19 September 2013
Patricia Lewis

Dr Patricia Lewis

Research Director, International Security


& Heather Williams, Research Fellow, International Security 

On 16 September, the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic released its report which concluded that 'chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic, also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale.' The details of the report, including its methodology, are crucial. This is the first of what may be a number of investigations into Syria's chemical weapons stockpile and use, and therefore offers a first glimpse into the Syrian chemical arsenal, the challenges of inspections, and lessons learned for future inspections – including those outlined in the US-Russia plan for eliminating Syria's chemical weapons.  

The findings

The UN inspectors meticulously collected and recorded a wide range of evidence over three days including environmental samples and interviews with survivors, first responders and health and medical staff. Blood samples were collected from 34 survivors, urine samples from 15, and three people gave hair samples. Of the 36 people clinically assessed, 83% had developed symptoms immediately following a military strike, and the remaining 17% became ill as they assisted others in the area. All demonstrated symptoms were consistent with sarin gas exposure, including shortness of breath, vomiting, and loss of consciousness. The blood and urine samples tested definitively positive for sarin and its degradation products, and/or by-products were found in the majority of the environmental samples.

The inspectors' mandate did not include attributing blame. However, evidence linking the chemical weapons attacks to the Assad regime is within the report. One highly significant finding is that the samples from the surface to surface rockets contained not only sarin but also stabilizers and other chemicals – a mark of sophisticated government chemical weapon stocks. In addition, the inspectors were able to determine that sarin was released from the warheads prior to impact above the ground – again the mark of a sophisticated, well-tested device. The munitions inspected included an M14 140mm rocket and another 330mm rocket of unknown origin. Rebels in Syria have never before used these munitions, whereas they have been used repeatedly by the Assad regime. The M14 140mm rocket, which bore Russian markings, were allegedly sold to Syria in the 1960's by the Soviet Union. In addition, two of the sites had sufficient material to calculate the azimuth and track the trajectory to Syrian military bases, literally pointing back to the Assad regime and presidential palace compound on Mount Qasioun. 

While the report alleges the attacks were 'relatively large scale', it does not estimate the number of fatalities or injuries, nor how much chemical agent was used. Numbers of the dead and injured following the attack on 21 August remain as reported by local doctors, health workers and first responders, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and by the various factions and intelligence agencies. 

Seeing the deal through

This report is only the first step in additional scrutiny and inspections into Syria's chemical weapons. The special investigation inspectors still have work to finish. They originally arrived in Syria on 18 August with the purpose of investigating earlier alleged chemical weapons use, and there are calls for their return within the next few weeks. Under the US-Russia framework plan to secure, remove, destroy, and verify Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles Syria must provide a comprehensive list, including names, types, and quantities of its chemical agents, types of munitions, and location and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will be tasked with seeing out the US-Russia plan, conducting on-site inspections of the declared sites by November and with the aim to eliminate all chemical weapons and equipment by mid-2014. The Assad regime is now, literally, under the microscope. The US-Russia plan is ambitious, particularly given the challenges of operating in the midst of an ongoing conflict, but it is feasible if the key players can maintain focus on its objective (to remove chemical weapons from Syria as quickly as possible), and avoid political posturing or distractions. 

Attribution will be a politically-charged struggle and is already causing dispute. Russia continues to insist that rebels were responsible for the August attack and has announced that it will present evidence – claimed to have been given to Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov in Syria – to the Security Council for consideration, together with the UN inspectors' report.

Temporary ceasefire

Safety and trustworthy methods were the two key facets of the most recent inspections. Inspectors were only able to operate under a ceasefire, which was in effect – in theory if not in complete practice – five hours daily from 26-29 August. Future UN team-work to secure, remove, destroy and verify the total of chemical weapons stocks in Syria will require a similar, if not more extensive, ceasefire to ensure the safety of the experts. While such a ceasefire may have secondary positive effects in the conflict and create opportunities for dialogue, the focus remains on protecting UN personnel and ensuring chemical weapons are never used again.

Also read: 

Securing Chemical Weapons in Syria

Syria: Chemical Weapons and the Spectre of War