Israel reported on Sunday, 28 December, 2014 that the Syrian government had once again used chemical weapons against “rebels”—the Israeli source does not specify who these rebels are, so we can assume that they must be Syrian opposition rebels, otherwise ISIS would have been named. This comes after Israel has recently stopped distribution of gas masks to citizens, leading many to question that decision. It is alarming that, despite the successful removal of all declared weapons last June, and their almost total neutralization now, Syria may still maintain and employ chemical weapons capabilities. While chlorine is not officially listed as a prohibited chemical in the Chemical Weapons Convention, given its many industrial and domestic uses, it can be employed as a toxic weapon. In these most recent attacks, Israel estimates that several rebels died and dozens more were left injured. All States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention are prohibited from using any chemicals as weapons, regardless of whether the chemical is listed in the CWC’s schedules. Syria has denied these allegations, and the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) of the OPCW is continuing its investigations of alleged use of chlorine.
This week also saw a speech by Russian Premier Putin at the annual Valdai International Discussion Club concerning the western backing of rebels in Syria. He cited the danger of a prospective attack on Syria without full knowledge of what the consequences may be. He thus demanded that any action taken in Syria should not be independent, or in the form of a coalition. Rather it can only originate from the United Nations Security Council. In addition, Putin stated that he disagrees with the Western backing of Syrian rebels as the West does not know what will happen in the event that these rebels come to power. In any case, Putin remarked, there is large uncertainty in the Syrian arena and thus no immediate and unpredictable plans should be carried out. Moreover, Putin reminded the audience that there is no 100 per cent certainty of who has carried out the most recent chemical attacks—so no assumptions should be made that it was the Syrian Government without concrete evidence, which he alleges has not been collected.
In addition, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday, 30 December. He warned the US that tightening sanctions on Russia would compromise cooperation on bilateral cooperation over many global issues—Syria being one of them. Since Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, the US and the European Union have steadily tightened their sanctions against Russia. The Russian economy has suffered substantially, and a recession in 2015 is expected; the value of the Russian Ruble, for example, has been cut in half Lavrov commented, “As Washington could have seen previously, we don’t leave such unfriendly acts without an answer.” The use of the term “unfriendly acts” highlights an escalation to the anti-West attitude of the Russian government, also present in Putin’s Valdai speech mentioned above.
On New Years Eve, Bashir al Assad, President of Syria, made a rare public appearance as part of a patriotic film released by state media. The video pictures Assad dining with soldiers. As we enter the New Year, Syria begins its fourth year in conflict after the Arab Spring spurred civil war in Syria in 2011. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that during this conflict 200,000 people have been killed—76,000 of those in 2014 alone, over half of whom were civilians. Joshua Landis, Director for the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, says the “Somaliazation of Syria” is inevitable, so long as all centres of power degrade and the opposition fails to unite. With chlorine attacks continuing right up to the beginning of the New Year, 2015 does not seem any more promising than previous years—especially with the 2014 introduction of ISIS into the Iraq and Syria region.