In the middle of the night of 21 August 2013, several residential communities in the Ghouta region east of Damascus, Syria, were hit with short-range surface-to-surface missiles filled with deadly sarin nerve agent. An estimated 1,400 civilians, including hundreds of children, were killed, with many more injured. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the attack “a war crime and a grave violation,” and Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü, head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, likewise “fully condemned” the attacks and called for an international investigation.
On the first anniversary of this horrific tragedy, Green Cross International welcomes important steps that have been made to exclude further use of chemical weapons in Syria. That includes Syria’s accession to the CWC, declaration of its stockpiles and production facilities, transfer of all declared chemical agents and precursors for destruction out of the country and the actual disposal of most these chemicals. The latest notable achievement took place just days before the anniversary, when the US ship Cape Ray, operating in the Mediterranean sea, completed the destruction of the biggest part of the former Syrian arsenal. This success is an eloquent proof of the great potential of non-discriminatory multilateral disarmament mechanisms like the CWC and the OPCW. GCI also calls on the six countries which still remain outside of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) – Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and South Sudan – to join the CWC in order to complete its international coverage, and especially for both Egypt and Israel to join the Convention as a step forward towards a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)-Free Zone in the Middle East, as proposed by the United Nations.
Dr. Paul F. Walker, the director of the Green Cross Environmental Security and Sustainability Program, says: “We now must make sure that Syria’s chemical declaration to the OPCW is fully vetted and that its complete chemical arsenal, together with related production facilities, is safely and irreversibly destroyed, as required under the CWC. And, in order to establish a world truly free of chemical weapons, and a universal Convention and OPCW inspectorate, the remaining six non-State Parties must all join the CWC.”
Green Cross would also like to remember the many victims and their families of the 21 August attack, and notes with concern that additional allegations of the use of chlorine, a dual-use chemical, in Syria continue to raise the specter of chemical attacks in the ongoing and costly civil war.
While, the UN investigation report of last September pointed out that its biomedical samples, chemical analyses, and victim interviews were all “consistent with nerve agent exposure,” there has not been any final determination of who undertook the chemical attacks – the Syrian Government or rebel forces. The August 2013 attack was the first major use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks against Iran and the Kurds in the 1980s.
Green Cross International and its national organizations, in particular Green Cross Russia, Green Cross Switzerland, and Global Green USA, have all helped over the past two decades to facilitate the safe and timely elimination of chemical weapons stockpiles, to advocate for strengthening and universalizing the Chemical Weapons Convention, to promote stakeholder involvement and transparency with the coordination of the international CWC Coalition, and to begin to realize a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East.
Finally, Green Cross congratulates the many countries which have contributed to the safe and timely destruction of Syria’s chemical stockpile, especially China, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Italy, Norway, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Over two-dozen additional countries have contributed funds to the OPCW for the ongoing stockpile demilitarization operations.