The use of chemical weapons from the war in Syria arouses Ukraine’s fears

BEIRUT – The horrific scenes from Syria of victims jerking and gasping for air after chlorine cylinders were dropped from helicopters in towns and villages were aired again and again during the country’s civil war.

Legal and moral taboos were shattered. Hundreds were killed, including many children, in dozens of poison gas attacks that blamed President Bashar Assad’s forces under the protection of his top ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Several years later, concerns are growing that such weapons could be used in Ukraine, where Russian forces have been waging a devastating war for weeks.

As the conflict drags on, Western officials and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have warned that Putin could deploy chemical agents.

“The world must respond now,” Zelenskyy said.

Officials say they are investigating an unconfirmed claim by a far-right Ukrainian regiment that a toxic substance was thrown in the besieged city of Mariupol this week. The claim could not be confirmed by independent sources, and Ukrainian officials say it could have been phosphorus munitions – which cause horrific burns, but which are not classified as chemical weapons.


Putin has threatened to extend the Ukraine war to a nuclear conflict, but it is unclear whether chemical means will be used to support his military operations. Analysts say the Syria war set a terrible precedent for the use of chlorine, sulfur and the neurotoxin sarin, completely disregarding international norms and without responsibility.

“From what we see now, it seems that Russia has drawn the conclusion that it is safe to continue this modus operandi from Syria also in the Ukrainian context,” said Aida Samani, legal adviser to Civil Rights Defenders, a Sweden-based group.

“Obviously, it undermines the international rules we have in place and lowers the threshold for the use of such weapons,” Samani added.

She has teamed up with other non-governmental organizations to file a criminal complaint on behalf of a group of Syrians living in Sweden, against the Syrian government for war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with its use of chemical weapons.

Western officials say Russia may seek to borrow from Syria’s playbook, in which Assad’s forces tested the determination of the international community by gradually increasing the brutality of attacks and methods.

Part of the equation in Syria was the difficulty of proving anything in the wake of such attacks, mainly due to the lack of immediate access. Assad, with Russia’s backing, consistently threw a cloud of confusion and accused the opposition of producing evidence or even using poison gas to try to hit him.

An investigative mechanism set up by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons blamed Syrian government forces for several chemical attacks in Syria, including the use of chlorine and sarin in an April 2017 attack on the city of Khan Sheikhoun that killed about 100 people. At least one mustard gas attack was blamed on the Islamic State group, which held territory in Syria and Iraq for several years during the war, killing half a million people.

In comments reminiscent of Syria, Russia accused Ukraine of operating chemical and biological laboratories with US support, leading to accusations that Moscow sought to stage a false flag incident. Ukraine has a network of biological laboratories that have received funding and research support from the United States – but they are part of a program that seeks to reduce the likelihood of fatal outbreaks of pathogens, whether natural or man-made. US efforts go back to the 1990s to dismantle the former Soviet Union’s program of weapons of mass destruction.


The early morning attack on 21 August 2013 on the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus known as Ghouta shocked a world that had largely become numb to the carnage of Syria’s civil war.

The international outrage was dozens of online videos showing victims in spasms, gasping for breath and foaming at the mouth. The attack crossed what then-US President Barack Obama had called a “red line” for possible military intervention in the Arab country.

Obama was close to ordering US-led military attacks, but backed down abruptly after failing to secure the necessary support from the US Congress and instead entered into an agreement with Moscow to eliminate Syria’s chemical arsenal.

In August 2014, Assad’s government declared the destruction of its chemical weapons complete. But Syria’s first statement to the OPCW has remained in conflict, and attacks continued.

In 2017, US President Donald Trump fired several dozen cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in retaliation for a suspected nerve gas attack on the city of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib province, which killed about 100 people. Experts from the UN and the Watchdog for Chemical Weapons blamed the Syrian government for the attack.

As Moscow pushes its offensive in Ukraine, world leaders and policy makers are struggling with how the West should respond to a Russian battlefield use of chemical or biological weapons. Members of Congress said the Biden administration and its allies will not stand by if that happens.

Unlike Syria, however, Russia is a nuclear power. Any reaction risks triggering a nuclear confrontation, which Putin has already alluded to.


Samani, from Civil Rights Defenders, accuses the international community of not making a real effort to seek responsibility for the chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

“There has not really been any political appetite to investigate how, for example, a special court could be set up for Syria,” she said.

Last week, she and a group of NGOs presented new information relevant to the sarin gas attacks on Khan Sheikhun in 2017 and Ghouta in 2013 to investigative authorities in Germany, France and Sweden.

But justice seems to be far away.

“Holding the perpetrators of these crimes accountable for the use of illegal weapons is the first deterrent to ensuring that they do not recur,” said Haneen Haddad, project manager for the Syrian Archive, a Syrian-led project documenting human rights violations and others. crimes committed in Syria.

“Without meaningful accountability, cruel actors and their founders believe they can do terrible things without real consequence from the international community.”


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