Iraq, Syria, Turkey… Trivialising the Use of Chemical Weapons

Like the rulers of Iraq and Syria a few years ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is believed to have used chemical weapons in his war on the Kurdish people. This information remains to be confirmed, and has, as usual, scarcely stirred many reactions in the “international community”.

Empty rocket, of those used to release sarin gas in the besieged city of Douma in 2013, found in the Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of Damascus, 22 January 2018
Hasan Mohamed /AFP

The use of chemical weapons in the Middle East is no novelty. Already in 1988, Halabaja in Iraq was the target of poison gas bombings. The war between Iran and Iraq was in full swing when Saddam Hussein attacked that border town populated by Kurds and which had just fallen to the Iranians: 5,000 people were killed. To this very day, the Halabja region has the country’s highest rate of cancers and birth deformities. Rumour has it that the mustard gas and cyanide presumed to be at the origin of this massacre had been purchased by the Iraqi army from a web site based in the USA.

But in those days, Western countries supplied Iraq with weapons of every kind since it was seen as a rampart against Iranian Islamism.

While that attack caused outrage in public opinion, it caused only mild indignation among the “international community.” The UN observer merely noted that “chemical weapons have again been used in Iran and Iraq” and that “the number of civilian casualties has increased.” One month later, the UN subcommittee on the rights of man refused to condemn Iraq for violations of human rights.

Halabja was the first chemical attack carried out by a government against its own population. Since then, nothing much has changed. Those weapons continue to be used in the conflicts of the Middle East and almost nobody seems to care.

The poor man’s atom bomb

Sometimes referred to as the poor man’s atom bomb, chemical weapons are easy to produce: their components go into toothpaste or pharmaceutical products. Though they are considered dual use substances and their export requires special authorisations, they are easy to procure. Chemical weapons are also easy to store (and to hide) and offer the advantage of causing harm in hard-to-reach areas such as tunnels, caves, and underground shelters. They leave no immediate traces in the environment and the landscape which makes their use hard to prove. All of which explains, among other factors, the lack of sanctions or reprisals: to this day, the international community has never intervened in any conflict after a chemical weapons attack.

And yet these weapons have been banned ever since the Geneva protocol of 1925, prohibiting the use in warfare of asphyxiating, poisonous or similar gases as well as bacteriological weapons. An international conference on the banning of chemical weapons was held in Paris in 1989. In 1993, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their destruction (also known as the Chemical Weapons Convention, CWC) was opened for signature. It gave birth to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which today comprises 193 countries.

However, this institutional arsenal weighs little in the face of the stocks of illegal weapons held by certain member states. The OPCW has existed for a quarter of a century now: yet during these decades the threat of chemical weapons use has become commonplace: “Today marks the 25th anniversary of the enactment of the Convention for the Prohibition of chemical weapons which has made possible the destruction of 99% of the declared stocks of chemical weapons thanks to the integrity and professionalism of the OPCW, as has been mentioned. We thought that had put an end to those scandalous weapons. And yet a quarter of a century after the enactment of the CPCW, and nearly a century after their use in warfare was first prohibited, the threat of the use of chemical weapons has been trivialised.” Thus spoke French ambassadress Sheraz Gasri on 29 April 2022 before the UN Security Council. And that threat has often been carried out, either by authoritarian regimes against their own population, on international battlefields or in wars of territorial conquest.

From red line to green light

In many respects, the Syrian case is emblematic of this dangerous international inaction. When it comes to the use of chemical weapons. The bombings ordered by Bashar Al-Assad in Syria perfectly embody the coalition’s failure, its abandonment of civil populations and the international deals behind it.

On 21 August 2013, the regime bombed Eastern Ghouta with Sarin gas, killing at least 1,400 people. The then US President, Barack Obama, had declared that if the regime used chemical weapons, it would be crossing “a red line,” implying that the international community could become involved in the conflict. But then he backed down and on 14 September signed an agreement with Russia on the dismantling of the Syrian arsenal. That same day, Syria joined the OPCW, committing itself “to neither produce, store or use chemical weapons.”1

Since then, over 200 chemical attacks have been numbered on Syrian territory, most of which can be attributed to the regime.

Three European companies are suspected of having exported several tons of isopropanol and diethylamino to Syria in 2014 on behalf of Mediterranean Pharmaceutical Industries (MPI). Ostensibly the firm was embarking on the production of Voltaren, an anti-inflammatory gel available over the counter, having acquired a licence from a Swiss pharmaceutical company. Isopropanol and diethylamino both enter the composition of sarin gas and the neurotoxic agent VX. MPI’s CEO, the late Abdul Rahman Attar, was on very good terms with the Syrian regime.

In 2015, Western countries got their dander up: the Islamic State Organisation (ISIS) was thought to be using chemical weapons against the Kurds. Weapons taken from Saddam Hussein’s old stockpiles in Iraq or from the Syrian arsenal which Assad claimed to have destroyed.

At that point in time, it was feared that the use of these gases was going to be generalised, become part of the terrorist attacks in Europe. The sarin attack in the Tokyo subway which killed thirteen and poisoned thousands more made authorities fear the worst. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls had ambulance services equipped with the antidote, but the OPCW’s investigations were at a standstill and UN red tape gave free rein to Assad and ISIS.

In 2017 100 people died in the sarin gas massacre at Khan Sheikhun perpetrated by the Syrian regime.

The lack of reactions from the international community provided a green light for Assad and his Russian ally. Vladimir Putin: they could go on bombing the population without fear of sanctions or reprisals. While the international community looked on helplessly, the provinces of Hama, Alep and Idleb were bombed with sarin gas, mustard gas, and chlorine… Syria had become what some thought to be Putin’s laboratory where he tested his weapons, his militias and his immunity in preparation for the wars to come.

The PKK records 1,300 chemical attacks

Turkey was first suspected of using chemical weapons against Iraqi and Syrian Kurds in 2019. These accusations coincided with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s threats to open his European borers to the Syrian refugees on his territory – a demographic weapon regularly brandished by Ankara to obtain support in its struggle against the Kurds. The Turks drop bombs, the international community remains unmoved. Only the mysterious story of that 13-year-old Syrian Kurd, seriously harmed by poison gas and smuggled out of Iraq despite a Turkish attempt to lay hands on him, managed to make the headlines. He was treated in France in utmost secrecy, and the results of his medical analyses, which might prove the use of chemical weapons, have never been released.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates continually call attention to Turkish chemical attacks and have denounced some 1,300 on Kurdish soil since April 2021. Inside Turkey, anyone taking a public stand against these attacks is arrested. Sebnem Korur Financi, president of the Turkish Medical Association, has been indicted for “propaganda in favour of a terrorist organisation” and “public denigration of the Turkish nation” after demanding the opening of an investigation into the matter.

These arrests of doctors and journalists cause a mild stir in Western media which take umbrage at these attacks on freedom of speech. But when members of the Kurdish diaspora try to alert Europeans about these Turkish chemical bombings, in front of the OPCW headquarters in The Hague, for example, they too get arrested.

The impossibility of independent investigations

And yet the videos that have reached us showing these attacks and the long death throes of the victims are unequivocal: those are indeed choking agents that have been dropped and professionals suspect the use of very toxic gases though they are unable to provide irrefutable proof of their hypothesis. And for good reason: independent investigators are prevented from reaching the site of these bombings and approaching eyewitnesses. Such was the case with a delegation from International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) who travelled to Northern Iraq in September 2022 and was closely watched by members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK), controlled by the Barzani clan, closely allied with President Erdoğan. Was it tear gas that was used, banned in warfare, or phosphorus which is far more dangerous, authorised for use on the battlefield but not against civilians?

While the delegation left that question unanswered for lack of evidence, the title of its report raises another: is Turkey in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention? Almost a rhetorical query accompanied by an insistent commentary: it is urgent to conduct an independent enquiry into possible violations of the Convention on Chemical Weapons in Northern Iraq.

The international community is in no hurry to mount a UN investigation into the matter. Yet it would be enough for one member of the OPCW to demand the creation of a fact-finding mission for an instigation to take place. And send a message to President Erdoğan that his use of chemical weapons against civilian populations will not go unpunished. It is urgent to draw the lesson from 2013 so that today’s Turkish strikes are not considered the laboratory for a new conflict.

1Syria was suspended from the OPCW in 2021.