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Is Britain really so against chemical weapons?

Does the West have any moral right to interfere with the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons when they facilitated the manufacture of them?

Nobody knows for certain what might result from bombing Syria. There are certain to be diplomatic penalties to pay with Russia, China and maybe the ‘Arab street, seeing western bombs once more falling on Muslims. 

But we can be sure if chemical weapons stockpiles are bombed, the contents will be dispersed, with potentially catastrophic effects on those nearby? 

Parliament’s independent Office of Science and Technology (POST) has produced a helpful note on a past incident in the first Gulf War in March 1991, which says in part: 

“...that some releases may occur can however be illustrated by experience of the destruction of sarin at Khamisiyah by US troops after the Gulf War [in 1991] Here, at least 8.5 tonnes of sarin (and the closely related cyclosarin) nerve agents were blown up (it was not realised that the bunker contained chemical warheads). Subsequent investigations have been the most detailed to date into nerve agent behaviour on demolition (in the public domain)…”  

The issue of contamination from bombing of Khamisiyah has been raised several times by peers in the Lords over the past 10 years. For instance, Conservative minister Lord Bach told Lord Morris in March  2004, “From July 1997, following more detailed analysis by the US authorities, it became clear that British forces could have been exposed to low levels of chemical agents [from Khamisiyah]… As a result, the Ministry of Defence reviewed the US modelling work and published a paper in December 1999 titled, Review of Events Concerning 32 Field Hospital and the Release of Nerve Agent Arising From US Demolition of Iraqi Munitions at the Khamisiyah Depot in March 1991. 

The paper concluded that up to 9,000 British troops could have been within the modelled plume but that the possible level of nerve agent exposure would have “no detectable effect on human health, in either the short or long term.” (Hansard, 25 March 2004 : Column WA112)  

A Pentagon Report into the incident revealed in July 1997 that: “Ten months after estimating 20,000 U.S. soldiers may have been exposed to Iraqi nerve gas during the Persian Gulf War, DoD revised the figure to 98,910... Soldiers destroyed about 500 of 1,200 unmarked chemical rockets in an open pit at Khamisiyah. Only 18 percent of the nerve agent was released into the atmosphere...”  

The Pentagon also continued to deny health impact on veterans.  

But a subsequent technical paper, published in the authoritative American Journal of Public Health, August 2005, concluded:  

“...exposed veterans had an increased risk of brain cancer deaths ….The risk of brain cancer death was larger among those exposed 2 or more days than those exposed 1 day when both were compared separately to all unexposed veterans. 

Conclusions. Exposure to chemical munitions at Khamisiyah may be associated with an increased risk of brain cancer death.”  

It is entirely innocent and beleaguered Syrian civilians who will be the immediate victims if chemicals weapons stores are bombed. Victims twice over. 

The 'Red Line': who crossed it first? 

President Obama proclaimed use of chemical weapons as "crossing  a red line.” Everyone is appalled by such use of illegal weapons.  

Except our own export licencing department, apparently, who have facilitated the sale of precursor chemicals capable of being turned into chemical weapons to Syria!  

Parliament’s own Committees on Arms Exports Control last month accused ministers in its report of permitting export of industrial materials over the past few years to Syria that could have been used to make chemical weapons.  

The Business Secretary wrote to Sir John Stanley, chairman of the joint committees a year ago stating:

"Chemicals used for industrial/commercial processes—two Standard Individual Export Licences (SIEL) 

These licences were issued on 17 and 18 January 2012 and authorised the export of dual-use chemicals to a private company for use in industrial processes. The chemicals were sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride. 

These chemicals have legitimate commercial uses — for example, sodium fluoride is used in the fluoridation of drinking water and the manufacture of toothpaste; and potassium fluoride has applications in the metallurgical industry and the manufacture of pesticides."

But the Business Secretary tellingly added: 

However, they could also be used as precursor chemicals in the manufacture of chemical weapons which is why they are included on the Australia Group chemical weapons precursors list.” 

These licences were only revoked on 30 July 2012, well into the Syrian civil war.

A statement published to accompany publication of the Report last month on 17 July said:

“The Committees welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement that ‘we will not issue licences where we judge there is a clear risk the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression’

However, the Committees adhere to their previous recommendation that the Government should apply significantly more cautious judgements when considering arms export licence applications for goods to authoritarian regimes “which might be used to facilitate internal repression” in contravention of the Government’s stated policy."

It is manifest that ministers have utterly failed to deliver this recommendation as it assisted Syria’s chemicals weapons programme.

It has abrogated any moral right it may have had to object to Syria breaching international norms against chemical weapons while assisting President Assad in making them.

It is not as if Parliament has not been warned. The Labour MP Louse Ellman told the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) News in August/September in  2002 that she was “gravely concerned about hazardous exports to the Syria/Iran regimes”, as the government publicly admit that they cannot check final destinations of exports once they have left the UK. “I’ll be calling ministers urgently to see how UK officials can realistically monitor the end-use of military exports to Iran and Syria, especially chemical warfare agents.”

When will we learn the lesson? 

About the author

David Lowry is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge, Mass, USA.


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