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If ISIS uses chemical weapons, the west will be partly responsible

How can the international community respond effectively and promptly to this growing threat, not just to the Middle East region, but to the world?

Bob Rigg
19 November 2015
Security forces simulate chemical attack outside Israeli Parliament.

Security forces simulate chemical attack outside Israeli Parliament. Demotix/ Yaniv Nadav. All rights reserved. Although the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize for the courage and inventiveness displayed in removing Syria’s chemical weapons (CW) from Syria for destruction elsewhere, it is now ineffectual and powerless in the face of the proliferation of CW by extremist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Although the proliferation of this weapon of mass destruction is for the time being confined to the Middle East, the knowledge and experience already acquired by extremist groups with global connections will ensure that, sooner or later, CW will be used elsewhere.

When the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was negotiated, during and immediately after the Cold War, the negotiators – all governments – could not anticipate the emergence of powerful, well-funded internationally-connected terrorist groups with the capacity to produce and use their own CW. The CWC negotiators also could not have anticipated the speed with which new production technologies would develop, making it possible for at least some CW to be produced with relative ease in backyard laboratories.

US obstructs UN investigation of alleged CW use by Al Nusra

In March 2013 the government of Syria angrily alleged that CW had been used by Al Nusra in the village of Khan Al Asal, formally requesting that the UN Security Council (UNSC) investigate just one day after the incident.  The US was then supporting extremist ‘rebel’ groups in Syria in the hope that they would bring down President Assad, and did not want them to be discredited. The west was of the view that the Assad government was about to fall. In the absence of any supporting evidence, the US supported ‘rebel’ claims that Syria had itself used the CW.  The aim of the US, a party to the CWC, was to delay a CW inspection by the UN, which could have discredited its extremist surrogates of the day.

The UN inspection team report eventually presented nine months later, in December 2013, confirmed that CW had indeed been used at Khan Al Asal, although the team’s laughable UNSC mandate specifically prevented it from throwing light on the identity of the perpetrators, even if it had an informed opinion on this.

A field day 

The intelligence agencies and media of all key governments accordingly had a field day interpreting the UN report to the advantage of their own official or covert allies in Syria, making a nonsense of the expensive and risky UN inspection process.

The extraordinarily murky political situation in Syria arising principally from the intensive clandestine involvement of regional and international governments supporting rival extremist factions means that there are grounds to suspect that at least one of the following governments may have covertly known of or even supported anti-Assad groups’ use of CW during this period: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the US.

Although Israel has officially pursued a policy of non-involvement in Syria except where arms deliveries to Hezbollah are concerned, one must note that the complete destruction of Syria’s formidable CW arsenal under UN supervision eliminated the sole remaining major threat to Israel’s military domination of the region. Moreover, the dismemberment of Syria, formerly a cohesive unitary state, clearly serves the interests of both Israel and regional Sunni states spearheaded by Saudi Arabia.

A Haaretz article has just commented: “The only thing that interested the United States was getting the chemical weapons out of Syria to ensure Israel’s security and let the Syrians massacre each other forever.”

Incidents involving CW use by Al Nusra, Al Qaeda and ISIS

In May 2013, Turkish security forces detained several Al Nusra militants in possession of a cylinder containing 2 kg of sarin gas. When Russia’s Foreign Ministry later asked Turkey to explain what had become of the case, Turkey replied that, not sarin, but antifreeze had been involved.  As there is no evidence of an independent investigation of the incident this denial lacks credibility, especially in the context of recent allegations in Turkey’s parliament reported on below.

One month later, in June 2013, news media reported the arrest of Al Qaeda members who had been producing mustard gas and sarin at two locations in Baghdad. 

In February 2015, in an immaculately executed nocturnal operation, large quantities of CW were stolen from a CW storage facility in Libya.  ISIS was a presence in Libya at the time.

Turkish MPS allege that Ghouta sarin came from Turkey

In October 2015 Today’s Zaman reported that two Turkish opposition MPs had asked questions in parliament demanding that the government should throw light on police investigations into evidence that sarin smuggled out of Turkey may well have been used in the notorious large-scale sarin attack in Ghouta, Syria. 

Contrary to the western narrative of the time, this may well have been a false flag incident designed to precipitate US military action to bring down President Assad.  The Turkish MPs were clearly suggesting that their government knew of this, and may even have been involved in it.

Strangely enough, with the sole exception of the Ghouta incident, which was massively publicized in western media to the disadvantage of Syria’s government, none of these CW incidents received mentionable coverage.

Western chickens come home to roost

Western governments and intelligence services must have known of all these CW incidents, but turned a blind eye to them, as they were exclusively interested in CW use that could be exploited to discredit the Assad government. To his credit, Russia’s Sergei Lavrov has occasionally endeavoured to draw attention to this, with dry irony.  In acting in this way, the west was effectively sanctioning the development and use of CW by terrorist groups.

It is supremely ironic that, in the light of the ISIS terror attacks in Paris and elsewhere, France is now, overnight, declaring that de facto recognition of the Assad government is the precondition for a clearly focused military campaign against ISIS in Syria.  Other western governments will be forced to reluctantly follow suit.

We now know that both Al Qaeda and ISIS can produce and use at least some CW, and have apparently done so in Iraq and Syria.  This was confirmed by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a press briefing on 12 November 2015. Both organisations are also known to have been trying to recruit individuals with CW expertise.  In Iraq, Syria and Libya, relatively large numbers of former CW specialists must now be seeking employment, given the closure and destruction of all CW facilities in these three countries. 

The chemical weapons cat is well and truly out of the bag.

OPCW out of its depth

The use of CW by extremist non-state entities is tearing a gaping hole in the fabric of the CWC’s non-proliferation regime.  In a recent article Ralf Trapp, one of the world’s foremost CW experts, perhaps naively contends that terrorists may be constrained by fear of future prosecution in accordance with standards of international humanitarian law.  In doing so he overlooks the proven fact that today’s terrorists are utterly indifferent to such standards, and apparently revel in flouting them.  This is not likely to change.

The invocation of the future jurisdiction of arcane international legal tribunals is not a satisfactory response to the very real threat posed by the rapid proliferation of CW and CW technology on the part of focused and ruthless terrorist organisations.   

Also, the primary aim of the OPCW is to abolish CW, not to retrospectively prosecute their terrorist users into an indeterminate future.  Even if all world governments were to join the CWC, terrorist groups could continue to produce and use CW, possibly with clandestine support from governments that are parties to the CWC.

Although all governments will hopefully one day sign up to the CWC, CW will probably continue to feature more prominently on the international landscape than while the OPCW was struggling to achieve that goal.  This is not what the CWC’s godfathers had in mind.

The UN has already sent a special inspection team into Syria to enquire into the alleged use of CW.  The lengthy time period that had elapsed since the incidents of alleged use had degraded soil samples and other evidence, also providing the myriad warring factions with ample opportunity to destroy or falsify evidence. A scientifically rigorous chain of custody was absent.  As with OSCE inspections in Ukraine, the UN inspectors were seriously hampered by the civil war which was raging around them.

France warns of the risk of CW use by terrorist organisations

Both ISIS and Al Qaeda are rapidly extending their networks into North Africa and Central and South-East Asia.  And the mid‑November ISIS attacks on Paris testify to its capacity to strike targets far beyond geographical regions in its immediate sphere of influence. The deadly efficiency with which ISIS plans and executes such strikes has become a hallmark of its operations. Which member of the anti-ISIS coalition will be targeted next? 

France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls has just warned of the risk that, in the current troubled international security environment, terrorists such as ISIS could use chemical or biological weapons.

Will ISIS try to capitalize on the capacity of CW to strike fear and terror into the hearts of civilian populations?  At this historical moment Al Qaeda is losing the struggle for leadership in the global marketplace of terrorism. Will it now try to outdo ISIS with its own terror strikes?

The shortcomings of the OPCW and its implementation regime are there for all to see. Perhaps, precisely because the OPCW was tailor-made to abolish CW production and use by governments, it is neither suited nor equipped to deal with CW use by non-state actors such as Al Qaeda and ISIS?  

If this is true, how can the international community respond effectively and promptly to this growing threat, not just to the Middle East region, but to the world? The possible use of biological and radiological weapons by the same well-funded and well‑organised non-state actors can also not be ruled out.

UN investigation mechanism – a damp squib?

As this article was being completed the UN Secretary-General announced the establishment of a UN Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) involving both the UN and the OPCW, initially for one year, to investigate individuals, groups, entities or governments involved in the use of chemicals as weapons in Syria.

The novel willingness of the UNSC to empower its inspectors to establish responsibility for CW use is welcome. However, given that in almost all cases investigations will take place in a theatre of war some time after the alleged incidents have occurred, the trail will often have gone cold, while legally and scientifically acceptable evidence will be scarce.

ISIS members will refuse to recognize the jurisdiction of both the OPCW and the UN. Other parties may, at least in some cases, submit rigged evidence and false testimony that fits with their political narrative. The ex post facto determination of guilt or innocence in accordance with internationally accepted norms of judicial propriety will be most difficult.   

Moreover, if the UN seeks to prosecute rebel or Syrian army players just as international efforts are being stepped up, through the UN, to negotiate a peace deal in Syria, this will compromise the prospects for peace.  The UNSC will be forced to behave as though its own JIM process does not exist.

The OPCW can competently verify whether CW have been used, but lacks any knowledge or experience of the role of a prosecutor in relation to the alleged use of CW. But the Achilles heel of the JIM lies in the fact that it reports back to the UNSC, a Machiavellian eminently political body crushingly dominated by its five permanent members. Fact-finding is a concept with which the UNSC is unfamilar. The JIM is likely to be laid to rest in the enormous graveyard of disused UN acronyms.

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