The nerve agent attack in Salisbury last month brought chemical weapons to the UK for the first time. By contrast, in just the past 12 months there have been at least 8 documented chemical attacks in Ghouta and Idlib province by the Syrian Regime. Most recently we saw the devastating chemical attack on Douma which killed at least 50 people. This led to the US/UK/French coaltion to hit Assad’s chemical weapons programme which in some small way should re-draw the ‘thin Redline’ on chemical weapon use.
As we approach the 7th year of this shockingly violent conflict, this war has become synonymous with two distinct and irrefutable crimes against humanity; the use of chemical weapons and the direct targeting of hospitals and medical personnel. In this period there have been over 500 documented uses of chemical weapons by the Regime and ISIS. The UN’s inspectors and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have been called to investigate some attacks, but the Russians have vetoed their activities 10 times to date. Despite Russia’s best efforts to stall the OPCW and clean up the Douma site they are now on the ground and will hopefully still find some useable intelligence.
In the last 6 months the use of chemical weapons in Syria has continued almost unabated. The Regime have continued to hammer the Damascus suburb Ghouta with Chlorine barrel bombs which have had the same effect as they did in Aleppo in December 2016, forcing people above ground where they are hit with conventional weapons.
There are now wholesale evacuations from Ghouta as the civilian population has been gassed into submission. The remaining rebels and 2 million civilians are now corralled and trapped in Idlib province in NW Syria which is likely to be the next blood bath and site for further chemical weapon usage unless the West warnings of further strikes are heeded by Assad and Putin. There are also worrying stories of Syrian soldiers using Sarin in hand grenades to hill people sheltering in tunnels and bunkers; emboldened no doubt by the lack of response to Redlines and chemical weapon usage? This low level use of chemical weapons is something never envisaged by the UK or NATO and is now a tactic we must be able to counter.
We now know that in the attack in Salisbury the deadly nerve agent Novichok was used. This was developed in the 70’s and 80’s by Russia at the Central Russian military establishment Shikhany to over-match NATO chemical defence capabilities and avoid detection. It is thought to be ten times more toxic than VX and very persistent. Probably less than half an egg cup full of agent transfixed the world for two weeks and greatly increased the tensions between the West and Russia. The OPCW were called in to investigate and produce a report for the consideration of the UN Security Council, which they now have done to confirm the findings of Porton Down scientists. Any resolution to sanction Russia will undoubtedly be vetoed by Russia. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson states that Russia has been developing and stockpiling Novichok for the last 10 years – it is unimaginable, but perhaps possible that Jihadists might get their hands on these deadly weapons. Even more worrying is if Russia intends to revert to chemical weapons as a WMD, which currently the West cannot match or defend against.
There is a worrying suggestion that some now do not see chlorine and other toxic materials as chemical weapons. The Geneva Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) are clear – it is illegal to use any toxic substance to kill or injure people.
Most NATO countries, including the UK, have paid lip service to the chemical threat since the end of the Cold War, because they believed it had disappeared, and in military parlance, have taken a ‘capability holiday’ with chemical weapon defence. This no doubt all changed with the Salisbury nerve agent attack. Though Russia continues to deny the use of chemical weapons in Syria, in the face of overwhelming evidence, and has actively prevented the UN investigating such allegations, I do not believe they are directly involved in the use in Syria but must be aware of it. The Syrian jets which dropped the nerve agent on Kan Sheikun on 04 April 2017, took off from a Russian air base. Even the most casual observer would have noticed ‘be-suited’ and gas masked soldiers loading these bombs?
What the UK nerve agent attack confirmed was that Russia had only destroyed its ‘declared’ chemical weapon stockpile by 2017, and not its undeclared stockpile of Novichok. It is not anticipated that Russia has thousands of tonnes of these nerve agents, but the fact it has this most deadly of WMD is of great concern to NATO. Especially as Novichok appear to over-match NATO chemical defensive capabilities.
In the new ‘Cold War’ with Russia, NATO must be prepared for chemical weapon usage. Though Russia and the US have destroyed their declared chemical stocks, they still maintain the capability to produce new ones and there is speculation that research has been done on new super chemicals many times more potent than nerve agents like Sarin and VX. All have seen how effective chemical weapons have been in Syria and Iraq, especially in fighting in built up areas, and if there is conflict between East and West we must now assume, that chemical weapons will be used.
This sadly being the case, quite apart from the very real threat of terrorist use, anywhere anytime, NATO, including the UK needs to re-invest in its chemical defence capabilities and be prepared to fight in this ‘dirty’ environment or we could be quickly rolled over by a concerted attack from the East.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a chemical weapons adviser to NGOs working in Syria and Iraq. He is a former Commander of NATO’s CBRN Regiment.