WASHINGTON – The possible finding that a chemical agent was fired last week in Syria is not likely to trigger U.S. military intervention in the nation’s brutal civil war, issue experts said.
Obama administration officials have said there is so far no evidence that the weapon that fell in Aleppo province on March 19 contained a chemical agent. If it did, reports from the scene suggest the material was a toxic but lower-level threat than the nerve or blister agents held by the Assad regime. Also still in dispute is who was behind the attack.
President Obama has repeatedly warned that use or proliferation of Syria’s large chemical arsenal would breach a “red line” that would demand a strong response. That is generally taken to mean military action against the Syrian government, something Washington to date has strenuously avoided.
“It’s probably fair to say that the Obama administration could say we’re not going to trigger this just because someone throws a bottle of bleach at someone; what we’re looking for here is a step change and loss of control [of materials] that are significant, militarized and could spread outside of Syria,” said Stephen Johnson, a WMD specialist at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom and deputy editor of CBRNE World.
The United Nations last week initiated an investigation of the incident reported to have killed 26 and injured more than 100 in the village of Khan al-Assal.
Farhan Haq, a spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, told Global Security Newswire on Tuesday the scope of the probe was still being established. The team led by Swedish scientist Åke Sellström, a disarmament specialist with previous investigatory experience on Iraq, is expected to begin its mission in one to two weeks, the United Nationssaid on Wednesday.
The Syrian government and opposition claim the other carried out the attack. Both sides called for the probe, which U.N. officials said is not intended to assign blame for the incident.
The White House has not said specifically how it would respond to a finding that the event involved a chemical-loaded munition. The National Security Council said the administration backs “an investigation that pursues any and all credible allegations of the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria” and called for full compliance from the Assad government.
“We are incredibly skeptical of a regime that has lost all credibility,” according to a Tuesday NSC statement to GSN. “We warn the regime against making charges of opposition chemical weapons use as any kind of pretext for the regime’s use of chemical weapons.”
That is one suspicion floating around the incident. Another is that Syrian rebels orchestrated some sort of provocation in hopes it would be taken for a military act that demanded outside intervention.
Assad’s government is believed to hold hundreds of tons of mustard and blister agents, along with Scud ballistic missiles and other vehicles for carrying the lethal substances. There have been previous claims of chemical weapons use in the conflict, but U.S. officials indicated in late 2012 the Syrian military did not get further than preparing sarin nerve agent-filled munitions for possible use.
Even reports of other alleged chemical strikes that have arisen in recent days have been “almost unverifiable” and provided little detail, Johnson said.
Journalists and civilians on the scene last week in Khan al-Assal reported that victims were suffering from respiratory problems, vomiting and other possible indicators of a chemical strike. Video and photographs showed victims receiving medical treatment in Aleppo in the aftermath of the incident.
There were claims of a chlorine smell in the impact zone, according to news accounts. One doctor told Reuters that the agent in question might have been “phosphorus or poison,” while aForeign Policy article cited the U.S.-based Syrian Support Group as saying the military had used the insecticide ingredient Echothiophate.
A top anti-Assad fighter said the regime was believed to have used a Scud to carry a chemical agent. Loyalist forces in recent months were widely reported to have fired the short-range weapon at rebel positions on multiple occasions.
If a Scud was fired, the military was almost certainly the perpetrator of the strike and the missile probably contained a nerve agent — much like Russian Scuds slated for destruction by Moscow, a longtime Assad backer, said chemical weapons expert Paul Walker.
However, the number of casualties is significantly smaller than what would be expected from an attack involving a nerve agent, he noted. The military would not want to waste a tactical missile by filling it with a chemical “simulant” unless “the Assad regime were testing the waters to see what might happen with a so-called nonlethal or incapacitating agent,” said Walker, environmental security and sustainability director for Global Green USA.
“I think only the proven use of a prohibited lethal agent would trigger a red line,” he added. “If it’s a simulant attack or some unknown release of an incapacitant, tear gas or something of that nature, I don’t think that’s really sufficient to warrant any sort of major outside intervention.”
British military scientists who tested soil samples from the village believe the agent was a “super-strength tear gas,” the London Times reported.
Syria, with support from Russia, blamed rebels for launching a rocket filled with a dangerous material.
Some reporting has suggested that a rocket was fired from a zone controlled by the al-Nusra Front, an opposition faction designated as a terrorist group by the United States.
The weapon landed 300 meters from a Syrian army post, “likely the intended target,” according to Johnson. He questioned whether the government would ask for the U.N. investigation if it did not believe evidence that it was on the receiving end of the strike would be found.
“How the evidence got there is another part of the question,” he said.
“If we presume the chlorine smell reported by people is accurate, then it’s not unthinkable that someone has tried to load some kind of bleach or chlorine agent into a rocket,” Johnson added. “It’s equally not unheard of that people do this not really knowing whether it will have an effect.”
Chlorine was used as a weapon during World War I and more recently by militants in Iraq fighting U.S.-led forces following the 2003 invasion. A successful tactic by one extremist group is sure to have been passed to others, Johnson said.
Some experts have questioned whether there was any sort of chemical attack last week. Johnson acknowledged the possibility that something else might have occurred — for example, a conventional rocket hitting a chlorine container — but said details gleaned from open-source material and individuals within Syria suggest that is not the case.
Chlorine is not listed among the agents banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria in any event has not joined. Walker said, though, that the pact’s “General Obligations” as well as the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which Damascus joined in 1968, would still prohibit a chemical strike. The CWC accord also bans use of tear gas or other riot-control materials as tools of warfare.
“Word for word, it potentially doesn’t cross a red line because it isn’t a named agent in a schedule [of chemicals]. But that has always been a problem within the Chemical Weapons Convention, is there are those state parties that say it’s not just the schedules … it’s the underlying issue, which [is that] you shouldn’t use chemicals to cause harm in war,” Johnson said.
The experts agreed that any final determination would result only from the U.N. probe.
The job will not be easy. Chlorine disperses quickly, meaning there might be little more than trace particles left, Johnson said. Samples of blood or other materials can be intentionally tainted, so investigators will need to collect their own materials as close to the source as possible, potentially through autopsies, he asserted.
Analysis at the impact site could determine whether there were other nearby sources for the chlorine and whether the blast was consistent with what would be expected from a rocket hit.
A credible investigation would involve specialists from several nations with chemical arms expertise, such as China, Russia, the United States and Switzerland, Walker said. It appears, though, that the U.N. probe will not include experts from any of the five permanent Security Council states — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, according to new reporting.
Investigators would require access to affected sites, victims, any autopsy reports, along with the capacity to collect soil, liquid and atmospheric samples. Inspectors will need to be on-site within a week if they hope to gather concrete evidence, he added.
“I think the most we can conclude is that it’s inconclusive at this point,” Walker said.