Wait, International Agreements Have Loopholes?

by Patrick Brennan

There have been allegations over the past few weeks of new chemical-weapons attacks in Syria — not using sarin gas, like the attacks of last August that killed hundreds of civilians, but with chlorine gas, a much more basic and less deadly agent.

A Reuters analysis notes that this is a violation of, or something of a loophole in, the agreement Syria reached with the U.S. and Russia to give up its chemical weapons. The government didn’t list chlorine stocks in the inventories it provided to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize winners who are overseeing the operation disposing of Syria’s chemical weapons. That operation is 80 percent complete, according to the OPCW’s inventories.

Unlike with the sarin attacks of last year, which were beyond the capabilities of the Syrian opposition and contained unmistakable chemical traces from Assad’s arsenal, chlorine attacks could be within the rebels’ capabilities — al-Qaeda in Iraq, the now-splinter group that’s fighting other rebel groups and the regime across Syria, used chlorine in a limited number of attacks in Iraq during the 2000s. But the attacks seem to be carried out by the Syrian military, according to Reuters’s reports:

Attacks this month in several areas of the country share characteristics that have led analysts to believe that there is a coordinated chlorine campaign, with growing evidence that it is the government side dropping the bombs.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday that Washington had indications that chlorine was probably used by government forces in Syria.

“We are examining allegations that the government was responsible,” she said. “Obviously there needs to be an investigation of what’s happened here.”

In the rebel-held village of Kfar Zeita in the central province of Hama, 125 miles north of Damascus, opposition activists uploaded video of people choking and being fed oxygen following what they said were bombs dropped from helicopters on April 11 and 12.

Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the videos and activists regularly make similar claims, but further footage of canisters provided an indication of what had happened.

One of the canisters had only partially exploded and the marking CL2 was written along its side. CL2 is the symbol for chlorine gas. Also visible was “Norinco” – China’s biggest arms maker.

Why is something like chlorine an issue with the OPCW’s system? It’s a chemical with plenty of industrial purposes. An OPCW spokesman said if the Syrian government had stockpiles of it, it should have inventoried them for the international community, like some other industrial chemicals were. But on the other hand, chlorine gas canisters can be totally innocuous, so they may well be quite easy for the Assad regime to have retained while planning to use them as a force multiplier. 

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