How chlorine gas became a weapon in Syria’s civil war

Dorian Geiger writes: Following the 1,300 tonnes of sarin nerve gas and its precursors being removed from Syria, chemical attacks persist there nearly four years later, but most notably in the form of chlorine, which has emerged as the most heavily used chemical weapon in the war.

“We saw chlorine appearing as a weapon in Syria for the first time in 2014,” said Ole Solvang, the deputy director of the emergencies division at Human Rights Watch.

“The challenge is there are so many horrific things going on in Syria, that this one issue tends to perhaps be overshadowed sometimes by other attacks that are going on.”

In February, Human Rights Watch and Solvang authored a report documenting at least eight instances of chlorine use by the Syrian regime in the battle for Aleppo between Nov. 17 and Dec. 13, 2016. The human rights watchdog verified the attacks through video footage analysis, phone, and in-person interviews, as well as by social media.

The report indicated that the chlorine attacks killed at least nine people, including four children, and injured around 200 people. The attacks, according to the report, constituted war crimes.

“This is, of course, horrific because it is a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria is a part of,” Solvang explained. “It’s horrific for the victims, but also because it really undermines one of the strongest bans on any weapon in international humanitarian law and what we’re really concerned about is that the government’s continued use of chemical attacks will undermine this ban and lower the threshold for other countries to also use it [chlorine].”

The Chemical Weapons Convention, implemented in 1993, constitute the world’s first internationally binding chemical weapon laws. They are enforced by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a United Nations-backed agency.

Following the sarin gas attack in Ghouta in August 2013 that killed more than 1,000 people – more than 400 of them children – according a United Nations Security Council report, Syria joined the convention as part of an international agreement – and to subdue the Obama administration’s threats of military action. It was the 190th country to sign on.

So to what role has chlorine played in Syria’s complex and long civil war? And what has been the human toll?

Human Rights Watch have documented 24 chlorine attacks in Syria since 2014, of which 32 people were killed and hundreds were injured. However, Solvang acknowledged that this is likely a grave underestimate.

“It’s a terrifying weapon to most people,” Solvang said.

Chlorine is a choking agent. Its greenish-yellow clouds of gas cause shortness of breath, wheezing, respiratory failure, irritation in the eyes, vomiting, and sometimes death.

Chlorine’s effects are also largely psychological: the chemical triggers fear, shock, and panic in a way that other conventional weapons don’t. In the case of Aleppo, Solvang suspects the regime strategically used chlorine to force a mass exodus of the city. [Continue reading…]

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