The Khan Sheikhoun attack of April 4 2017, which killed dozens and injured hundreds, drew a response in the form of targeted US missile strikes on a Syrian airbase. As far as the West is concerned, it was clearly just the latest in a long line of chemical weapon attacks authorised by the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad; a recent French intelligence report lists seven sarin attacks which it either presumes or is confident were ordered by the regime – this in addition to some 22 incidents of chlorine use.
All this is broadly in keeping with public statements and declassified reports released by other Western states. From a Western perspective, the Assad regime has for years now played cat-and-mouse with the international community, using chemical weapons to kill, terrorise, demoralise and displace both militants and civilians. He has attempted to employ such weapons below the threshold that would trigger greater Western intervention, or the threshold which might lead Russia or another ally to withdraw vital support.
These thresholds are neither clear nor stationary – and Damascus has hedged its bets time and time again on the benefits of use. This included the use of chemical weapons at, and in the run up to, the 2013 Ghouta attack. It was also reflected in Assad’s decision to secretly retain sarin stockpiles when it was forced to give up its chemical weapons in the aftermath of the Ghouta massacre. From this perspective, the persistent use of chlorine by the regime also fits the pattern.
The Syrian and Russian governments have consistently publicly denied that the Syrian government has ever employed chemical weapons, either before or after it declared and destroyed some 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents and decommissioned some 27 production facilities. But, more than that, Russian and Syrian officials still challenge the Western narrative by questioning whether the attacks in question were staged, carried out by rebels or – as in the latest case – a consequence of rebel groups stockpiling sarin supplies of their own. They argue that pinning chemical weapon use on Assad is a Western tactic to undermine his regime – and to leverage public support for Western intervention.
These sorts of denials, accusations and counter-accusations are a long-established feature of chemical warfare, where the facts and meaning of individual attacks become flashpoints in the broader narrative battles. Indeed, while the players have changed, the games being played now look much like the propoganganda wars over Iraq’s war crimes during the Iran-Iraq War – in particular the notorious 1988 chemical massacre at Halabja.
Framed and reframed
The parallels are ironic and tragic. In the late 1980s, it was the West which stood accused of giving tacit support to Saddam’s chemical weapon programme, and allowing atrocities which could have been prevented in the service of its fierce opposition to Iran. The Iranian media, meanwhile, was particularly eager to draw attention to what Iraq was doing on the ground, but its obvious tactical stakes in the conflict damaged the credibility of early reports about chemical war crimes.
While war crimes are routinely denied by their perpetrators, chemical weapons are unique. There is a highly developed international apparatus in place to investigate and attribute their use – and the intense scrutiny that follows a chemical attack means there’s a much greater public expectation that action will be taken against culprits. In the Syrian case, this particular dynamic has given chemical weapons a special symbolic weight.
The West’s insistence on publicly attributing attacks to the Assad regime effectively implicates Russia, the government’s principal supporter. This is deeply resented in Moscow. US missile strikes after Khan Sheikhoun, strategically inconsequential though they were, will only have driven home the impression that the US and its allies are cynically using the chemical weapons issue for both domestic and diplomatic leverage.
In response, Russia is trying to frame this Western activism as a challenge to the independence of UN organisations and investigations. It has questioned the methods employed by a recent UN-OPCW joint investigation that concluded the Syrian Air Force had used chlorine as a weapon. Unsurprising then that Russian officials are publicly dismissive of the latest UN investigation into the Khan Sheikhoun attack.
While that investigation’s latest report demonstrates beyond any doubt that sarin was employed as a weapon, it does not explicitly deal with the question of attribution. Nonetheless, its findings cast further doubt on the claims made by Syrian and Russian officials in the wake of the attack that a rebel chemical stockpile stockpile was hit, instead identifying the source of the sarin cloud as a crater some distance from the supposed stockpile. A joint UN-OPCW investigation into the attack is already underway; it has a remit to attribute the attack.
Real and surreal
Russia will continue to publicly voice reservations about the investigation’s attribution of responsibility; it will keep trying to derail, discredit or delay the process, citing concerns about the investigators’s methods. It will also keep pushing the idea that Western actions threaten to undermine the chemical weapon prohibition regime – something which nobody wants to happen.
What is at stake in these arguments is both bigger and smaller than the question of Syrian chemical weapons. At a human level, while real people have been killed by real weapons, the heightened attention paid to this particular issue has at once made the war feel almost surreal to Western populations. While most people surely agree that those who commit atrocities must be punished, they are rightly sceptical of the claims which different sides make in times of war.
Cynicism increasingly dominates, with the international response to the use of these weapons discussed as a dismal pantomime, a sad display of the hubris, futility and hypocrisy of seeking to enforce moral limits on warfare. All sides in this conflict invoke grand ideas of justice, sovereignty, national security, peace and international institution-building.
Once the dust settles, it will be clearer what sacrifices have actually been made in the name of these causes. But for now, the point is to ensure that leaders don’t ignore or forget these ongoing war crimes, whoever commits them. In particular, the UN-OPCW investigation needs as much support as it can get as it seeks to formally attribute the attack. So do broader ongoing enquiries into Syrian atrocities, as well as more grassroots movements and documentation programmes investigating this conflict’s myriad heinous crimes.