chemical weapons

UN arms expert collects samples for investigation into suspected chemical weapons strike (Ammar al-Arbini/AFP/Getty Images)

By Catherine Contiguglia and David Gallerano

The build up to a US military intervention in Syria was suspended when Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov announced a diplomatic initiative to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international supervision. This is something of a reprieve for US president Barack Obama, who was facing mounting pressure to live up to a promised intervention that has little public support and has yet to be approved by either the United Nations or Congress.

Here are some of the best articles from the FT and elsewhere about chemical weapons and their regulation, and what the Russian plan means for the Syria conflict. 

James Blitz

Why did the Russian government launch its sudden initiative on Monday asking Syria to bring its chemical weapons under international control? According to most commentators, the overwhelming motivation will have been to stop the Obama administration carrying out a missile strike on Syria. By making this move, Russia has stopped the march to war.

But some western diplomats say there may have been another factor weighing on the Kremlin’s mind ahead of this move. This is the expectation in some capitals that next week’s UN inspectors’ report into the chemical attack on eastern Damascus will be more embarrassing for the Assad regime than we have been led to believe. 

Video footage showing rows of children in burial shrouds and doctors desperately trying to save other victims shocked the world on August 20. What appeared to be a chemical attack on rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital was the latest in a series of allegations that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons in its war against the armed opposition. Just over a year ago, Barack Obama, the US president, vowed that any use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war would be a ‘red line’ that would provoke US intervention in Syria’s conflict. But despite acknowledging that Mr Assad has used chemical weapons, the US has so far failed to take action. Here is a timeline of US statements on chemical weapons and allegations of their use in Syria.

July 23, 2012 The Bashar al-Assad regime confirmed for the first time it possessed chemical weapons, saying it would use them in the case of Western military intervention but never against the Syrian population.

August 20, 2012 President Barack Obama announces his “red line” for Syrian intervention, threatening “enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”

December 6 2012 The White House expresses concern that the Assad regime “might be considering the use of chemical weapons” and that the Syrian authorities would be “held accountable by the United States and the international community if they use chemical weapons or fail to meet their obligations to secure them”. 

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♦ China is pushing to water down the World Bank’s Doing Business report, showing its increased assertiveness at international bodies and its willingness to challenge liberal economic prescriptions.
♦ Growth in Indonesia has reached its slowest pace in two years, hit by the slowdown in China and India, but investors are still feeling confident.
♦ David Gardner argues that Israel’s latest attacks on Syria play right into Assad’s hands supporting conspiracy theories about a western-conceived attempt to destroy Syria.
♦ Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, calls for a Marshall plan to help his country recover from decades of poverty, civil war and terrorism.
♦ Roberto Azevêdo of Brazil and Herminio Blanco of Mexico are scrambling to secure last-minute votes in a tight race to become the next head of the troubled World Trade Organisation.
♦ Hollywood film-makers are going to great lengths to satisfy the whims of Chinese censors. However, appearances by Chinese actors in the Chinese version of Iron Man 3 have not been to everyone’s taste – “
One microblogger named Bumblebee Marz compared the new scenes to chicken ribs — a common expression denoting the most tasteless and undesirable cut of meat in Chinese cuisine.
♦ Dexter Filkins looks at the White House debate over Syria. According to Gary Samore, who was President Obama’s chief adviser on weapons of mass destruction until February,
“All the options are horrible”.
♦ Obama’s off-the-cuff remark about large quantities of chemical weapons crossing a “red line” have now put him into a bind, “his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.”
♦ Gabriel Kuris at Foreign Policy looks at how Latvia’s anti-corruption bureau managed to pass through reforms and take down oligarchs. 

David Gardner

In this image made available by the Syrian news agency (SANA) on March 19, medics attend to a man at a hospital in the northern Aleppo province. (AFP)Someone who worked closely with Bashar al-Assad, before and after he inherited Syria’s presidency from his father, once remarked to me that he “is not really very bright”. Perhaps. But he is not lacking in cunning.

Now, as in the past, he feels his way forward by probing and constantly testing the limits of what his adversaries will tolerate before provoked to respond. Having sometimes found that these limits are surprisingly elastic, he has developed a tendency to overreach. Yet, as his regime and his country crumble around him, he is still there – just about – and it looks as though he is still testing the limits, this time by the limited use of portions of Syria’s reportedly vast chemical weapons arsenal.

In recent months, allegations have been flying that the Assad regime has fired nerve-gas shells at Syria’s rebels. On the most cited occasion last month, near Aleppo, the country’s besieged commercial capital in the north, loyalist troops were among the casualties, and the government claimed that jihadi terrorists – part of an international conspiracy against Syria in the Assad narrative – were responsible.

Last week, Britain and France told the UN there was “credible evidence” the Assad regime has started using chemical weapons. This week, a top Israeli military intelligence officer categorically asserted the government was using them. The UN team of experts tasked with investigating these claims is meanwhile stranded in Cyprus, denied entry by Damascus.

There is, thus, no certainty about what is going on, but the mounting circumstantial evidence is spine-chilling.

President Barack Obama, who has brushed aside the advice of his security officials in his determination to stay out of Syria, nevertheless warned Damascus last August any use of chemical weapons would provoke unspecified action by the US.

Obama said at the time: “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” On a visit to Israel last month, he reinforced the point, saying the use of chemical weapons inside Syria would be a “game changer” for the US.

So far, however, the White House and State Department are officially withholding judgment on the veracity of Syria’s alleged use of these arms, about which few close observers of the conflict now harbour doubts. There is probably more here than simply the president’s caution. 

Today’s reading recommendations from around the world.  

James Blitz

There is little doubt that the period since November has seen many setbacks for Assad, not the least of which has been the growing co-ordinatiuon – and international recognition – of the opposition. But some senior military and political figures in the Middle East and in Britain remain cautious. 

James Blitz

Since the start of this month, there has been a spate of stories in the western media about the possibility that the Assad regime is about to use chemical weapons against rebel forces in Syria. The stories – most of which have been briefed by US intelligence officials to the American print and broadcast media – have been alarming. As the Assad regime comes under increasing pressure, there are fears that it might use some of its stocks of sarin in a last-ditch demonstration that it is determined to hang onto power. The Obama administration has again asserted that it would see the use of such weapons as the crossing of a red line that triggers US intervention in the conflict.

Anyone trying to bring together the steady stream of news stories on this issue is left with a somewhat murky picture. Some have suggested that the military has loaded chemical weapons into bombs and is awaiting the order from the regime to drop them on rebel groups.

Others have suggested that the precursors for sarin gas have been mixed and could be ready for use.

There is also one report that goes in the other direction and suggests the fears of US intelligence have eased.

What are we to make of it all ? The fact that Syria possesses chemical – and possibly biological – weapons is not in doubt. After years of obfuscation, the regime admitted to having chemical weapons stocks last summer. Most academic opinion is in no doubt that Syria possesses one of the largest arsenals in the world, one that was developed as a strategic deterrent against Israel.