Article written by James Carroll for the Courier-Journal and USA Today. Find the original story here.
WASHINGTON — Evidence of the recent use of chlorine gas against people in Syria raises questions about whether its regime is fully complying with an international chemical weapons agreement, according to an expert helping to monitor the situation.
While Syria did not have to declare its chlorine under the chemical weapons treaty Syria signed, in part because of its many home and industrial uses, its use as a weapon is barred.
Chlorine is an irritant that can react with moisture in the lungs to produce hydrochloric acid. Though its effects are less harmful than the sarin nerve gas that Syria gave up, exposure can be fatal.
"I am very concerned that they still maintain some of that material and it has been used on civilian populations," said Director Craig Williams of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation's Chemical Weapons Project, a citizens' watchdog group based in Berea, Ky.
Williams has served as an informal adviser to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a United Nations agency charged with enforcing the chemical weapons treaty that 190 nations have signed.
In December, he will be making his third trip to The Hague, Netherlands, for what he expects will be further talks about Syria as well as the ongoing effort at the Blue Grass Army Depot near Richmond, Ky., to destroy aging chemical weapons stored there. The Pueblo Chemical Depot near Pueblo, Colo., also houses U.S. chemical weapons that are being neutralized.
“The Assad regime must know that it will be held to account.”
Craig Williams, Kentucky Environmental Foundation's Chemical Weapons Project
This past weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry warned the Syrian government that international monitors determined "with a high degree of confidence that chlorine was used as a weapon 'systematically and repeatedly' in attacks on three villages in northern Syria earlier this year." The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Sept. 10 that the toxic chemical was used repeatedly in Al Tamanah, Kafr Zeta and Talmanes, about 160 miles north of Damascus.
Because helicopters were used in the attacks, and the Syrian opposition has no such aircraft, "this strongly points to Syrian regime culpability," Kerry said. Similar attacks were reported in August.
Those findings raise serious questions about whether the Bashar al-Assad regime is following the chemical weapons treaty, the secretary said.
"The Assad regime must know that it will be held to account" if it uses chemical weapons, Kerry said.
This month, Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters of "discrepancies and omissions" in Syria's claims about the status of its chemical weapons materials. The concerns were heightened because of the possibility that Islamic terrorists could find such materials.
"We must ensure that the Syrian government destroys its remaining facilities for producing chemical weapons within the mandated time frames and without the repeated delays by the Assad regime that plagued earlier removal efforts," Power said.
Unrelated to the chemical weapons issue, the United States and Arab allies last week began airstrikes against Islamic State targets inside Syria as well as in Iraq.
Williams agreed with Kerry's latest warning and said that the Syrian government appeared to be to blame for the chlorine attacks.
"It would not be in anyone's best interests, especially the Assad regime's best interests, if they continue to use chlorine or any other type of chemical agent, whether it is banned in the treaty or not," Williams said, adding the Syrian government also should be open about whether it still has other chemical weapons or the chemicals to make them.
Syria's chemical weapons program drew international condemnation in August 2013 when 1,400 people died during what appeared to be a nerve gas attack.
Under threat of U.S. military strikes, this past year Syria agreed to turn over to the U.N. agency all chemical weapons and components for making chemical weapons. An estimated 1,444 tons of material was taken out of the war-torn country and nearly all of it has been destroyed.
Williams said international officials are working with Syria on final plans to destroy 12 former chemical weapons production facilities.
He said he can't be certain that Syria has given up all of its chemical weapons.
"I have a lot of confidence in the OCPW inspection regime," Williams said. "But if any country declares 'x' amount of material and withholds information on additional material, particularly in a civil-war situation, the ability to discover those additional caches is severely minimized."
Even so, "the fact we removed the majority of it and Syria is now obligated to allow inspections is a step in the right direction, both for the planet and in particular for the Syrian people," he said.
A decorated Vietnam War veteran, Williams has been involved in chemical weapons issues since 1985, when he founded the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a coalition of organizations around the country that demanded the safe disposal of the weapons and a transparent process to do so.
He won the 2006 Goldman Environmental Prize in recognition of his work.
The chemical weapons in Richmond will be the last in the United States to be destroyed. Facilities have been constructed and are being tested now. The processing and neutralizing of 523 tons of nerve agent and mustard gas in weapons is scheduled to begin in 2020 and end in 2023.
The fact that 190 countries have agreed to destroy their chemical weapons is impressive, Williams said.
"Even if there's not total transparency among some of these countries, you're trying to move in the right direction," he said. "You're trying to get rid of an entire class of weapons of mass destruction, and that has never been done before."
The U.N.'s chemical weapons unit was awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.
"It sets the stage for possibly moving on to a more robust nuclear disarmament effort," Williams said. "It's a great effort."
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