Let’s Be Clear About This — The Syrian Civil War Is a Chemical War
Chlorine gas attacks escalate
by SEBASTIEN ROBLIN
Near midnight on Aug. 1, 2016, residents of the town of Saraqib, Syria heard a helicopter flying overhead.
Saraqib, a Sunni-majority town located in war-torn Idlib province, had been under constant artillery and aerial bombardment for years. Earlier that day, an Mi-8 helicopter operated by the Russian military had been shot down, killing its crew of five.
That night the inhabitants of Saraqib heard two muted thuds in the wake of the helicopter.
Soon, staff in a nearby hospital operated by Syria Civil Defense, a prominent volunteer rescue operation, received an influx of women, children and a few men, wheezing and struggling to breathe. None of the roughly 30 patients exhibited visible physical injuries.
“All of them had breathing and lung problems, spanning mild, moderate and severe symptoms, while coughing and having bloodshot eyes,” reported Doctor Ibrahim Al Assaad. “They smelled of chlorine, and the civil defense workers who rescued them said the site of the attack also smelled strongly of chlorine.”
The attack on Saraqib was no aberration. Government helicopters delivered a more devastating — and lethal — attack nine days later near Aleppo on Aug. 10. Between Aug. 2 and Aug. 16, the Syrian government also claimed to have come under attack by chemical weapons fired by the rebels on three occasions.
Dozens of attacks using chlorine gas have been reported since 2013, the majority made by the Syrian military.
But didn’t Syria surrender its stockpile of chemical weapons after 2013? Indeed, it did turn over its supply of mustard, sarin and VX nerve gas — though there are some doubts as to its thoroughness.
But chlorine, with vital applications in water purification, pesticides and hospital disinfectants, was not on the list of agents.
Dropped in barrels from a helicopter, chlorine turns into greenish white gas upon impact. Attacking at night makes it harder for victims to spot the gas cloud. The gas irritates the victim’s lungs, causing mucous membranes to fill them with liquid, resulting in asphyxiation.
Furthermore, when the chlorine interacts with water in the victim’s lungs or eyes, it can form into hydrochloric acid which dissolves sensitive tissue. In sufficiently high concentrations — 1,000 parts per million — this can lead to blindness and death.
Conveniently for the attackers, chlorine gas leaves no visible injuries or residues. The only proof lies in the accounts of witnesses and the dozens of photos and videos of residents breathing into respirators after the attacks.
“It is true that we’ve seen reports about the use of chlorine in bombs that had the effect of chemical weapons,” Obama remarked in 2015 at Camp David. “Chlorine itself historically has not been listed as a chemical weapon but when it is used in this fashion can be considered a prohibited use of that particular chemical.”
Certainly, chlorine alone is not a banned “chemical weapon.”
But chlorine gas was the first deadly chemical weapon to see wide-scale use in modern, industrialized warfare.
Chlorine over Flanders field
At 5:30 in the evening on April 22, 1915, French and Canadian troops north of Ypres, Belgium were startled to behold two vast clouds of greenish yellow gas sweeping towards them from the German lines.
As the wind carried the gas over French lines, Frenchmen and colonial troops from Africa began to choke and convulse. Some fell dead, others were blinded. Thousands streamed to the rear in panic. The initial attack inflicted 6,000 casualties, including around 1,100 deaths.
Although earlier instances of chemical warfare are recorded in Asian and European history, this was the first deadly attack using industrial age science.
“Projectiles” containing lethal poisonous gas weapons had been banned by a convention in 1899. This had not prevented both the French and the Germans from deploying non-lethal tear gas shells and grenades as early as 1914 — to little effect.
A German Nobel laureate, Fritz Haber, suggested that widely-available industrial chlorine would form a thick cloud and prove more effective.
The use of shells filled with chlorine had earlier been suggested by school teacher John Doughty during the American Civil War, though the idea was fortunately never pursued. However, to get around the chemical weapons convention, the chlorine would be projected onto the allied lines using widely-available pressurized gas canisters — but not fired using projectiles.
The German Army deployed 168 tons of chlorine from over five thousands cylinders as part of the opening attack of the Second Battle of Ypres, also known as the Second Battle of Flanders. The panic caused by the gas opened a miles-wide gap in the Allied defenses. But German troops were reluctant to advance too far in the wake of the gas, and not enough were committed to fully exploit the opening.
Canadian troops and French reserves were rushed in to patch the hole in their lines. Over the course of the battle, they were subject to four gas attacks themselves — but they succeeded in containing the German advance.
Haber’s pacifist wife, chemist Clara Immerwahr, committed suicide shortly afterwards in protest of her husband’s development of the weapon. The day after her death, Haber went on to the Eastern front to the oversea chemical attacks against Russian troops.
The first use of chlorine gas would prove to be its greatest success. Allied troops discovered that the gas tended to pool close to the earth, and that troops positioned on higher elevations were often unaffected. Holding a damp cloth over one’s mouth — or better, a cloth soaked in urine — could also prove an expedient defense. Strips of flannel, bandages and gauze pads soaked in bicarbonates were also rushed to the front to provide protection.
Gas masks soon followed. The earliest types, pairing wet cotton face-masks with motorist’s goggles, had potentially fatal defects for the wearers. But gas mask technology was steadily refined, starting with the flannel “smoke hoods,” a million of which equipped British troops by July 1915.
The British soon retaliated with over 140 tons of chlorine gas on September 1915 in the Battle of Loos. The British assault backfired badly as wind blew the gas back onto their own lines, while German shells burst some of the British cylinders on top of their own positions.
Chlorine gas produced many casualties but few deaths, and most of the wounded were able to quickly return to the fight. Soon the warring powers sought deadlier gasses.
Phosgene gas, or “white star” in British use, was invisible and disrupted the blood-air barrier in the lungs, leading to death by suffocation — often over a day after exposure. Deployed in combination with chlorine gas, phosgene gas is believed to have killed more than 84 percent of the soldiers felled by poisonous gas in World War I.
Mustard gas was first deployed in 1917. It caused horrible blistering and weeping sores to develop on exposed skin. Like chlorine gas, mustard gas produced relatively few fatalities. However, it induced horrible, agonizing injuries that crippled soldiers for prolonged periods of time.
Chemical weapons are estimated to have inflicted 1.2 million casualties in World War I — but only 90,000 deaths, fewer than one percent of the fatalities in the war. So, why were they effectively banned seven years after the war’s end in the 1925 Geneva Protocol?
Undoubtedly, the sheer horror the weapons evoked served to turn public opinion against them. Furthermore, chemical weapons often failed to kill and instead caused terrible suffering and lifelong injuries.
But foremost, chemical weapons never proved to be of great military benefit. There was not a single major battle in which the use of chemical weapons changed the outcome. Once both sides employed gas and had implemented defenses against it, neither had an advantage.
Only when the foe lacked the equipment and training to defend against chemical attacks, and was incapable of retaliating in kind, was it seen as being worthwhile. 62 percent of gas deaths in World War I occurred among Russian troops, who lacked adequate gas masks and the medical facilities of their West European counterparts, an deployed very few chemical weapons.
Chemical weapons were used in the 1920s by the United Kingdom, Spain and France against poorly equipped insurgents in the Middle East and North Africa. Even after signing the Geneva Protocol, Italy used mustard gas against the Ethiopian army, as did Japan against the Chinese.
The Egyptian air force used mustard and phosgene gas against Yemeni tribesmen in the 1960s. When Iraq employed gas against Iran during the 1980s, killing 20,000, it was largely against poorly-trained militias dispatched in human wave attacks.
Of course, the least well-equipped and trained in most conflicts are civilians.
Chlorine gas in Syria
When Syrian government forces employed Sarin gas in East Ghouta in 2013, killing over 1,200 of its own citizens, it nearly led to war with the United States. Ultimately, Pres. Barack Obama backed away from American military intervention in favor of a Russian-brokered plan in which Syria would turn over its stock of chemical warfare agents to an international mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Even as inspectors saw to the removal of most of Syria’s chemical weapons — finishing the task in January of this year — Syrian government forces pressed on with attacks using chlorine gas. The OPCW reported in 2014 that chlorine gas was used “systematically and repeatedly” against villages.
“Physical properties, behavior of the gas and signs and symptoms resulting from exposure, as well as the response of patients to the treatment, leads the fact-finding mission to conclude with a high degree of confidence that chlorine, either pure or in mixture, is the toxic chemical in question,” the OPCW continued.
Some attacks involved opposition groups in Syria. The group Jaysh Al Islami appeared to admit having launched an attack using “unauthorized munitions” on the Kurdish community of Al Sheikh Maqsoud, but later claimed it was referring to a modified Grad rocket. The local Kurds felt otherwise.
However, the vast majority of chemical attacks are reported impacting on opposition-held territory. And many involve delivery by helicopters. Only the Syrian government and Russia operate helicopters over Syria.
The day after the Aug. 2 gas attack in Saraqib, the Syrian state press agency SANA reported an attack by “terrorist groups” in Aleppo. The city’s health director, Mohammed Hazouri, is quoted as saying that “five civilians were killed and eight others suffered suffocation due to a terrorist attack with shells containing poisonous gas.” The delivery system is reported to be a gas-filled rocket.
Several international journals lumped this incident in with reporting on the incident at Saraqib.
However, these journals did not mention additional chemical attacks reported by SANA on Aug. 3 — seven killed, 20 injured in Salah Al Din neighborhood of Aleppo — and on Aug. 17, with six injured in Mare City. SANA holds the Nour Eddin Zinki group culpable in the former and ISIS in the latter.
There is video footage supporting the claim of the attack on government territory in Aleppo on Aug. 2. However, unlike the attacks in Saraqib or Zubdiyah on Aug. 10, I have been unable to find visual media or independent sources confirming these later attacks claimed by the Syrian government.
The claims could be propaganda designed to muddy the ethical waters and distribute blame onto rebel groups. Spreading false claims is in keeping with Russian information warfare, intended to foster uncertainty, division and doubt in the global public.
Consider the Khan Al Assal chemical attack, in which a rocket dispersed sarin gas on Syrian government lines. The Syrian government quickly invited a Russian investigation, which concluded the rebel had made the attack. An investigation by the United Nations later determined that the perpetrator “likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military,” though it declined to identify a culpable party.
However, the claims could also be legitimate. ISIS has a history of using chemical rockets, including in a March 2016 mustard gas attack on Kirkuk, Iraq and a widely-corroborated attack on Mare in Aug. 21, 2015.
Meanwhile, fighting has been heating up in the city of Aleppo, divided between opposition, Kurdish, and government forces. In July, Syrian government forces succeeded in encircling the city, cutting off the rebel-held eastern areas from food and water.
However, a rebel counterattack on August 6 succeeded in reopening a precarious supply corridor, and in turn cut off regime forces holding the western side of the city.
Russian air strikes against the city have intensified. Hospitals in Aleppo were a frequent target — five of them were struck by air attacks in the last week of July. The Syrian government has pursued a determined campaign to kill off doctors in rebel-held areas.
On Aug. 10, another helicopter tossed barrels down on Zubdiya, a neighborhood in Eastern Aleppo. This time, 60 to 75 people were wounded, at least 40 of them children. Four were killed — one source says 10 — including a mother and her two children asphyxiated at home.
Children are worse affected by chlorine gas.
“They were all suffering from the same symptoms, mainly coughing and shortness of breath. I could easily smell chlorine on people’s clothes,” a local doctor said to Amnesty International.
“We will soon run out of medical supplies if the frequency of attacks continues like this.”
“If it did take place, it is a war crime and as such it would require everyone … to address it immediately,” U.N. envoy Steffan de Mistura commented.
Despite being deprived of their deadliest chemical agents, Syrian government forces are clearly flouting the ban on employing chemical weapons. Some rebel groups appeared to be doing so as well on a more limited scale — particularly ISIS.
Western governments, however, have refrained from drawing too much attention to the chlorine gas attacks in the Syrian conflict. In large part, it may be because there is little that can be done short of military intervention to prevent them.
Unlike sarin gas, chlorine is too common place and useful to be banned and removed.
A no-fly-zone could hypothetically prevent air attacks — but implementing one would require a major military escalation. Syrian air defenses would either have to be destroyed, or voluntarily deactivated.
More importantly, there would be an enormous risk of clashing with Russian aircraft, which are flying hundreds of sorties on behalf of the Syrian government — including some flown from bases in Iran.
And of course, ground-based means of deploying chlorine gas could be found if aerial bombardment ceases to be an option.
For now, Washington is focusing on a diplomatic solution with Moscow. Meanwhile, arms control experts fear that use of chemical weapons without consequences is becoming normalized.
Bombardment by conventional artillery and improvised barrel bombs full of explosives cause far more civilian deaths than chlorine gas. Chlorine gas attacks instead appear to be part of a campaign to terrorize the civilian populations of rebel-held areas in Syria.
The majority of those exposed experience intense pain for hours, their ability to perform the most necessary activity in human life — breathing — agonizingly impaired.
The soldiers tossing barrels of chlorine out of helicopters are likely betting that if they inflict enough suffering on the civilians below them, they will weaken their will to resist and gain a decisive advantage.
A bunch of general from World War I could tell them that’s a bet they’ll likely lose — but only at a terrible price. In this case, one paid disproportionately by the youngest and most vulnerable Syrians.