Well over 300 chemical weapons attacks have occurred during the nearly eight years-long Syrian civil war, with President Bashar al-Assad’s government and its allies accounting for the vast majority of them, the Washington Post reported on Sunday, citing new research by the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI).
The Berlin-based nonprofit wrote in its report that its researchers have “credibly substantiated,” confirmed, or “comprehensively confirmed” at least 336 chemical weapons attacks. (162 other reports were dismissed.)
89 percent of the incidents involved improvised chlorine munitions designed by Assad’s government, which usually take the form of modified “barrel” or “lob” bombs, the GPPI wrote. Barrel bombs are crude and nearly impossible to aim, but often devastating unguided explosives dropped from helicopters or planes, while chlorine is a common industrial chemical that turns into hydrochloric acid in the lungs.
The Syrian military began using modified barrel bomb designs to drop chlorine after initially launching sarin, a potent nerve agent, from improvised rocket-assisted munitions (IRAMs). The GPPI report noted that initial air-delivered chlorine attacks began in early 2014 and typically involve industrial gas vessels in metal drums (sometimes with detonators) dropped from the Syrian Arab Air Force’s fleet of modified Mi-8/17 “Hip” transport helicopters. Syrian forces also used IRAMs to deliver chlorine gas beginning at least as early as 2017, the GPPI wrote.
Seven percent of the attacks involved sarin, while four percent were categorized as “other.” According to the GPPI, 98 percent of the chemical weapons attacks were directed by Assad’s military (such as the elite Tiger Forces) or allied militias, while ISIS committed the remaining sliver of the attacks.
The report concluded that Assad’s government has used chemical weapons on this scale because it has limited reserves of manpower and other military resources, and so settled on a strategy of indiscriminately attacking civilian populations to intimidate them into line. The Syrian military is so committed to this strategy that it “has consistently prioritized striking population centers over rebel positions on the frontlines, even in the face of defeat on the ground,” the authors wrote, adding that rebel groups’ failure or unwillingness to protect civilians was often decisive in breaking the will of the populace:
Short on manpower and resources, and resting on a precarious foundation of sectarianism and rentierism, the regime and its backers pursued a military strategy of collective punishment against populations supporting or hosting insurgents. Unlike “hearts and minds” doctrines favored by contemporary western democracies, this approach to counterinsurgency—sometimes referred to as “draining the sea”—does not seek to win over oppositionist populations through compromise or provision of services, but instead aims to inflict such unbearable pain that locals are forced to either withdraw their support from insurgent groups or flee areas outside regime control, thereby undermining rebel governance and facilitating government population control through aid provision.
As the Post noted, in 2013 Barack Obama’s administration reached an agreement with Assad’s government to destroy its stockpiles of chemical munitions following a nerve gas attack in Damascus. Though the Syrian military destroyed 72 tons of banned weapons, the GPPI found the attacks never stopped, though government forces appeared to become much more reliant on chlorine weapons. There have not been any chemical attacks since Donald Trump’s administration launched the latter of two retaliatory missile strikes on April 14, 2018, the Post noted, though this does coincide with the civil war swinging greatly in Assad’s favor.
“The more we looked at the patterns associated with their use, the more we came to understand chemical weapons not as some special, separate evil, but as a key capability of the Syrian military as part of its broader campaign of indiscriminate violence,” GPPI research team lead Tobias Schneider told the Post.
“The strategy worked,” Schneider added. “It’s hard to imagine other regimes facing similar challenges, looking at places like Sudan, are not studying the Syrian example closely.”