Middle East | Time to hold chemical war criminals in Syria to account

Time to hold chemical war criminals in Syria to account

The international community realizes it has vacillated too long, finds Seema Sengupta. There is an opportunity to do more to ensure the perpetrators are not let off the hook and their victims left to suffer

January 6, 2017 9:26 AM (UTC+8)
Women, affected by a gas attack, receive treatment inside a makeshift hospital in Kfar Zeita village in the central province of Hama in 2014. Photo: Reuters / Badi Khlif
Women, affected by a gas attack, receive treatment inside a makeshift hospital in Kfar Zeita village in the central province of Hama in 2014. Photo: Reuters / Badi Khlif

War-torn Syria is now the world’s single-largest driver of displacement, according to a UN refugee agency report. Nearly half of the country’s 11 million pre-war population are either dead or displaced from their homes due to mindless violence.

As the protracted fratricidal conflict has forced millions to struggle for survival, either at home or in distant lands, the world’s powers continue to grope toward some kind of settlement. Unarmed and trapped civilians, targeted like sitting ducks by their own military — a military accused of using banned chemical agents indiscriminately — are the undeserving victims of this conflict.

Dr. Houssam Alnahhas, an expert in formulating response protocol for chemical weapons attacks and the coordinator of Syria’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Task Force — an emergency response team jointly formed by the 25 medical relief organizations operating inside war-ravaged Syria — confirms to Asia Times that there is credible evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria. With that evidence, he believes efforts can be made to create an effective legal mechanism for enforcing accountability. He is particularly worried that life-threatening chemical agents, including the cancer-causing Sulphur Mustard, are being used liberally by the main warring parties, and by ISIS, under the very nose of the international community — despite the monitoring group OPCW’s (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) certification of Syria as being free of chemical weapons following the destruction of Damascus’ official chemical arsenal in early 2016.

Elise Baker, who is chief Syria research for the Nobel-winning humanitarian NGO Physicians for Human Rights, corroborates Dr. Alnahhas’ contention that lethal chemical agents are being used. She says their manifestation has been witnessed by medical personnel with whom her organization works on the ground.

Clearly, the renewed and unfettered proliferation of chemical weapons in volatile Syria is a cause for concern, especially in the context of a health service that has been crippled. Syrian Hospitals are absolutely unprepared to handle emergencies arising out of chemical weapons attacks, in spite of efforts to formulate proper response protocols through effective training and allocation of protective equipment and medication.

According to Dr. Alnahhas, a process was initiated to train rescue workers through specialized orientation courses and the creation of well-equipped decontamination points. However, these efforts have lost momentum due to a lack of follow-up and institutional support. As a result, medical facilities — particularly those located in areas not under government control — remain completely unequipped to respond to any attack using chemical agents. A paucity of adequately trained medical personnel, and of specialized equipment and medications, due to a lack of access and funds, against a backdrop of deliberate targeting of medical infrastructure, has made matters worse.

A well-informed, highly-placed UN source admits the Security Council could have handled the use of illegal weapons on unarmed civilians better. With the UN Security Council considering a draft resolution that seeks to sanction entities involved in chemical weapons attacks, he believes, however, that — despite vacillation — the international community is finally trying to evolve a coherent strategy. “The current unstable state of international relations makes it difficult to predict what may come next, but it would not be wrong to consider that delegations are trying to bypass the Security Council and moving the matter to other circuits, bodies or processes to pave the way for a future criminal investigation,” says the source.

In the meantime, Dr. Alnahhas laments that injuries and casualties, including those caused by secondary contamination — to intended targets, as well as to medical personnel and rescuers — could have been minimized by implementing proper remedial measures.

Seema Sengupta is a Calcutta-based journalist and columnist

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