For the doctors, in opposition-held Eastern Aleppo, the night of August 10 was different. Their patients’ bodies bore no horrific shrapnel and burn injuries this time. Instead, the victims were vomiting and gasping for air. With that, doctors suspected a more sinister form of attack: chlorine gas.
Cheap and easily available, chlorine is being used in Syria with disturbing regularity, according to physicians on the ground.
“We started seeing [chlorine attacks] after September 2013, after the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolution on destroying the pile of chemical weapons in Syria was adopted,” says Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a senior advisor to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).
SAMS, working with a network of doctors throughout Syria, has accused the Syrian Air Force of using chlorine gas in its airstrike on August 10 in Eastern Aleppo.
The chemical attack has reportedly killed two children and their mother. Activists on the ground claim that the frequency of such attacks [using chlorine gas] by Syrian Government forces has been on the rise.
The JIM Report
A year-long investigation led by the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into nine cases where chemical weapons were allegedly used, concluded last month that both the Assad regime and Daesh had used chemical weapons in the country.
The Syrian regime forces were responsible for two of the nine attacks in 2014 in Talmanes, and in 2015 in Samrin, while Daesh’s attack used sulphur mustard, according to a recent report published on August 19 by the U.N. Joint Investigative Mechanism, or JIM, which was established in August 2015.
The investigation was launched at the request of the UNSC as an attempt to identify those using chemical weapons in attacks in Syria.
The UNSC had vowed in the past to intervene in Syria under Chapter 7 (use of force and military action), if chemical weapons were used by any party in Syria.
Taking the report’s findings as a base, the U.S. National Security Council accused Syria of breaching the Chemical Weapons Convention, U.N. resolutions and the U.S.-Russian agreement under which Syria surrendered its chemical arms.
Chlorine was not listed as a chemical weapon in the agreement, yet its military use against civilians falls under the use of chemical weapons, and breaches both that agreement and a 2013 UNSC resolution.
“It is now impossible to deny that the Syrian regime has repeatedly used industrial chlorine as a weapon against its own people,” NSC spokesman Ned Price said in a statement last month.
In addition, the U.S. permanent representative to the U.N., Samantha Power’ praised the JIM report as “the first official independent confirmation” that chemical weapons were used by the Syrian regime and called for “swift action.”
Russia, on the other hand, a staunch supporter of the Syrian government, was quick to dismiss the report’s findings as lacking evidence.
“Clearly there is a smoking gun. We know that chlorine most likely has been used—that was already the finding of the fact-finding mission before—but there are no fingerprints on the gun,” Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s permanent ambassador to the U.N. said late August.
“There are a number of questions which have to be clarified before we accept all the findings of the report,” he added, dismissing the necessity for implementing sanctions at the moment.
The Syrian government, much like Moscow, was quick to deny the report’s findings, with Syria saying the “assumptions in the report were not convincing.”
In a public address at the U.N. headquarters in New York last month, Syria’s Permanent Representative to the U.N., Bashar Al Jaafari, said the report lacked material evidence and that it was based on hearsay, which cannot be considered “corroborating proof.”
“The conclusions contained in the report were totally based on statements made by witnesses presented by the terrorist armed groups or their incubator environment. Therefore, these conclusions lack any physical evidence, whether by sample or by attested medical reports, that chlorine [gas] was used… we don’t have any physical evidence that chlorine was used,” stressed Jaafari.
Furthermore, the Syrian government vowed to “continue [its] national investigation into all these incidents… [and to] exert all effort to uncover the truth.
Low Tech, High Terror
Unlike the Sarin nerve agent which killed approximately 1,000 civilians in East Ghouta in 2013, industrial chlorine gas is easy to manufacture and hard to detect.
“Chlorine is extremely easy to obtain. Making chlorine gas is basically 1800s technology and it has widespread uses in industry, including water purification,” says Dan Kaszeta, an expert in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense.
While low tech, chlorine is not particularly effective when compared with other kinds of conventional or chemical weapons.
“Weaponization is problematic, simply because you need to achieve very high concentrations in order to actually kill anyone with it. Measured in terms of milligrams or grams per cubic meter of air, the lethality of chlorine is six to seven times less than phosgene and is similar to that of some ostensibly non-lethal riot control agents,” Kaszeta explains.
“If I was trying to kill people, as a commander I’d rather select high explosives than chlorine.” he adds.
So why then are these weapons being used? One likely answer is psychological warfare.
Chlorine attacks could have the short-term effect of driving people out of shelters, where they can then more easily fall victim to conventionally dropped bombs.
In the longer term, the constant terror of chlorine gas could cause civilians to permanently leave an area, and perhaps it is a way to drive civilians out of the rebel-held areas.
“[The attacks] cause panic and displacement of populations in areas that are strategic to the regime. The purpose is to spread panic among locals and force them to flee,” explains Dr. Sahloul.
“It could be used as a weapon deliberately to induce fear and terror in a target populace fairly well habituated to conventional attacks,” Kaszeta says. “Fear is an important force multiplier for the chlorine attacker.”