This week marks the 5th anniversary of the attocity in Ghouta, Syria. Here, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE writes on the continued threat of chemical weapons.
At 0630 on 21 Aug 2013, the BBC TODAY programme rang me and asked what I thought of the alleged Chemical Weapons in attack Ghouta, Syria which was just starting to appear on social media? I think I was on the programme about 0720 talking about it, and I’m sure I said from the images I had seen the attack looks like the nerve agent Sarin, which proved to be true. Up to 1500 people died from this attack and many thousands were injured, but it was Ghouta which started the now 5-year proliferation of chemical weapons. In no small way, this was aided and abetted to some degree by Ed Miliband, the then Labour leader torpedoing the vote in Parliament to strike Assad’s CW programme after this attack. Sadly, the US Government let down by their ‘closest’ ally also decided not to strike.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the UN’s chemical weapons investigators were called in to remove the Syrian Regime’s ‘declared’ stockpile which it completed in an extraordinarily successful mission by mid-2014 and were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Unfortunately, Assad still had his ‘undeclared’ stockpile of nerve agents and choking agents which he used repeatedly since Ghouta. Killing over 70 civilians in Kan Sheikun in April 2017 and a similar number in Douma in April 2018, and countless more in many smaller attacks.
I personally investigated the Chlorine ‘gas’ attacks on Talmenes and Kafr Zita on April 14 published the results in The Daily Telegraph on 29 April 2014. The OPCW agreed with this assessment 9 months later. There have been over 100 documented uses of chemical weapons by the Regime in Syria since 21 August 2013. Post Ghouta, ISIS, seeing how effective chemical weapons are started to use Mustard ‘gas’ and chlorine against the Peshmerga in Iraq and also civilians in Syria. I was caught with the Peshmerga in April 2016 in a chlorine mortar attack in Gwer near Mosul.
Outside Syria and Iraq, we’ve seen the nerve agent VX used to kill Kim Jong Nam in Kuala Lumper in 2017, allegedly by the North Korean Government, and Jihadists trying to get the deadly Hydrogen Sulphide onto jets and public gatherings in Australia. Even more worryingly, the German Security Services have this year interdicted Jihadists making the deadly biological toxin Ricin. The terrorists allegedly produced around 80 milligrams of weaponized material which would have killed thousands if administered correctly.
In recent months we have also seen the publication of the MI6 double agent Aimen Dean’s book ‘Nine Lives’, where he describes his time as Al’Queda’s chemical weapons expert and then as an MI6 agent interdicting the groups attempts to ‘gas’ the New York subway. In conversations with Aimen he has told me that the Australian device reflected the work he was doing in Afghanistan many years previously with AQ.
The Idlib offensive in Syria is about to begin in earnest and we expect Assad to use chemical weapons again, as it has been his most successful weapon in breaking the will of civilians to resist especially effective in built-up areas where convention bombs and bullets have limited utility. Sieges in Aleppo 2016, Ghouta 2017 and Douma 2018 were broken/won by the use of chemical weapons, hence we are similarly braced for Idlib 2018. Since 21 Aug 13 chemical weapons have become the norm and used by every despot, dictator, rogue state and terror group, including of course the Russian Novichok attack on Salisbury in March 2018, as Redlines have come and gone.
The UK Government stated this week that they will attack Assad warplanes and bases if he uses Chemical Weapons in Idlib. Despite the fact that bombs and bullets kill many more than Chemical Weapons, 500,000 in Syria opposed to 2500 by Chemical Weapons – the people of Idlib know that it is only Chemical Weapon usage that will make the West strike Assad – this is a chilling thought for the 4 million trapped in Idlib [size of the Isle of Wight] with the remnants of IS and AQ, about 5-10,000 fighters, as they prepare to face air attacks, chemicals and bombardment until all terrorists are killed but no doubt also many more thousands of civilians.
We are collectively responsible for the proliferation of chemical weapons which we thought after the horrors of the First World War would be condemned to history. Ghouta changed all this and it is now essential that our Governments in the ‘free’ world do not continue to turn a ‘Nelsonian eye’ to chemical weapon use in future and act demonstrably and militarily if required to rid them from the planet.