Nowhere to Hide: The Logic of Chemical Weapons

Following a suspected chemical attack in Syria in March 2018, civilians receive medical aid. Following a suspected chemical attack in Syria in March 2018, civilians receive medical aid. © Hamza Al-Ajweh/AFP/Getty Images

This is a presentation of “Nowhere to Hide” released by Global Public Policy Institute in February 2019.

In February 2019, the Global Public Policy Institute, or GPPI, released a study written by Tobias Schneider and Theresa Lutkefend called Nowhere to Hide: The Logic of Chemical Weapons Use in Syria. The study aimed to shed light on the full scale of the use of chemical weapons attacks in Syria and to provide an analysis of the operational and logical underpinnings of such attacks. In order to complete this study, researchers compiled a comprehensive data set by collecting and reviewing 498 discrete reports of chemical weapon use in Syria throughout the Syrian civil war. The first credible incident occurred on 23 December 2012, and the most recent credible incident occurred on 7 April 2018.

Of the 498 discrete reports reviewed, 336 were found to be “credibly substantiated,” “confirmed,” or “comprehensively confirmed,” while 162 reports were dismissed. Credibly substantiated, confirmed, and comprehensively confirmed reports were supported by at least one reliable source of evidence or at least two independent secondary sources. Dismissed reports were those that failed to have corroborating evidence that supported their plausibility. This data set reveals there have been more chemical weapons attacks occurring throughout the Syrian civil war than previously thought, and the authors note that they “suspect” the actual number of incidents could be “significantly higher.”

This particular study chose to focus on the Syrian government’s use of improvised chlorine bombs for their analysis of the logical underpinnings of chemical weapon use, as they are the most used form of chemical attack used by the Assad regime. According to this report, 91.5% of confirmed attacks orchestrated by the Assad regime were these chlorine attacks, typically delivered from rocket launchers or helicopters. Chlorine as an agent of chemical warfare has some key strategic advantages which explain the usage of it by the Syrian government. The report notes that Chlorine is “easy and cheap to procure in significant quantities” and is easily stored and handled within Syria’s industrialized infrastructure. Additionally, because chlorine has widespread uses for civilian needs, such as water purification, it is a non-controlled substance and, thus, is not considered a “formal” chemical weapon.

The report also noted that the Syrian government’s chemical warfare campaign closely aligns with its conventional warfare campaign. For example, in August of 2013, a chemical weapons attack occurred outside of Damascus using Improvised Rocket-Assisted Munitions, or IRAMs. This specific design of weapon has been employed by the Syrian government in the past for conventional warfare uses. Additionally, the conventional design of “barrel bombs” used by government forces likely influenced the development of improvised air-delivered chlorine munitions used for chemical warfare. One other aspect of this study focused on the logical reasoning of where chemical warfare was used. In many instances, the Assad regime seemed to target opposition strongholds, using chemical weapons attacks as a form of collective punishment. This collective punishment inflicted pain on civilian populations hosting or supporting insurgents as a means to force these populations to withdraw their support or to flee.

Ultimately, the report provided valuable insight into the reasoning behind the Assad regime’s use of specific forms of chemical warfare. By analyzing these underpinnings, this study was able to provide meaningful and comprehensive recommendations for the international community. Notably, the GPPI called for countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, to uphold their current policies of taking immediate military action in response to the use of chemical weapons by Assad. Additionally, they urged policymakers and military planners to focus on targeting facilities and materials connected to chemical attacks. Finally, they encouraged the international community as a whole to works towards holding those responsible for war crimes in Syria accountable for their actions.


Original report available here: https://www.gppi.net/media/GPPi_Schneider_Luetkefend_2019_Nowhere_to_Hide_Web.pdf

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