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The Orton Report
(Reuters, 2013)
January 13, 2017

Analysis: ‘International Taboo on Chemical Weapons Frays As U.S. Steps Back’

by
Kyle Orton

Yesterday, the United States Treasury Department imposed sanctions on eighteen senior officials in the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The sanctions come in response to reports in August and October 2016 by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the United Nations investigative body, which found that found “the Syrian government, specifically the Syrian Arab Air Force, was responsible for three chlorine gas attacks in Talmenes on April 21, 2014, and in Qmenas and Sarmin on March 16, 2015.” This is three years after the Assad regime was spared punitive military strikes for its use of chemical weapons under a Russian-orchestrated “deal” that ostensibly disarmed Assad of such weapons.

MILITARY OFFICIALS

Five officials from Syrian Air Force Intelligence (SAFI), Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI), and the Syrian Political Security Directorate (PSD) were sanctioned for individual responsibility in the commission of human rights abuses.

SAFI is probably the most powerful of Syria’s overlapping intelligence agencies. It was from SAFI that Bashar’s father, Hafiz, launched his coup d’état, and it remained the backbone of his regime ever-after. SMI, overseen by Bashar’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, who was killed in a mysterious bombing in 2012, has been the regime’s contact point with various terrorist groups, including jihadist groups like Hizballah and the Islamic State (IS), which Assad facilitated, sheltered, and equipped in eastern Syria during its war with the Coalition and the Iraqi government after 2003. PSD is another intelligence agency, this one part charged with monitoring and repressing opposition. PSD runs the prisons where some of the Assad regime’s worst crimes against humanity have been committed.

The most notable sanctioned official is Suhayl al-Hassan, described as “a commander of fighters in Aleppo tied to barrel bombings in multiple locations in Syria, one of which coincided with a regime helicopter dropping toxic gas”.

It is believed that al-Hassan is one of the architects of the unmerciful counterinsurgency tactics of collective punishment, specifically barrel bombing, that the Assad regime adopted, and it is for that he has now been sanctioned. Al-Hassan is also deeply involved in the trade the regime undertakes in people, oil, and other resources with IS, for which Assad regime officials have previously been sanctioned.

As the Assad regime has devolved into a series of militias, al-Hassan has become one of the most visible pro-regime commanders, the subject of a veritable cult. Al-Hassan’s Tiger Forces evolved out of a network of smugglers and other criminals, which he rallied to violently quell the anti-regime protests in Hama in the earliest days of the uprising. This is the force now regarded as the regime’s most elite, and was involved in the conquest of Aleppo City.

Also sanctioned was Muhammad Nafi Bilal, a SAFI Colonel, who “was involved in the transport of chemical munitions”; Muhammad Khalid Rahmun, who is in charge of PSD; and two SMI officials, its director Major General Muhammad Mahmud Mahalla and Brigadier General Yasin Ahmad Dahi, both of whom have “been linked to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons”.

Six officials of the Assad regime were sanctioned for their leading roles in government institutions involved in abuses of human rights.

The commander of the air force, which has been the primary instrument of anti-civilian atrocities and the displacement of populations, Major General Ahmad Ballul, who also runs Syrian air defences, was sanctioned, as were two of his senior deputies, Major General Saji Jamil Darwish and Brigadier General Badi Mualla, and another official, Brigadier General Muhammad Ibrahim.

The head of the Republican Guards, Major General Talal Shafiq Makhluf, was also on the sanctions list. The Republican Guards were, with the Fourth Armoured Division commanded by Bashar’s brother, Maher, the Praetorian troops of the regime when the uprising broke out; their troops were often dispersed throughout the regular army, both to bolster them and as de facto barrier troops.

One further official, Major General Rafiq Shihadah, was sanctioned for his involvement in crimes against the Syrian population. “[A] former head of SMI who remains in military service,” Shihadah was blacklisted “for materially assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services in support of, the Government of Syria”.

PRODUCERS OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS

Treasury sanctioned seven officials of the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), which is “responsible for developing and producing non-conventional weapons and the means to deliver them”.

Brigadier General Ghassan Abbas, “the director of an SSRC branch affiliated with chemical weapons logistics,” was designated for “acting or purporting to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, the SSRC.” Abbas was previously sanctioned by the European Union for, among other things, organizing the massive chemical attack on East Ghuta in 2013.

There are then “five additional SSRC officials, all of whom, like Abbas, have been linked to SSRC branches affiliated with chemical weapons logistics or research”. These are: Brigadier General Ali Wanus, Brigadier General Samir Dabul, Colonel Zuhayr Haydar, Colonel Habib Hawrani, and Colonel Firas Ahmad, all of whom have been “acting or purporting to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, the SSRC.”

Finally, there is Bayan Bitar, sanctioned for his role as the managing director of Organization for Technological Industries (OTI), a subsidiary of Assad’s Defence Ministry, which “assists in the production of chemical weapons”.

COLLAPSE OF AN INTERNATIONAL TABOO

The practical impact of these sanctions will be minimal; their very imposition is testament to that. Had the U.S.’s counter-proliferation policies been successful, there either would not have been a chemical attack in Syria at all or at worst the last one would have been four years ago.

President Barack Obama famously laid down a “red line” against the use of chemical munitions in August 2012, reiterated in December 2012. Just over two weeks later, Assad violated this red line and in the first half of 2013 Assad would violate it at least a dozen more times, eventually admitted in June 2013, which led to the U.S. announcing for the first time that it would arm the Syrian opposition—a trickle of support that never began arriving until September.

The U.S. was intercepting the communications of the Assad regime, and knew perfectly well what it was doing, but had decided that some uses of chemical weapons of mass destruction (CWMD) against civilians were “ordinary,” not even to be protested rhetorically, since this might invite the question of what the U.S. intended to do to enforce its own edict.

The Assad regime finally crossed the red line in so spectacular a fashion it could not be denied in August 2013, using sarin nerve agent to massacre 1,400 people in a few hours. In response, Obama was set to punish Assad with a round of punitive airstrikes. Rebels supported by the U.S. had prepared offensive operations and a number of Assad regime officials had made preparations to flee the country.

It was clear that Obama did not want to conduct the strikes—among others things he was secretly engaged in preparing the interim nuclear agreement with the Ayatollahs’ regime, a tacit condition of which was a free hand in Syria. The vote in the British House of Commons, under the influence of then-Labour leader Edward Miliband, to give Assad a pass did not help the President’s resolve and—with French jets ready to go—the strikes were delayed. A vote in Congress was demanded, which it must have been known would be lost. (Even deputizing AIPAC did no good, laying to rest once and for all the canard that the “Jewish lobby” can make Congress do something the American public does not want to do.) Thanks to some quick thinking in Moscow, a deal was arranged that ostensibly decommissioned Assad’s CWMD in exchange for calling off the strikes. The effects were devastating to Western interests.

The “deal” created a Western interest in Assad maintaining power: he was now a partner in disarmament, weakening even further Obama’s commitment to his declared policy of regime-change—and strengthening the anti-Assad jihadists who had said the West was conspiring with the dictator all along.

The mainstream opposition and those forces associated with Western power felt betrayed, were demoralized, and discredited in the wider insurgency. In combination with the intrusion of rabidly sectarian Shi’a jihadists like Hizballah on the regime’s side earlier in the year, this massively strengthened the sectarian and jihadi-Salafist elements in the insurgency as rebels were forced to try to contain the jihadists by trying to “out-Muslim” them.

Iran and Assad took full advantage, leaving the then-nascent Islamic State (IS) totally alone and concentrating their firepower on the mainstream rebels, a continuation of the regime’s efforts to destroy engageable opposition forces and those aligned with the U.S. to create a binary choice—Assad or a terrorist takeover.

The accord became for Assad the “license to kill with conventional weapons” it was promised it would not be. Artillery and fighter jets used against ancient cities, terror-famines, death squads—none of this would count as a concern of the international community, and hundreds of thousands of people have been shot, starved, and bombed to death by the regime and its allies since then. Assad could savage Safira and Qalamun and claim it was an attempt to clear the road to the coast so he could surrender the CWMD; the U.N. would praise such “steps“.

Beyond Syria, allies were horrified by this and adversaries emboldened.

South Korea, which relies on U.S. security guarantees to deter aggression, was left questioning its safety once the President had called off the strikes. Late last year, as the carnage in Syria reached its apogee, French President Francois Holland bluntly stated: “This signal was interpreted as weakness … That’s what provoked the crisis in Ukraine … and what’s happening in Syria right now.” President Obama clearly disagrees: he is “very proud” of his handling of the red line episode.

In late 2013, Russian, Iranian, and Chinese officials were heard by U.S. intelligence discussing “how weak the U.S. now looked on the international stage”. Russia and Iran both went on to increase their involvement in Syria, Iran directed a full-fledged international Shi’a jihad in Assad’s defence, and Moscow stole Crimea.

For that exorbitant price in interests, credibility, and human life, the Russian-Assad side of the deal was never fulfilled—and was never going to be. Once the process of disarmament was complete, the West’s interest in Assad remaining would wane, so the pro-Assad coalition ensured the process never would end. The regime falsified its declaration; CWMD production infrastructure, including mobile CWMD-production facilities, and chemical stockpiles themselves were hidden from inspectors.

Moreover, Assad continued to use poison gas against civilians, he just switched to chlorine, the original chemical weapon. Earlier today, news leaked to Reuters that the OPCW has Assad personally on a list of people “to be scrutinized” for their role in the chlorine attacks from 2014 onward. As mentioned above, the pro-Assad coalition has officially been found responsible for three chlorine attacks by OPCW; credible reports from inside Syria put that number closer to ten—just in 2016.

The enforcement of the international norm against chemical weapons has never been perfect. The Geneva Protocol banning chemical and bacteriological weapons was signed in 1925 in the shadow of the First World War. Since then—before Assad—five states had used chemical attacks against civilians. (Potentially one could add a sixth: the Islamic State employed the remnants of Saddam Husayn’s arsenal against the Coalition and Iraqi civilians in the mid-2000s.) Yet at least using chemical weapons used to be taboo, expected to put the user beyond the pale of the family of nations; this no longer appears to be the case.

Assad was not only able to use CWMD with impunity, steps have increasingly been taken toward normalizing the Assad regime, turning the incentive structure on its head. For example, in Sudan, the regime of Umar al-Bashir used CWMD thirty times between January and September 2016, killing more than two-hundred civilians, according to Amnesty International. Al-Bashir was already wanted for genocide, the first head of state indicted by the International Criminal Court. Yet the U.S. lifted sanctions against Khartoum yesterday.

The ICC is the culmination of the idealistic project to legalize the relations between states—and its credibility is another casualty of the Syrian conflict. In truth, that space between states was always governed by machtpolitik, and, with Russia’s repeated veto on all efforts to bring Assad to book for crimes against humanity reaching the definition of extermination, everyone now understands that. International relations are governed by power and if the liberal hegemon steps back, others will step in to shape the environment.