Chemical Warfare In Syria, and Its Corrosiveness Beyond

Syria is at the center of a geo-political vortex of conflict that has suctioned the petroleum-fueled ambitions of the three international powers of our day — the United States, Russia and China — into an interlaced complex of bitter regional wars within the oil-rich highly fragmented and excessively inequitable Islamic and Israeli Middle East.

The Syrian Civil War broke out on 15 March 2011 as one of the numerous Arab Spring revolts and revolutions of that year. The initially peaceful and nonviolent demonstrations by the Syrian people against oppression by the state and in favor of democracy were brutally suppressed by the Al-Assad regime and thus engendered a violent defensive reaction. The ensuing Syrian Civil War quickly devolved into a power vacuum within which swirled a chaotic and inhuman multi-party scramble for political control through armed conflict.

The Shia-based affinity between the Alawite-centered Al-Assad family dictatorship in Syria with the Hezbollah Political Party in Lebanon and with the Iranian theocracy bonded these last two into arrangements and intrigues of military assistance to the Al-Assad regime.

The Sunni-based oil-rich Gulf States, which are aligned with the Washington Consensus, pursued their ideological and regional ambitions by supplying military aid to sub-state factions and terrorist groups combatting the Shia-allied forces in Syria. Israel and Turkey each also continued to pursue their own regional ambitions with a similar perspective relative to Syria.

In September 2015 the Russian government, under the direction of Vladimir Putin, intervened massively in the Syrian Civil War, conducting airstrikes and other military operations for the defense of its long time client, the Al-Assad regime, thus boosting it to a military victory in its civil war, which has been and continues to be a humanitarian catastrophe for the Syrian people. Syria hosts one of the three Russian foreign military bases outside the confines of the former Soviet Union and the former East Bloc (out of a total of 21 military bases outside of Russia proper).

That Syrian-hosted Russian military presence is actually sited at two bases: a naval facility in Tartus, and the Khmeimim Air Base. From its Syrian military base complex, Russia can project military power westward from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, northward to Turkey and beyond that to the Black Sea and Crimea, eastward into the Levant, and southward into Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula.

Russia’s purpose in maintaining such wide-ranging possibilities of power projection from its Syrian bases are diplomatic, they are not preparations for invasive war. They are what in the animal world is known as a threat display, a broadcast signal — mainly directed at the Washington Consensus — saying: do not think to attack our nation because we can reach far out to claw your eyes out, and rip open your petrol-carrying veins. Russian history easily justifies such a defensive posture.

What all three world powers understand is that their degree of control of world affairs rests on the extent of their control over the world’s fossil fuel commerce. The national ambitions of lesser states are easily throttled by the squeezing of the control hands wrapped around the petroleum arteries of world economics. Japan launched its Pacific War of 1941-1945 because of just this fear, sparked by the U.S. embargo of petroleum to Japan on 26 July 1941 in response to Japan’s 1937 invasion of China and its ensuing Sino-Japanese War, which then merged into World War II as one of its theaters of conflict.

Radiating out of this collective understanding of world power are: Washington’s lavish patronage and protection of the Gulf States in its orbit, Russia’s zeal at piping its abundant geological hydrocarbon bounty to Europe, and China’s unquenchable thirst for Iranian, Central Asian, and any other petroleum to help fuel the continuing expansion of the world’s largest national-regional economy.

And Syria is the stinging nettle at the center of this turbulent geo-political swirl.

With malicious desperation during its multi-faceted war against the aspirations of the Syrian people, and against the infiltrating sub-state and ideologically fanatical militias seeking control of the Syrian state, as well as against militias acting as proxy forces of foreign intervention (sometimes the same for these last two), the Al-Assad regime deployed chemical weapons on many occasions: chlorine and sarin gas aerial bombs and artillery shells. “The deadliest attacks were the August 2013 sarin attack in Ghouta (killing between 281 and 1,729 people) and the April 2017 sarin attack in Khan Shaykhun (killing at least 89 people)… The most common agent used was chlorine, with sarin and sulphur mustard also reported.” [1]

In prior decades from the 1970s, Syria had built up an arsenal of chemical weapons, with the technological help of Russia and Egypt, as its weapons-of-mass-destruction shield against external threats to the continuation of the Al-Assad regime as the Syrian state. This Syrian chemical “doomsday machine” was intended as its ultimate defense against Israeli aggression, in the same way that the nuclear powers present their arsenals of nuclear-tipped rockets as shields against existential threats to their national sovereignty. [2]

The worldwide abhorrence against the use of chemical weapons acted as a diplomatic pressure against this tactic by the Al-Assad regime domestically, and was also used as an excuse by the Washington Consensus to justify its various forms of demi-covert intervention in the Syrian Civil War. There has been much propaganda, anti-propaganda, dissimulation, lying and cover-up associated with the reality of chemical warfare in Syria, the slants and biases in the reporting and commentary of which depend on the ideological allegiances of their sources, every faction trying to muddy the waters of public perception in its favor.

In 2013, under intense international pressure against its chemical warfare and fearing a Libya-style NATO intervention, the Al-Assad regime with Russian encouragement acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention. It agreed to eliminate its arsenal of chemical weapons under the supervision (and protection) of Russia. But the complete elimination of that arsenal did not occur, as witnessed by subsequent chemical attacks by the forces of the Syrian regime.

In 2014, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Fact Finding Mission in Syria concluded that the use of chlorine was systematic and widespread. The following year, the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (OPCW-UN JIM) was established to identify the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria. The OPCW-UN JIM blamed the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad for the sarin attack in Khan Shaykhun, as well as three chlorine attacks. They also concluded ISIL militants used sulphur mustard. According to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, the Syrian government carried out 33 chemical attacks between 2013 and September 2018. A further six attacks were documented by the Commission, but the perpetrators were not sufficiently identified. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), 85 confirmed chemical attacks occurred between 21 August 2013 and 25 February 2018, and the Syrian government was responsible for the majority of the attacks. HRW said the actual number of attacks was likely higher than 85. According to a Global Public Policy Institute study, at least 336 attacks have occurred. The report said 98% of these attacks were carried out by Assad’s forces and 2% by ISIL. [3]

In October 2019, former OPCW employee Brendan Whelan acted as a whistleblower codenamed ‘Alex’, teaming “up with Wikileaks, to expose what appeared to be a major scandal with global implications – the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), had ‘doctored’ a report in order to fabricate a chlorine attack in Syria when no such event had actually occurred… [Brendan Whelan] had been part of the team that investigated the chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma on April 7, 2018 in which at least 41 civilians were killed. This was done, insinuated ‘Alex’, in order to frame the Syrian government and justify the missile strikes launched by the US, UK and France against forces loyal to the government of Bashar al-Assad in the days following the attack on the town of Douma in April 2018.” [4]

Russian state media and the Assad regime seized upon these leaks to claim that the chemical attack was staged and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had been hijacked by Western nations and was no longer fit for its intended purpose.

“A draft version of a letter seen by Bellingcat and not publicly released by either ‘Alex’, Wikileaks or any of the journalists who have covered the so-called scandal, proves that a chemical attack did occur. It shows that any notion of a cover-up at the OPCW is false and confirms that the organisation acted exactly as it was mandated to. Further, it also reveals that at a diplomatic level behind closed doors, the Russian and Syrian governments have both agreed with the conclusions of the OPCW report. Yet in public – and with the help of a number of Western journalists and academics – Russia has launched a widespread and concerted effort to undermine both the OPCW and the conclusions of its report on Douma.” [5]

The unreleased letter referred to above (the relevant portions of which can be seen in [5]) was drafted by several members of the OPCW in June 2019 and then sent by the director general of the organisation, Fernando Arias, in reply to a letter from Whelan where he claimed there was no evidence of chlorine being used as a weapon in Douma, and traces of chlorine that were found were not consistent with the release of chlorine gas. In his reply Arias explains why Whelan’s assumptions are wrong – he simply wasn’t aware of the latest scientific techniques used by the OPCW because they were developed after Whelan had left the organisation. It was these techniques that allowed the OPCW to conclude chlorine gas had been released in the building in which the Syrian civilians died.

Arias wrote: “Your letter further refers to 2,4,6-trichlorophenol as being used erroneously as an indicator of chlorine exposure, and you rightly point out that this chemical can be present for a variety of reasons that do not require chlorine gas exposure. However, there were additional chlorine-containing chemicals found in samples taken from Douma, and in particular, chlorinated pinene compounds that have been shown to form in certain types of wood that have been exposed to chlorine gas. One of the Designated Laboratories that analysed samples after you completed your tenure has developed methods of analysing wood exposed to chlorine gas that can distinguish between different types of wood in the signatures of chlorinated compounds produced. This laboratory’s analysis of wood samples taken from Douma indicated that the wood indeed had been exposed to chlorine gas.” [6]

In short, the OPCW did exactly as mandated and established that a chemical weapon had been used at Douma; the OPCW had not falsified evidence nor fabricated a fictitious (false flag) chemical attack.

Arias also wrote that: “I would further like to point out that the conclusion of the final Douma report is not in question. No State Party has questioned the conclusion that there are reasonable grounds to believe that a toxic chemical was used as a weapon in Douma. This includes the Syrian Arab Republic and the Russian Federation, which in recent weeks have each sent us comments and questions on the final Douma report in notes verbale in which they themselves have indicated their agreement with the conclusion of the final report. These notes verbale, as well as our replies to them, have been made available to State Parties.” [7]

A July/August 2021 news brief by the Arms Control Association states:

“An investigation into 77 allegations of chemical weapons use by Syria has concluded that chemical weapons were likely or definitely used in 17 cases, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reported to the UN Security Council on June 3 [2021]…

“OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias announced that the world’s chemical weapons watchdog will be addressing new issues during future consultations with Syria, including ‘the presence of a new chemical weapons agent found in samples collected in large storage containers in September 2020.’ He said that the organization had notified Syria of its intention to conduct on-site inspections and requested visas for its expert team, but never received a response…

“That is not the first time that Syria has declined to cooperate. In April 2020, the OPCW Executive Council demanded further information regarding three alleged chemical weapons attacks that took place in 2017. Syria declined, and in response, the organization in April suspended Syria’s ‘rights and privileges,’ marking the first time that the OPCW had taken such action since its formation in 1997…

“Russia has consistently defended Syria and criticized the OPCW and its investigators. In response to Arias’ report, Russia’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, accused the OPCW of exclusively using information ‘from biased sources opposed to the Syrian government’ and of relying on ‘pseudo witnesses,’ according to media reports. He also claimed the OPCW ‘was established illegitimately’ and that therefore it is unfair to expect Syria to comply with its regulations. Russia joined 14 other states, including China, in voting against the measure to restrict Syria’s rights within the multilateral organization…

“Despite Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 under heavy international pressure, questions remain about the validity of the country’s chemical weapons declarations. Arias reported that one of the deadliest attacks took place in 2017, three years after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared that the destruction of the country’s chemical weapons program was complete.” [8]

So as of mid 2021: the Al-Assad regime remains in control of the Syrian state; there is no convincing evidence that its entire stockpile of chemical weapons has been destroyed and that it no longer has a chemical weapons production capability; there is no guarantee that Syrian military forces will never again deploy chemical weapons against Syrians opposed to the Al-Assad regime; Russian military forces in Syria, along with Russia’s diplomatic clout internationally, continue to protect the Al-Assad regime, as well as maintain Russian foreign-based military power in Syria.

Over the ten years and four months of the Syrian Civil War (so far) over 606,000 people have been killed, 6.7 million Syrians are internally displaced, and 6.6 million Syrians are refugees. The pre-war population of the Syrian Arab Republic was estimated to be 22 million. [9]

The elimination worldwide of both chemical and nuclear weapons from military arsenals — and threat display diplomacy — remain as yet unfulfilled dreams for a more peaceful and secure world.

Notes

[1], [3] Use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Use_of_chemical_weapons_in_the_Syrian_civil_war

[2] Syria chemical weapons program
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syria_chemical_weapons_program

[4], [5], [6], [7] Unpublished OPCW Douma Correspondence Casts Further Doubt on Claims of ‘Doctored’ Report,
(Bellingcat, 26 October 2020) 
https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2020/10/26/unpublished-opcw-douma-correspondence-raises-doubts-about-transparency-of-opcw-leaks-promoters/

[8] OPCW Confirms Chemical Weapons Use in Syria,
Arms Control Today, (Arms Control Association, July/August 2021)
https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2021-07/news-briefs/opcw-confirms-chemical-weapons-use-syria

[9] Syrian Civil War
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_civil_war

<><><><><><><>

War, the Unending Theft

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

The following is my response to an old friend about his fear and disgust with the new Iran War fever being stirred up by the Trump Administration.

 

Why Does War Exist?
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2017/09/05/why-does-war-exist/

Attacking Iran Will Save The World (redux)
5 January 2020 (26 March 2012)
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2020/01/05/attacking-iran-will-save-the-world-redux/

 

The war is “a great big noisy rather stupid game that doesn’t make any sense at all. None of us know what it’s all about or why. Here we are going at it hammer and tongs, and I bet you those fellows over there feel exactly the same way about it, the enemy… Then one day I suppose it will all end as suddenly as it began. We’ll go home till some other bunch of criminalated* sitting around a large table shoves us into another war and we go at it again… Do you remember my father used to be a professor of biology at Queen’s? He always used to say: man is a savage animal who periodically to relieve his nervous tension tries to destroy himself.”

— Errol Flynn’s monologue in the 1938 film “The Dawn Patrol.”
[* origin of word described at https://manuelgarciajr.com/2019/11/11/criminalated-warmongers/]

 

 

Iraq War protest SF 2003
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2016/04/10/iraq-war-protest-sf-2003/

An Iraq War Retrospective
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2012/01/05/an-iraq-war-retrospective/

Through My Lens, Clearly
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2019/08/11/through-my-lens-clearly/

What’s Wrong With The United States?
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2019/04/09/whats-wrong-with-the-united-states/

Civics 911
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2016/09/14/civics-911/

Heartrending Antiwar Songs
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2019/11/15/heartrending-antiwar-songs/

 

<><><><><><><>

Attacking Iran Will Save The World (redux)

(March 26, 2012, reposted unchanged)

A US-Israeli military attack on Iran will save the world. How?

The U.S. today is the world’s Polyphemus, a maddened Cyclops obsessed with chewing up a planet it seeks to control, and only recognizing this behavior by belching it into consciousness as “profits.” Such an attack would allow Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz by bombardment, instantly shutting off 40% of the world’s maritime traffic of oil exports, and rapidly collapsing the US economy along with many others around the globe. This would be the Mother Of All Oil Embargoes, the poke in the eye of a ravenous and myopic Cyclops by an Iran pushed into the role of Odysseus (Ulysses). As Uri Avnery persuasively argues, [1] it would not be a quick and simple matter for the U.S. to reverse the situation by a combined air and ground war aimed at controlling Iran’s vast territory to destroy all the missile sites capable of launching attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, and enemy military forces in the region and in Israel.

The subsequent economic collapse would be so swift and devastating that it would cut deeply into the ability of the U.S. to prolong the war, a mercy to Iran. The ensuing economic suffering by the US public would most likely fatally sour the popular view of Israel, and new American politicians would surf that tsunami of anger into successful careers untangling Israel’s political tentacles from the gears of the US policy-making machinery, a mercy to the Palestinians (Avnery argues that the entire purpose of the Israeli Likud government’s incessant war talk against Iran is to distract official and public attention in the U.S. from the continuing Israeli depredations against the Palestinians, a tactic that has succeeded).

Aside from the conjectural relief for the Palestinians, the consequences of a US-Israeli war on Iran would be an irredeemable global catastrophe except for one positive effect: it would prompt the U.S. to rapidly develop alternative sources of energy, probably breaking the psychological impasse of climate-change denial in the mentality of the decision-making and profit-making elite. [2]

The first US reaction to the Mother Of All Oil Embargoes would be to tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, but that only holds about five weeks’ supply at the current rate of consumption.

The second act of response would be to approve the Keystone XL pipeline to transport heat-softened and slurried Athabasca tar sands (strip-mined in Alberta, Canada) to US synfuels plants and oil refineries in Illinois, Oklahoma, and the Gulf Coast of Texas, for the production of liquid hydrocarbon fuels. However, significant quantities of refined Athabasca petroleum could not be expected until at least a year after the project secured government approval, all legal challenges were set aside, and construction began.

The third measure in response to a loss of Middle East oil would be to approve expanded oil exploration and extraction in the United States and along its continental shelves (“drill, baby, drill!”). As Michael Klare points out, [3] since most of the “easy oil” has already been extracted or found, it seems unlikely that domestic production can be increased sufficiently (and rapidly) to compensate for a loss of oil imported from the Middle East.

Coal can be converted to synthetic petroleum, but with greater effort than is needed with the Athabasca oil sands (“oil sands” is used by proponents of the Keystone XL project, and “tar sands” is used by opponents; the material itself is bitumen mixed with sand and gravel). Large diversions of industrial agriculture from food production to the growing of feedstock for the synthesis of biofuels would cruelly add to the economic misery by raising food prices. Building more nuclear power plants to compensate for a loss of petroleum-based electrical power would take years to realize, and in any case never supply liquid fuels for transportation.

Because of the conceptual simplicity of solar energy technologies, and the near universal accessibility to sunlight and wind, these methods of harvesting energy and converting it to electricity offer the quickest ways to greatly expand the generating capacity of the United States, without resorting to fossil fuels. [4] Electrical energy can be packed into rechargeable batteries to power ground transportation vehicles, but electric batteries do not yet provide for as long a range of travel between recharges (“fill ups”) as do liquid hydrocarbon fuels. However, all-electric ground transportation using today’s battery technology would not have to be significantly inferior to our present gasoline-powered auto-mobility if we increase the numbers and types of electrified public transportation networks (trains, light rail, trollies, streetcars, buses), design standardized “quick change” modular battery packs for electric automobiles, and convert gas stations into battery exchange and recharge stations.

The Mother Of All Oil Embargoes would also spark a US revival of energy conservation and the construction of energy-conserving and energy-generating buildings and towns. Given that the Iraq War lasted three months shy of nine years (March 2003 to December 2011), and the Afghanistan War continues after more than eleven years (since October 2001), one could guess that a war against Iran, which is larger, more populated, technologically advanced, and has its own highly-developed armaments industry, would take at least a few years to conclude, but might conceivably throttle the export of Persian Gulf oil for a decade.

Few nations are entirely self sufficient, and so most trade on their strengths to then import what they need to compensate for their deficiencies. It is the day-to-day business of diplomats and trade representatives to moderate the unending conflicts that arise from the spillover effects onto the rest of the global community of each nation’s economic activity. Much less tolerable is the spillover, or conscious displacement, of political violence arising from a nation’s internal conflicts. Israel is in a perpetual state of violent spillover where a war in Gaza, or the West Bank, or Lebanon, or now Iran is pursued as a necessary adjunct to the capturing and retention of power by a political party. Israeli war-making is a symptom of its pathological denial of the need to resolve its internal contradictions, [5] the ultimate source of its wars and occupations. The United States has also been a source of too much destructive spillover. Launching a war on Iran because of Israeli-prompted US objections to Iran’s development of nuclear technology (even if with nuclear bombs) would be another terrible spillover of unnecessary political violence.

The carbon dioxide emissions from the United States in 2010 were essentially the same as in 2008; they were 3.6% lower in 2009 during the period of deepest recession after the 2008 economic crash. From the perspective of reducing carbon dioxide emissions so as to limit climate change, an economic collapse is an environmental gain in the absence of conscious efforts to rebuild an economy to minimize the burning of fossil fuels.

If maladroit political managers (perhaps a 2013 Republican administration determined to impress Bibi Netanyahu) carry the Iran War posturing beyond a hysterical public distraction (from the continuing expansion of Israeli apartheid settlements in the West Bank, and the walling off of Palestinians from their own land) into an actual war against Iran, then the consequent economic catastrophes will motivate a popular trend of adopting solar energy technology and of conserving energy. After a significant portion of the US population has experienced the benefits of solar energy (reliable energy wherever the sun shines, conceptually simple and low-hazard technology, recovery from the Mother Of All Oil Embargoes) and adapted to its quirks and maintenance needs, then the psychological barrier of climate-change denial in the U.S. will have been ruptured and this mighty nation can become a leading contributor to a just and intelligent global response to climate change. And, that is what will save the world.

The switch in mentality from climate-change denial to climate-change acknowledgement would be consistent with an attitude of renovating the US economy to operate with as little petroleum and coal as possible, and of stopping the many political and military schemes, like the Iran War, that arise out of the obsession to control global access to fossil fuel resources. Of course, we could achieve the same ends without experiencing the agonies of an Iran War if we were willing to acknowledge facts and accept Nature’s message (global warming).

Notes

1.  Uri Avnery, Attacking Iran, CounterPunch, 12 March 2012.
https://www.counterpunch.org/2012/03/12/attacking-iran/

2.  Olga Bonfiglio, Some Sociological Explanations for Climate Change Denial, olgabonfiglio.blogspot.com, 16 March 2012. Thanks to Gerald Spezio for this reference.
http://olgabonfiglio.blogspot.com/2012/02/some-sordid-explanations-of-climate.html

3.  Michael T. Klare, Why High Gas Prices Are Here to Stay,
TomDispatch.com, 13 March 2012.
http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175515/tomgram%3A_michael_klare%2C_why_high_gas_prices_are_here_to_stay/

4.  Manuel García, Jr., Energy for Society in Balance with Nature,
[8 June 2015 (27 February 2012)]
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2015/06/08/energy-for-society-in-balance-with-nature/

5.  Gabriel Kolko, The Enigma Of Israel, CounterPunch, 16 March 2012.
https://www.counterpunch.org/2012/03/16/the-enigma-of-israel/
<><><><><><><>

This article originally appeared as:

Attacking Iran Will Save The World

26 March 2012
http://www.swans.com/library/art18/mgarci44.html
<><><><><><><>