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.


[1], [3] Use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War

[2] Syria chemical weapons program

[4], [5], [6], [7] Unpublished OPCW Douma Correspondence Casts Further Doubt on Claims of ‘Doctored’ Report,
(Bellingcat, 26 October 2020)

[8] OPCW Confirms Chemical Weapons Use in Syria,
Arms Control Today, (Arms Control Association, July/August 2021)

[9] Syrian Civil War


Green Energy versus The Uncivil War

Chris Hedges hosted the political writers Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton on his television program (yesterday, on the RT network/channel) for a discussion of the Syrian War, and its many current harmful impacts, as well as its possible grave future consequences for the Middle East, Europe, the United States, and the world. (That episode of Chris Hedges’ program is linked near the bottom.)

My reaction to that program follows.

The problem, as presented so compellingly by Chris Hedges, Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton, is of such large scope that it is difficult to see how any one nation – even the United States – could act alone to “solve it” (forever).

However, the recommendation that the U.S. stop funding destabilization groups in the Middle East (and everywhere), and that the U.S. “pull back” from or “pull out” of the Middle East, would be a very, very helpful step for the reduction of suffering in that region: for example reducing the incidence of wars and the displacements causing huge refugee streams. Such a change in US policy would also benefit the American people by freeing public money now absorbed by covert and overt militarism, to be used instead for much more domestic socialism (like Medicare-for-all, and free college for all).

However, even were such a change in US Middle East policy to occur, there would still be many evils in the region:
– authoritarian and oppressive regimes continuing to hurt the people under them,
– the export of Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia and Qatar,
– the regional Sunni-Shia proxy wars (basically, Saudi Arabia vs. Iran),
– the war by Israel against the Palestinians (who include Muslims and Christians),
– Israel’s agitation against Syria (for regime change, and to keep the Golan Heights),
– Israel’s agitation against Iran (which helps prop up Hezbollah in Lebanon),
– Israel’s agitation includes its own covert and overt military actions, as well as lobbying for the United States to make war against Israel’s designated enemies.

As an engineer without expertise on the Middle Eastern affairs, I have believed since 1973 that the best long-term plan for the U.S. to insulate itself from Middle Eastern turmoil would have been to use the U.S.’s vast fossil fuel resources (and even the nuclear ones) as a stop-gap energy source to power the building of a national solar (“green”) energy collection and distribution system.

That national green energy system would be made of many local solar energy networks interconnected into regional systems, which in turn would be interconnected into a national system. The local power sources would include:
– direct solar-collection to electrical-output arrays (solar panels),
– solar heat collection for boilers that power steam turbines cranking electric generators,
– river hydroelectric (the dams we already have),
– ocean-tidal hydroelectric,
– land-based wind-electric,
– offshore wind-electric,
– a few sites for solar-powered desalination for potable water,
– and solar-powered hydrogen recovery from water for H2-O2 fuel-cell propulsion for civilian aircraft, and road and rail transit.

Given real energy independence, the Unites States could stop funding and supporting Saudi Arabia and Israel (arming them to the teeth so extravagantly). I realize that defunding Israel would be harder to do regardless of circumstances, because of the metastasis of the Israel Lobby within the US body politic. But, if the U.S. could shut off its massive dollar streams currently paying for Middle East petroleum (and bribes to Egypt and Jordan to not annoy expansionist Israel), then many of the Middle East oppressor regimes would be weakened and likely overthrown by more popular and democratic alternatives, and the U.S. would be immune from blackmail by oil embargoes.

Also, a green national energy system for the U.S., replacing the 19th and 20th century fossil and fissile fuel system still in use, would offer a long term, sustainable and low-(no?)-pollution energy-flow for domestic consumption: it would not accelerate climate change.

Obviously, myopic greed such as by fossil and fissile fuel companies opposes such a strategy as they prefer to make private capital gains by extractive exploitation of Nature, and by setting off “pipeline wars” at public expense. The green energy vision and strategy described here is at its core socialist (it is best for the US commons), and it is also internationalist without being belligerent and interventionist, because by sharing such green energy technology internationally the U.S. would help boost the standard of living globally: the human development index (HDI) would increase everywhere, and poverty would decrease everywhere.

The Uncivil War, with Max Blumenthal & Ben Norton
16 April 2017

or, on YouTube:

Of all the articles I have ever written, the one I most wish had gotten wide attention and actually affected public thinking and action, is linked below.

Energy for Society in Balance with Nature