Syria responsible for 2017 chemical warfare attacks: OPCW

  • Category
    International Relations
  • Published
    22nd Apr, 2020

Context

he world's chemical weapons watchdog for the first time explicitly blamed Syria for toxic attacks in the country, saying President Bashar al-Assad's regime used sarin and chlorine three times in 2017.

Background:

  • In February, 2017, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad launched an assault on the Eastern Ghouta that reportedly left more than 1,700 civilians dead.
  • The attacks on March 24, 25 and 30 in Lataminah killed civilians and medics as well as wounding dozens of people.
  • Lataminah, at the time of the attack, was an important logistical hub for opposition groups, who had in previous weeks launched devastating attacks against the regime-held city of Hama.
  • Both Lataminah and Khan Sheikhoun were used as a supply point for militias opposed to the Assad regime.
  • With extensive help from the Russian Air Force, both towns have now been recaptured by Syrian and allied forces.
  • The latest findings were the first to be released by the new Investigation and Identification Team(IIT).
  • The IIT was established by OPCW member states last year after Russia - whose forces are backing the Syrian military - vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to extend the joint mission’s mandate.
  • It was tasked with identifying the perpetrators of chemical weapons use in Syria, as determined by the separate OPCW Fact-Finding Mission.
  • The use of chemical weapons is a war crime and is prohibited in a series of international treaties. These include:
    • the Hague Declaration concerning Asphyxiating Gases
    • the 1925 Geneva Protocol
    • the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)
    • the Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC)

Analysis

What OPCW has found?

  • As per the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), 106 people were affected by the incidents in the opposition-held village of Latamina.
  • The government has denied ever using chemical weapons.
  • However, a joint UN-OPCW mission had also accused government forces of using Sarin in an attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which reportedly killed more than 80 people, just days after the incidents in nearby Latamina.
  • It also concluded that government forces had used chlorine as a weapon on other occasions during the civil war.
  • For its first report, the IIT focused on incidents in Latamina, about 40km (25 miles) north-west of the city of Hama, in late March 2017.
  • On the basis of the information obtained, the IIT concluded there were reasonable grounds to believe that:
    • On 24 March, an Su-22 military plane belonging to the 50th Brigade of the 22nd Air Division of the Syrian air force, departing from Shayrat airbase, dropped an M4000 aerial bomb containing Sarin in southern Latamina, affecting 16 people
    • On 25 March, a Syrian air force helicopter, departing from Hama airbase, dropped a cylinder on the Latamina hospital. The cylinder broke through the roof, ruptured and released chlorine, affecting 30 people
    • On 30 March, an Su-22 belonging to the 50th Brigade of the 22nd Air Division of the Syrian air force, departing from Shayrat airbase, dropped an M4000 aerial bomb containing Sarin in southern Latamina, affecting 60 people

Regulation of chemical weapons:

  • Although toxic chemicals had been used as tools of war for thousands of years, with the use of techniques such as poisoned arrows, arsenic smoke, or noxious fumes, their use was long stigmatised by an association with both unnecessary cruelty and unfair play, something beneath the standards of ‘civilised’ battle.
  • Because of this, international efforts to ban chemical weapons took a prominent position in many early disarmament agreements.
  • First Agreement: The first international agreement limiting the use of chemical weapons dates back to 1675, when France and Germany came to an agreement, signed in Strasbourg, prohibiting the use of poison bullets.
  • Almost exactly 200 years later, in 1874, the next agreement of this sort was concluded: the Brussels Convention on the Law and Customs of War.
  • Brussels Convention: The Brussels Convention prohibited the employment of poison or poisoned weapons, and the use of arms, projectiles or material to cause unnecessary suffering, although the agreement never entered into force.
  • Hague Peace Conference: Before the turn of the nineteenth century, a third agreement came into being. The chemical disarmament efforts of the twentieth century were rooted in the 1899 Hague Peace Conference.
    • The contracting parties to the 1899 Hague Convention declared their agreement to ‘abstain from the use of projectiles, the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases’.
  • Second Hague Convention: A second Hague Convention, in 1907, reiterated earlier bans on employing poison or poisoned weapons.

Despite the above measures, the world witnessed the use of toxic chemicals in warfare to an unprecedented extent during World War I, with the first large-scale attack using chemical weapons taking place at Ieper, Belgium, on 22 April 1915. By the war’s end, some 124,200 tonnes of chlorine, mustard and other chemical agents had been released, and more than 90,000 soldiers had suffered painful deaths due to exposure to them. Close to a million more people left the battlefields blind, disfigured or with debilitating injuries.

  • The Geneva Protocol: The 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, commonly known as the 1925 Geneva Protocol, bans the use of chemical and bacteriological (biological) weapons in war.

What are nerve agents?

  • Nerve agents are a group of human-made substances that target part of the body's nervous system to shut down its organs and overload the brain.
  • Chemical weapons that use nerve agents like tabun, sarin and VX are known to kill people with gruesome efficiency.
  • Just 10mg of VX, for instance, can kill a human in just 10 minutes.  A smaller dose can take up to an hour to be lethal. 
  • Any nerve agent can affect a person through the skin, breathing, ingestion, or all three routes, depending on the substance and how it's used.
  • Special bombs can weaponise the agents as a liquid, firing them out as a breathable gas.

How it was found?

  • These toxins were first discovered by accident in the 1930s during research on agricultural insecticides.
  • In their search, German scientists made two organic compounds containing phosphorus that were very effective at killing insect pests.
  • However, they soon discovered that, even in minuscule amounts, the substances caused distressing symptoms in humans exposed to them.
  • The two substances—too toxic to be used as commercial insecticides in agriculture—became known as tabun and sarin.

Effect on nerve agents:

  • Nerve agents can be absorbed through inhalation or skin contact. 
  • Unlike traditional poisons, nerve agents don’t need to be added to food and drink to be effective.
  • They are quite volatile, colorless liquids (except for VX, which is said to resemble engine oil). The concentration in the vapor at room temperature is lethal.
  • The symptoms of poisoning come on quickly, and include chest tightening, difficulty breathing, and very likely asphyxiation. Associated symptoms include vomiting and massive incontinence.
  • The chemicals work by disrupting the central nervous system.
  • The body uses a molecule called acetylcholine to send messages between cells—when an acetylcholine molecule arrives, it causes an electrical impulse to be sent.
  • The body constantly has to remove those acetylcholine molecules from the receptors; otherwise there would be a dangerous build-up.
  • It uses an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase to do that. However, a nerve agent stops acetylcholinesterase from doing its job.

Do antidotes exist?

  • Nerve agents are damaging to the human body because they cause a build-up of acetylcholine.
  • This causes constant triggering of the neurons and therefore, constant contraction of muscles.
  • These spasms can be treated with antidotes that shut-off acetylcholine receptors in the brain.
  • Antidotes do exist, but they have to be administered quickly, or the effect of the nerve agent cannot be reversed.
  • Usually, two antidotes (atropine and pralidoxime chloride) are used which interfere with the acetylcholine binding to the neuron receptors.
  • These antidotes work in the exact opposite way of anti-depressants which encourage the uptake of neurotransmitters through the synapse.
  • Chemicals like Prozac encourage neurons responsible for feelings of happiness (such as dopamine and serotonin) to be transmitted through these receptors. 
  • Decontamination can also drastically reduce the lethality of chemical weapons as the longer a substance is left on skin and clothes the more of it can enter the bloodstream. 

About OPCW:

  • The Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force on 29 April 1997.
  • The event marked the birth of an international chemical weapons disarmament regime headed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
  • As the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention, the OPCW, with its 193 Member States, oversees the global endeavour to permanently and verifiably eliminate chemical weapons.

The Convention:

  • The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (the Chemical Weapons Convention or CWC), is comprised of a Preamble, 24 Articles, and 3 Annexes — the Annex on Chemicals, the Verification Annex, and the Confidentiality Annex.
  • The Convention aims to eliminate an entire category of weapons of mass destruction by prohibiting the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons by States Parties.
  • States Parties, in turn, must take the steps necessary to enforce that prohibition in respect of persons (natural or legal) within their jurisdiction. 

Conclusion: 

The detailed report will likely lead to fresh calls for accountability for the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Given the findings, it is now up to the Executive Council of OPCW and the Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the United Nations Secretary-General, and the international community as a whole to take any further action they deem appropriate and necessary to prevent such attacks.

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