The Cable

Russia and the West Spar Over U.N. Report, Despite Evidence Pointing to Syrian Regime

The long-awaited United Nations report on the deadly Aug. 21 attack in the suburbs of Damascus does not directly blame either the Syrian government or the Syrian opposition, but the scrupulous level of detail in the report provides new evidence pointing to a military-orchestrated assault rather than a rebel-executed chemical weapons attack. In particular, analysts speaking with Foreign Policy latched onto the report's conclusions regarding the quantities of toxic gas in the attack, the type of rockets used, and the trajectory of the missile vectors.

"This is consistent with an alleged use by Syrian government troops," Ralf Trapp, an independent consultant on chemical and biological weapons, told FP after reviewing the report.

The U.N. inspectors' report, which was presented this morning to the Security Council, found "clear and convincing evidence" that rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. The U.N. team compiled evidence from a broad range of sources, including several surface-to-surface rockets "capable of delivering significant chemical payloads" and statements from more than 50 victims, first responders, and medical specialists. Evidence of sarin was identified in the majority of environmental and biomedical samples, including blood, urine, and hair, collected by the U.N. team.

The lethally of the attack, the report noted, was exacerbated by the morning chill on Aug. 21, which contributed to pressing the air downward, where it poured into residential homes and basements, killing people in their sleep.

For Trapp, the combination of the report's weapons data (rockets designed for liquid-fill delivery and traces of sarin found on the rockets), the significant number of rockets fired, and the way the weapons were used (at a time of day when stable atmospheric conditions were expected to maximize the effect of the chemical attack) speaks volumes. "That all points to a weapon that came from a military program, used by units that understand and have training in chemical warfare operations," he said. "If an opposition group had been the perpetrator, it would have required: (A) readiness to kill large numbers of people in an opposition-controlled area, (B) access to a significant number of chemical weapons rockets from a Syrian army stockpile, and (C) some training in how and when to use chemical weapons to maximum effect" -- capabilities Trapp strongly doubts the rebels have.

Other analysts, such as Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, and Jeff White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed with Trapp.

"The rebels in Syria can get off a few mortar rounds here and there. On a good day they might even fire off a salvo of recoilless rifles," Harmer told FP. "But they don't have the ability to deploy mass indirect fires with rockets, which is how this sarin gas attack occurred in Damascus. The regime does."

White noted that the trajectory of the rounds fired on targets in Moadamiyah and Ayn Terma point squarely to regime locations in the north and west. "I suppose the apologists for the regime will say they could have been fired from anywhere along those trajectories, but this certainly supports the US intell conclusion that the rockets came from regime territory," he said. 

The Russians were not eager to draw this conclusion. Moscow's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, said that his country "strongly condemns" the use of such weapons but cautioned that others should "not to jump to any conclusion." He scolded his Western counterparts, saying, "Some colleagues jumped to their conclusions when they were saying the [U.N.] report definitely proves that it was the government forces who used chemical weapons."

Churkin also deflected questions about the inspectors finding that some of the Syrian artillery rounds used in the attack bore inscriptions in Cyrillic, which could be a mark of Russian manufacture. He said that the U.N. needed to have chemical weapons experts "look into it," among several other questions.

Western nations, meanwhile, have been quick to latch onto the details of the report and blame the Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Shortly after the report's publication, France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said that the underlying evidence presented by the U.N. inspectors -- including the trajectory of sarin-filled rockets that targeted Ghouta --"leaves no doubt" that the Syrian government is responsible. "When you look at the facts, the quantities of toxic gas, the complexities of the [chemical mixtures], and the trajectory of the [missile] vectors, all that leaves absolutely no doubt as to the origin of the attack" he told French radio station RTL. The report, Fabius added, "confirms the position of those of us who have said the regime is guilty."

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters outside the Security Council that the report "confirms unmistakenly that chemical weapons were used in Syria on Aug. 21." Power said that while the inspectors had no mandate to assign blame, the "technical details of the U.N. report make it clear that only the regime could have carried out this large-scale chemical weapons attack."

Power said that one of the weapons used in the attack, a 122-millimeter rocket, has been used by the regime in previous attacks. She said that a review of thousands of online videos by American authorities has shown no evidence of the opposition "manufacturing or using this style of rocket."

Power also said that the U.N. chief inspector, Ake Sellstrom, responding to a question from Churkin, Russia's U.N. envoy, said that the quality of the sarin used in the attack was "higher than that of the sarin used by Saddam Hussein's program. Sellstrom also stated that weapons obtained on the site of the scene of this monstrous crime were professionally made. He said that they bore none of the characteristics of improvised weapons."

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who did not have a mandate to assign blame for the attack, limited his statements to undirected moral outrage. 

"The findings are beyond doubt and beyond the pale," Ban told reporters. "This is a war crime and a grave violation of the 1925 Protocol and other rules of customary international law. It is the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988 -- and the worst use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century. The international community has a responsibility to ensure that chemical weapons never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare."

The Cable

How Assad Could Twist a Chemical Weapons Treaty to Keep His Poison Gas

Bashar al-Assad has signed onto a decades-old international treaty banning chemical weapons. Now comes the hard part: making sure he doesn't exploit its loopholes to find ways of holding onto the weapons anyway.

On its face, the decades-old Chemical Weapons Convention seems fairly straightforward. Signatories agree to halt the production of new chemical weapons, allow international inspectors to visit all of its storage sites, and then begin to gradually destroy them. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is responsible for implementing the treaty, estimates that 57,740 metric tons of chemical agents, or 81.1 percent of the world's declared chemical weapons stockpiles, have been destroyed since the agreement went into effect in 1997.

The problem is that the treaty wasn't designed to deal with situations like the current crisis in Syria. To succeed, it will require the full and ongoing cooperation of the Assad government, which is obviously far from guaranteed. If Assad changes his mind or is caught cheating, the treaty's sole enforcement mechanism is a referral back to the U.N. Security Council, where the chances of getting an agreement authorizing punitive measures against Damascus for its poor behavior are virtually non-existent. For all intents and purposes, the treaty is toothless.

"The Chemical Weapons Convention was created to deal with a very different type of set of circumstances," said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association. "It was designed to deal with a country that was willing to renounce its chemical weapons voluntarily and not under coercion, a country where there was no real chance of them being used again, and a country that was stable enough that they could be destroyed safely. None of those conditions exist in Syria."

Kimball is a fan of the treaty who believes it has proven effective over the years and is a far better option than trying to use force to degrade Assad's chemical weapons facilities. Still, he said, Syria will be an "unprecedented test" of the treaty.

To begin with, the treaty is short on specifics and doesn't set out any rules for how Syria's chemical weapons sites should to be secured until the weapons themselves can be destroyed. It doesn't require guards to be dispatched to the sites or for the facilities themselves to be protected by walls, video cameras, or motion detectors. Damascus, according to the treaty, instead has to only take the measures "it considers appropriate to secure its storage facilities."

"The way this normally works is that inspectors inventory a facility, lock it up, leave, and then come back every six months or a year to do a periodic inspection," said Faiza Patel, a former OPCW senior policy officer who now works at the Brennan Center's Liberty and National Security Program in New York. "The inspectors aren't there permanently, so that set-up only works if a country doesn't tamper with the seals. If it really wants to get back in, and doesn't care what the inspectors say when they get back, there's nothing really stopping it from doing so."

The OPCW isn't entirely powerless. It has sole discretion over the size and composition of its inspection teams, so it can demand that Assad allow in experts from the United States or other nominal Syrian adversaries. If he fails to do so, or blocks the teams from accessing certain facilities, the organization can file a so-called "challenge inspection" notice that refers the dispute to the U.N. Security Council for action. The organization has never had to file such a motion. If it tried to do so with Syria, Assad would be virtually certain to escape scot-free because Russia and China would veto any new effort to authorize force against his government.

The Chemical Weapons Convention, or CWC, is the result of decades of negotiations dating back to the 1960s. To date, 189 countries have agreed to abide by its terms. Israel and Burma have signed but not yet ratified the treaty, while five more -- including Syria -- had until this week not signed on at all. On Thursday, the United Nations said it had received a letter from Syria formally signaling its intent to sign and ratify the CWC treaty.

According to the terms of the treaty, Syria would then have 30 days to reveal the precise locations of all of its chemical weapons production and storage facilities, a timetable Secretary of State John Kerry has already dismissed as far too slow. Damascus would have to allow international inspectors unfettered access to each of the sites and give the OPCW, the oversight body, a detailed plan for how, and when, it would destroy all of its chemical weapons stockpiles. Syria would have 10 years to do so. That gives Assad plenty of time to seek out ways around the treaty.

"It's not inconceivable that he adopts the Saddam Hussein playbook from the 1990s -- refusing access to facilities, having the inspectors run around the country chasing their own tails -- as a way of playing out the clock," said Brian Finlay of the Stimson Center. "The more time that passes, the more the shock of the chemical weapons attack will fade away and the more the momentum for a strike will begin to disappear. It's clearly in his favor for this stretch out as long as possible."

The Syrian dictator has other advantages. The OPCW personnel can only inspect the sites they know about, so Assad could derail their work by failing to fully disclose all of his production and storage facilities, particularly the smaller and more mobile ones. He also has such large stores of chemical weapons -- an estimated 1,000 metric tons -- that he could potentially hide away small amounts without being caught. In the end, the United States and its allies would effectively be banking on the good will and continued cooperation of a leader they want to see removed from power.

"The entire treaty depends on the assumption that the country that wants to join actually wants to destroy its chemical stockpiles," Patel said. "If it doesn't, everything falls away."

Ammar al-Arbini/AFP/Getty Images