Syrian civil war is surfacing through North Korea’s active support.
It is no secret that a key component of Syria’s WMD program, the al Kibar nuclear facility, which was destroyed by Israel’s Operation Orchard in 2007, was built by the North Korean assistance.
Pyongyang has also taken part in developing Damascus’ chemical weapons efforts, especially in weaponizing chemical agents with ballistic missiles. Furthermore, there are also reports indicating that North Korean pilots, who are quite familiar with the Syrian Air Force’s inventory, have been actively flying combat missions on behalf of the Baathist regime. Thus, there is no good reason to rule out the possibility that the North Koreans are the missing link between the Chinese manufactured arms and chemicals, and Assad’s brutal campaign. In sum, the facts not only indicate the military-strategic explanation behind the recent attacks, but also the Ba’athist regime’s understanding of the need to buy time and circumvent peaceful international efforts. In the absence of robust and deterrent international pressure, there seems to be no end in sight for the Syrian civil war, prolonged and dirtied by the war crimes of Assad’s forces.
The author is a faculty member at Girne American University. He also holds a research fellow post at Istanbul- based independent think-tank EDAM.