The Strategic Significance of Syria Regime’s Chemical Attacks (Jan. – Apr. 2014)

After the deadly chemical attack in Ghouta, last August 2013, the Syrian government agreed to destroy all of its chemical weapons. Even though by April 2014, 92,5% of Syria’s chemical arsenal had been destroyed and as Syria approaches the end of the chemical arms removal program, the world has witnessed a sudden resurgence of chemical strikes, with a marked hike last April. This report summarizes the latest chemical attacks and concludes that the Assad regime is using chemical terror to advance its military goals, becoming a state we can define as a non-conventional terrorist actor.

Alexandra David, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) Research Assistant, co-authored this article.

Syria is a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and has a Comprehensive Nuclear Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Syria has/had one of the most advanced chemical warfare (CW) capabilities in the Middle East. It appears to have acquired a capability to develop and produce chemical weapons agents, including mustard gas and sarin, and possibly also VX nerve agent. Chemical weapons agents have allegedly been produced since the 1980s at facilities located near the Hama, Homs, and Al-Safira villages in the Aleppo region. However, Syria depended on foreign sources for some dual-use equipment, and for the precursor chemicals critical to CW agent production. (For the full ICT report:Syria’s Chemical Weapons – The Terrorism Threat )

Syria possesses Scud-B and Scud-C ballistic missiles, artillery shells, and rockets that are believed to be capable of delivering chemical warheads. Until recently, Syria had refused to become a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

After the deadly chemical attack in Ghouta, last August 2013, in which between 281 (French Intelligence Report) to 1429 (U.S. Report) persons were killed, sparking international outrage and threats, the Syrian government agreed to destroy all of its chemical weapons.

Even though the program has suffered some setbacks, it appears that by April, 26th, 2014, 92,5% of Syria’s chemical arsenal had been destroyed, according to Sigrid Kaag of the OPCW.

Since Syria began its shipments in January 2014, there seems to have been a sudden resurgence of chemical strikes, with a marked hike last April, as Syria approached the end of the chemical arms removal slightly behind schedule.

Here-under is a summary of the latest attacks / threats involving chemical weapons since January 7, 2014, when the first ship filled with chemicals arms left Syria.

On January 8, 2014 an anonymous Syrian governmental source told the OPCW that insurgents had assaulted a storage site near the city of Homs and a second site outside Damascus without specifying when the attacks took place, the identities of the attackers or what damage, if any, had resulted. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 2 dead in Homs on that day, but it is not clear whether or not they are related to the attack.

On January 12, 2014 the rebels accused Syrian Government of launching chemical attack in the rebel-dominated suburb of Daraya, southwest of Damascus without reporting casualties.

Syrian opposition, including the Syrian National Coalition, have accused the regime of using chemical weapons, mainly in the suburbs of Damascus, in areas such as Jobar and Harasta. “There have been at least four such attacks in recent months, involving high doses of chlorine and pesticides,” said Sinan Hatehet, director of the Coalition’s media office. The regime categorically denies carrying out any chemical weapons attacks, and accuses the rebels of having done so, in Khan al-Asal and in Ghouta.

Blogger and reporter Elliott Higgins, alias Brown Moses, reported a series of alleged chemical attacks between April 11 and April 21, linked to the use of chlorine gas inside barrel bombs.

On April 21 French President Francois Hollande stated that there are indications but “no proof” of new Syrian chemical strikes against the civilian population.

In a recent interview French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the Assad regime used toxic agents at least 14 times since October 25 of last year but it has been difficult to garner definitive proof because chlorine gas generally evaporates too quickly to collect samples. According to Fabius, the chlorine attacks “show that the regime of Bashar Assad is still capable of producing chemicals weapons, and determined to use them.”

Finally, on April 29, 2014 the OPCW launched an inquiry on Syria’s use of chlorine gas.

According to intelligence sources from Britain, France and the United States, Syria maintains an ability to deploy chemical weapons, information that could strengthen the allegations that Syria’s military recently used chlorine gas in its bloody civil war. Britain, France and the United States had provided relevant information to the OPCW months ago, including on specific undeclared chemical weapons sites. In a tacit acknowledgement of the original declaration’s incompleteness, Syria in early April 2014 submitted a more specific list of its chemical weapons to the international disarmament mission after discrepancies were reported by inspectors on the ground.

It is important to note that Western security officials are investigating recent allegations that Iran supplied to the Syrian regime 10,000 canisters filled with chlorine gas ordered from China and loaded on flights to Syria.

From the analysis of the overall information concerning the behavior of the Damascus regime in the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population and the rebel forces it seems that Assad has learned the lesson of the August 2013 major chemical attack in the Ghouta area and the U.S. threat of a military punishing attack.

It has therefore decided to use minor chemical attacks with chlorine (less lethal and impressive than mustard gas or sarin) and possibly other strong non-lethal gases, in order to win tactical battles in strategic areas – the Damascus neighborhoods and north-western Syria.

The Assad regime is thus using chemical terror to advance its strategic military goals, becoming the first regime since Saddam Hussein gassed the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 that can be defined as a non-conventional terrorist state.

In a way Assad also gives legitimacy to non-state actors, including the rebel and terrorist groups active in the Syrian civil war, and beyond, to use the same methods.

Summarizing Table

Date Town / Province Attacker Substance Dissemination Casualties
1 08/01 Homs/Damascus Insurgents? Chemical Arms Site ?
2 12/01 Daraya/Damascus Government Barrel Bomb ?
3 10/03 Jobar & Harasta /Damascus Government Chlorine & Pesticides ? ?
4 13/03 Latakia Insurgents? Government? Chemical Transit Port Rockets ?
5 11/04 Kafr Zita/Hama Government Chlorine Barrel Bomb 3?
6 11/04 Harasta/Damascus Government Chlorine Barrel Bomb 2?
7 12/04 Al-Taman’ah/Idlib Government Chlorine Barrel Bomb 7?
8 14/04 Atshan/Hama Government Chlorine Barrel Bomb -?
9 16/04 Kafr Zita/Hama Government Chlorine Barrel Bomb -?
10 16/04 Harasta/Damascus Government Chlorine Barrel Bomb 2?
11 18/04 Al-Taman’ah/Idlib Government Chlorine Barrel Bomb 9?
12 18/04 Kafr Zita/Hama Government Chlorine Barrel Bomb 3?
13 21/04 Telmans/Idlib Government Chlorine Barrel Bomb 2?
14 22/04 Daraya/Damascus Government Chlorine Barrel Bomb 0?
15 30/04 Al-Taman’ah/Idlib Government Chlorine Barrel Bomb 1

The number of casualties is published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The numbers should be taken cautiously because the cause of death is not specified, and thus some of the noted casualties could be from causes unrelated to the chemical attack.

Map of the chemical attacks

Map of the chemical attacksMap of the chemical attacks

The map was created using ZeeMaps services, for interactive map of the attacks in Syria click here

About the Author
Ely Karmon, PhD, is Senior Research Scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel. He lectures on International Terrorism and CBRN terrorism at the M.A. Counterterrorism Studies at IDC. His fields of research include political violence, international terrorism, CBRN terrorism, and the strategic influence of terrorism and subversion in the Middle East and worldwide.
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