CBRN Assessment

Use of chemical weapons continues in Syria

04 January 2016
Allegations of CW attacks in Syria and Iraq by perpetrator. (IHS)

The Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on 23 November 2015 expressed "grave concern" that chemical weapons (CW) had once again been used in Syria after its fact-finding mission (FFM) confirmed "with the utmost confidence" that sulphur mustard had been deployed in an attack on the rebel-held town of Marea on 21 August. Although the OPCW did not publicly identify the perpetrators of the Marea attack, the report added to the growing evidence about the Islamic State's CW interest.

IHS Jane's has previously reported on the Islamic State's use of chlorine, but the transition from chlorine to a chemical warfare agent marks the latest phase in an evolving conflict in which CW in Syria have changed from a strategic deterrent capability of the state to a tool for inflicting tactical and psychological damage by non-state actors.

Changing priorities

After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Syria embarked on a CW programme as a strategic deterrent against Israel and a force multiplier for Syrian troops against superior opponents. The traditional Syrian policy has been to mirror the Israeli stance of 'amimut' (ambiguity) regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). However, on 23 July 2012, in light of the country's civil war, the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates issued a qualified statement that if Syria possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, these would only be used in response to a foreign attack on the country.

Although many took the statement as an admission of possession, it was only after intense international pressure, including the threat of US airstrikes following the sarin attacks on the Ghouta suburb in August 2013, that the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad declared its CW inventory to the OPCW and reversed its long-standing opposition to joining the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). With Syria's accession to the CWC on 14 September 2013, the country formally renounced CW and agreed to have its arsenal removed and destroyed.

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