Assad and the reawakening of a Great War curse

The First World War was scarred by the deployment of mustard gas. Damien McElroy traces the history of chemical weapons from the Somme to Syria

FILE - In this undated file photo from World War I, German Red Cross members carry bottles of liquid to revive those who have succumbed to gas bombs during battle. A century after German troops opened the taps on a line of chlorine tanks to send a poisonous cloud drifting across no man's land and into World War I Allied trenches, chemical warfare has come full circle. A report last year set up by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said a toxic chemical, almost certainly chlorine, was used repeatedly in attacks on villages in Northern Syria. (AP Photo, File)
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In a leafy park in the north-west England town of Birkenhead on Sunday, locals will gather for a ceremony to unveil a bronze statue inspired by the poetry of one of the First World War’s best-remembered victims, Wilfred Owen.

Owen's lasting legacy from the conflict was the poem Dulce est Decorum, which depicted the horrors of the Great War's terrible innovation of chemical gas attacks, used to break the stalemate between the trenches.

Alongside the oil painting Gassed by John Singer Sargent, which shows blindfolded soldiers walking from the scene of an attack holding on to each other's shoulders, the poem emblazed on the public consciousness the particular horrors of chemical weapons.

Atrocities in Syrian towns, including Khan Al Assel, Homs and Ghouta, changed all that as the regime of President Bashar Al Assad sought to break opposition offensives and strongholds with chlorine and other gas attacks repeatedly since 2012.

Although the attacks resulted in retaliatory strikes and an international operation to remove poison and nerve gases from Syria, experts acknowledged that the post-First World War infrastructure that banned chemical weapons lay in tatters.

“The legal framework prohibiting chemical weapons is considered the gold standard for multilateral disarmament,” wrote Ian Anthony and John Hart, in a paper for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) in February this year. “Yet, in the case of Syria this framework has proven insufficient. Indeed, the use of chemical weapons in Syria has been in focus since such allegations first surfaced in 2012.

“Failing to address these allegations with this framework will undermine confidence in the feasibility of disarmament.”

For a time it seemed the international framework was getting to grips with the threat posed in Syria, which was a member of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had concluded with a high degree confidence that chlorine gas, sarin and mustard gas had been used against civilians. The UN Security Council was even empowered to overcome the divisions between the veto-wielding powers to establish a OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) to determine responsibility for chemical weapons use.

Behind all this diplomatic action, the dynamics of the battlefield would prove too powerful to stop a repetition of the attacks.

A picture shows people being treated at a field hospital after an alleged poison gas attack by troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in the rebel-held city of Daraya, southwest of the capital Damascus, on January 13, 2014.  At least three people were killed in the attack, Syria's main opposition National Coalition alleged in a statement. It also said the army's attack was linked to a bid by the Assad regime to ensure the opposition rejects participation in peace talks next week in Switzerland. AFP PHOTO/FADI DIRANI (Photo by FADI DIRANI / AFP)
People are treated after an alleged poison gas attack by Syrian forces in the rebel-held city of Daraya on January 13, 2014. AFP

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former British army officer who led the unit tasked with a chemical weapons role, has tracked at first hand the spread of chemical weapons in Syria. He was the first to test a sample smuggled from a Syrian conflict zone and find a positive sample for chlorine.

Reflecting on the attitude that became a consensus for almost a century, Mr de Bretton-Gordon believes it has been undermined by the demonstration that Mr Al Assad shored up his position by using chemical weapons. "The view that it was taboo was based on the experience of those who served and their later belief that there should be some honour in how warfare is conducted," he told The National.

“Now we’ve seen its been incredibly effective in Syria. Particularly because people have no way of countering and so when there is an incident in an area people are absolutely terrified even if they are not affected.”


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It is not just in Syria that the material has been used. Saddam Hussein used the weapons both against the Kurds and the Iranians.

The JIM found that ISIS had also used the weapons at Umm Hawsh in September 2016. “After that I saw the fear that reports of an attack could cause with the Peshmerga in Iraq, where I was doing some training,” said Mr De Bretton-Gordon. “It is one thing to face the threat of being shot as a soldier but the idea of a chemical weapons attack drives the fear factor off the scale.”

Earlier this year Russia’s military intelligence deployed a two-man team to carry out a targeted chemical weapons attack in the British city of Salisbury. The ease of smuggling the nerve agent Novichok into Britain through its airports exposes a degree of danger that highlights the threat from ISIS or other terror organisations with ambitions to use such chemicals in bombs and other devices.

Reimposing a taboo is a near impossible feat. An initiative launched by the French foreign ministry at the start of this year examined ways of the strengthening the global regime. It put forward six measures that would boost existing frameworks. These include:

  • Collection and retention of information of those responsible for proliferation and use
  • Facilitating the sharing of this information to bring them to justice
  • Designating groups and governments responsible
  • Making public the names of suspects
  • Helping states detect and prosecute perpetrators
  • Boosting the capabilities of the OPCW

Sipri, the Swedish think tank, concluded the recommendations would break new ground in enabling accountability, at least in those states that signed up to the French initiative. “Using the domestic courts to hold officials of foreign governments accountable for actions taken in their own country is a new and interesting addition to the arms control ‘toolbox’ that has far-reaching implications if applied generally,” it said.

Members of the OPCW voted by a margin of 80 states to 24 to adopt new rules allowing the body to attribute blame for violations of the convention for the first time. Western diplomats hailed the rule change, which came about over Russian objections.

For Mr de Bretton-Gordon the issue of deterrence, not just accountability, must move to the forefront of the debate. “The West must be clear it must be willing to strike back,” he said. “Trump and the UK and others must reiterate and be very clear that any violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention is just cause to act. Putin and others may now use things as a distraction if we do not set that high bar.”

For those gathered to remember the poet Owen on Sunday, which is the 100th anniversary of his death, the words of his poem are once again current.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime ...

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

A statue of Wilfred Owen at Oswestry, England. Courtesy Chris Woods