Assad’s ‘Vile’ Use of Chemical Weapons: A BBC Report

On Monday 15thNovember the BBC released a report documenting and condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s extensive use of chemical weapons in Syria. This report comes as Assad’s government comes close to victory after 7 years of civil war leaving 350,000 dead. The BBC examined 164 chemical weapon attacks that have been reported since 2013, signing of the international Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and concluded that there is sufficient evidence to confirm 106 of these. Most were carried out by Assad’s government.

Inspector for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Mr. Tangaere, stated that despite the destruction of 1,300 tonnes of chemicals in Syria in 2013, ‘all we could do was verify what we’d been told was there.’ The CWC, he says, is ‘all based on trust.’ Karen Pierce, the UK’s representative for the UN, simply labelled Syria’s continued and widespread use of chemical weapons as ‘vile.’ Meanwhile, Assad’s government continues to deny responsibility for the chemical attacks, with Assad claiming in May this year that ‘it’s completely fake…a western narrative.’

BBC Panorama and BBC Arabic, the joint producers of the report, should be commended for the detailed information that seeks to shed light on the unacceptable behaviour of Assad’s government. Conversely, Assad should be internationally condemned for his continued sanction of the use of chemical weapons. His actions demonstrate a total disregard of the 2013 CWC and a willingness to outright lie to the international community. More importantly, Assad is destroying the lives of innocent civilians. Chemical weapons are indiscriminate by nature, killing enemies, aid workers, and children alike. Furthermore, they cause excessive and inhumane levels of suffering in their victims. Those not killed by the chemicals are often forced from their homes, with a UN report in September this year recording 6.5 million internally displaced people in Syria. The use of chemical weapons should absolutely not be tolerated and further efforts must be made to identify and destroy remaining supplies.

Two common chemicals used in Syria are Sarin and Chlorine. Sarin, which is 20 times deadlier than cyanide, causes muscles to spasm leading to death by asphyxiation. Chlorine gas, used in 79 of the 106 attacks, is heavier than air so sinks to low-lying regions including to people hiding from bombing in basements. It causes the lungs to secrete fluid, drowning its victims. The deadliest chemical weapon attack took place in Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province on 4 April 2017 leaving over 80 dead. Chemical weapon attacks can often be seen to take place in clusters near the end of a government offensive on a rebel-held area as a final drive to defeat opposition and clear the town. ‘There’s nothing that scares people more than chemical weapons, and whenever chemical weapons have been used, residents have fled those areas and, more often than not, not come back,’ says Dr Khatib of Chatham House.

Will Assad’s regime be held accountable? The BBC report is a move in the right direction, highlighting the scale of the use of chemical weapons during the civil war. If no action is taken to confront Assad and destroy the remaining chemical supplies, innocent Syrian civilians will continue to be brutally killed, forced from their homes and made to live in a state of constant fear. Furthermore, this could set a dangerous precedent for future chemical weapons use outside of Syria. UN representative Karen Pierce is hopeful: ‘there is evidence being collected…one day there will be justice.’