Update on Syria: Hard to trust what can’t be verified

manual healthcare workers chemical weapons treatment

Manual developed to advise healthcare workers treating victims of chemical weapons. (Image: Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons)

US President Donald Trump says, “We’re not going into Syria,” as pundits across the land debate missile strikes aimed at ensuring Syria’s Asad regime doesn’t use chemical weapons in the future.

Some Trump supporters decried the strikes while others applauded them. In Congress, hawks on both sides of the aisle praised the strikes.

Meanwhile most of us outside the Beltway class are trying to figure out who we can believe. International organizations aren’t a lot of help, and part of that has to do with verifying claims. 

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has acknowledged the difficulty of vetting the Asad regime’s claims. For one thing, you can’t send investigators into areas where there is heavy fighting. For another, gaps exist as OPCW disclosed in 2016. Each report I read contained cautionary statements about what could or could not be ascertained:

“In July 2016, the Director-General informed the Executive Council, through his report to the Council’s 82nd session, that the Technical Secretariat was not able to resolve all identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies in Syria’s declaration and therefore could not fully verify that Syria had submitted a declaration that could be considered accurate and complete in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention and Executive Council decision ECM-33/DEC.5. The Director-General submitted his report after high-level consultations with the Syrian Arab Republic.”

Despite a consensus in the civilized world that chemical weapons are unacceptable, they are still used. That led OPCW to publish a handbook for healthcare providers “who care for the victims of chemical warfare.”

In 2014, President Barack Obama told the Americans Syria’s chemical weapons were being “eliminated.” Obama’s secretary of state John Kerry echoed the president by assuring Americans the administration had got “100 percent of the chemical weapons out.” 

Left of center The New York Times reported on the weapons removal, but by 2017, evidenced by the article linked to above, the newspaper appeared to be creating cover for the Obama administration’s now questionable claims.

In December, 2016, the United Nations obviously had problems similar to those encountered by the OPCW, with the UN issuing a report including this caution:

“The lack of access to witnesses and supporting evidence continues to present challenges for further required investigation.”

Voice of America, official messaging arm for the US Government, featured a story indicating the US believes Russia is ignoring the use of such weapons:

“At a White House briefing in Washington, U.S. national-security officials said Moscow, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in engaged in “a very clear campaign to obfuscate the nature of the attack.” They cited evidence, such as images of charred roadway showing that the gas shells dropped from the sky on April 4 landed in the middle of a street, not on a building, as Damascus and the Kremlin have claimed.

The American officials said Syria has ignored its agreement in 2013 to dismantle its stockpiles of chemical weapons. “We know the Syrian regime has sarin gas,” one official said, speaking on background. “We are confident the rebels (fighting Assad’s government) don’t have sarin.”

Russia has chosen to protect the Asad regime, according to some analysts, because of national security implications. Left of center the BBC reported:

“This may be partly because they are worried about the potential effects the conflict will have on the large Muslim population in Russia.

Some Russian Muslims have gone to Syria to fight for IS and other anti-Assad forces – but not for Assad.

“They are very worried about them [Muslim Russian rebel fighters] infiltrating back into Russia,” Prof [Margot] Light says.

“They don’t want them back in Russia. They want to kill them.”

Adding another note of uncertainty is the question of who would wield power in Syria should Asad be replaced. A pro-Russia authoritarian? An authoritarian from the rebel sector supported by the West? ISIS?

There are no good answers, it seems, other than international consensus that chemical weapons should not be used under any circumstances. However, as history shows, it’s hard to trust what cannot be verified. Trump, it seems, acted on the side of caution.

Ed. Note: Most media spell Asad with two Ss. The CIA World Factbook uses only one S, and that is the spelling used here.

(Analysis by Kay B. Day/April 12, 2017)


About Kay Day

Kay B. Day is a freelance writer who has published in national and international magazines and websites. The author of 3 books, her work is anthologized in textbooks and collections. She has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. Day is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Authors Guild.

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