WASHINGTON – Syria may have violated a United Nations convention against the use of chemical weapons only seven months after joining the treaty, the US suggested on Tuesday. The claims came after reports surfaced last week that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces might have deployed chlorine on the battlefield.
At least two died in the alleged chemical assault on a village in a rebel-held area, while dozens of others were wounded.
“We have indications of the use of a toxic industrial chemical” in the town, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a routine news briefing. “We are examining allegations that the government was responsible. Obviously there needs to be an investigation of what’s happened here.”
Syrian opposition activists reported that helicopters dropped chlorine gas on Kafr Zeita on April 11 and 12. On April 13, the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, told the ABC program This Week that the attack was “unsubstantiated.”
Chlorine is not categorized as a particularly hazardous chemical in the agreement reached among the US, Russia and Syria last fall, which requires that the Syrians destroy all of their most deadly chemical weapons stockpiles.
Over 86 percent of those weapons, formally classified as Priority 1 and 2 chemical arms, have been removed from Syria, the State Department said on Tuesday, stating that chlorine has many peaceful uses. Nevertheless, “the use of any toxic chemical to cause harm or cause death would be a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention,” Psaki said.
The Syrian government failed to meet a February 5 deadline to move all of its declared chemical substances and precursors, some 1,300 tons, out of the country. It has since agreed to remove them by late April.
Some US lawmakers who have expressed deep skepticism about the chemical weapons agreement said the report, if verified, backed their long-standing call for President Barack Obama’s administration to provide more support for Syrian rebels.
“The Assad regime continues to carry out war crimes in its slaughter of innocent men, women and children,” Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), a frequent critic of Obama’s foreign policy, said in a statement. “Its breach of the chemical weapons agreement should surprise no one, and unless the Obama administration is willing to force a price for such behavior, we should only expect more atrocities to come.”
In August, after pro-Assad forces killed over 1,400 civilians in a historic chemical attack on the Ghouta suburb of Damascus, Obama moved warships and threatened military action for violating the international norm against the use of weapons of mass destruction. His threats were withdrawn, however, once Syria agreed two weeks later to rid itself of its remaining stockpiles and sign the UN treaty, ostensibly to hold itself accountable for their further use.
“I’m not going to speak to the president’s redlines,” Psaki said on Tuesday, asked whether Obama was reconsidering force.
But “its a good question,” she added, as confirmation of the attack would be a clear-cut violation of the autumn agreement.
The convention “prohibits the use of all toxic chemicals, including chlorine,” she said.
Syria’s signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention and its agreement with the West to rid itself of all its chemical arms were separate commitments by the Syrian government, although with obvious overlaps.
Signing the CWC enabled the UN’s Organization for the Prohibition on Chemical Weapons to enforce the agreement. But a violation does not necessarily amount to a violation of the US-Russia brokered agreement, Psaki suggested in her Tuesday briefing.
The US is reluctant to classify all chemicals as weapons of mass destruction, as an untold number of toxins – rat poison was used as an example in the briefing – could be weaponized by the Assad army to be used against rebels in the three-year civil war there.
Sarin, which was used in August on a massive scale, has the potency to kill thousands indiscriminately in a single attack. A nerve agent, it has no peaceful purpose.
Psaki rejected Syria’s announcement on Monday of coming presidential elections as “a parody of democracy” with no credibility.
“Staging elections under current conditions, including the effective disenfranchisement of millions of Syrians, neither addresses the aspirations of the Syrian people nor moves the country any closer to a negotiated political solution,” she said.
Syria announced a presidential election for June 3, preparing the ground for Assad to defy widespread opposition and extend his grip on power just days after he said the civil war was turning in his favor.
Reuters contributed to this report.