Since the Bashar al-Assad regime launched a major air and artillery offensive on Eastern Ghouta on February 18, civilians have been cramming into a limited number of unventilated basements to increase their chances of survival from explosive munitions. Chlorine gas attacks have also been reported during these attacks. The interspersion of explosive and chemical weapons has given those already struggling to survive an impossible choice: die in a basement suffocating from poison gas or risk being hit by explosions above ground. In this context, individuals are rendered even more hopeless.
The overwhelming use of explosive munitions over the past five years by the Syrian regime and their Russian allies have prompted civilians to dig out caves, basements, and fully underground shelters to protect themselves. According to Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), an organization that monitors civilian harm from explosive weapons, such attacks have been increasingly common in Syria. Explosive weapons—including air strikes, shelling, and IEDs—caused over 13,313 verifiable civilian casualties in 2016, compared to 8,732 in 2015, an uptick largely attributable to the 77 percent increase in the number of airstrikes by Syrian and Russian forces. AOAV’s preliminary data for 2017 suggests the civilian death toll from air-launched explosives in Syria increased a further 55 percent from 6,382 in 2016 to 8,051 in 2017. The majority of these attacks are on populated areas, confirming that this is a deliberate regime strategy. In an effort to cope, civilians have built hospitals and schools underground to avoid such attacks.
There have also been at least 198 reported chlorine gas attacks in Syria since 2012, including eight since the start of 2018, according to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). Most recently, a rocket attack in the town of Hammoria on March 4 “emitted irritating substances.” Although the attack was later confirmed not to be chlorine gas, it terrified civilians and led to the evacuation of dozens of people from the area. Chlorine gas rarely kills because it disperses quickly, but because it is heavier than air, it drifts into trenches and cellars. Civilians generally do not have gas masks given the intermittent use of weapon, so the awareness guidelines for surviving a chlorine gas attack say to move to higher ground. However, this runs in direct contradiction to the warnings for most conventional munitions attacks. In 2015, a family of six people who were hiding in a basement in Sarmin were killed in a chlorine gas attack because they were underground in order to protect themselves from aerial attacks.
The use of chlorine gas also instills fear that more deadly gases are being used. The first symptoms of chlorine gas exposure—including burning pain in the throat and eyes, difficulty breathing, coughing, watery eyes, and nausea and vomiting—could be a reaction to one of many other chemical weapons. It particularly resembles the initial symptoms of sarin gas exposure, which can progress to convulsions, paralysis, and death within a few minutes. After rockets filled with sarin were launched into the Ghouta neighborhoods of Zamalka, Ein Tarma, and Moadamiya on August 21, 2013, killing 1,300 people and affecting over 10,000 more, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) oversaw the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal later that year. Yet chlorine so closely mimics the initial effects of sarin that, after its use became widespread beginning in 2014, families thought that the regime had not handed over all their chemical weapons—which proved to be true when another sarin gas attack was carried out on Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017.
Chlorine gas is not necessarily intended to kill. Its use has become a highly effective form of psychological warfare against a civilian population that feels unable to protect itself—and is far cheaper than other weapons. With a force mostly composed of local and foreign militias, the Syrian army relies on such tactics to produce a level of psychological and physical trauma that ensures people in opposition-held areas either surrender or flee. In this sense, the regime’s objective is to instill fear and further destroy any sense of normalcy in civilian-populated areas, leading to their complete surrender.
The regime and its Russian ally appear impatient to take the rest of Syrian territory: they are battling in previously stable areas such as Eastern Ghouta and Madiq Castle in Hama and ignoring even temporary truces.1 The lack of a united national army and a devastated economy means that they will continue to use these low-cost, low-manpower tactics to battle opposition held areas before a ground invasion. The extent of the trauma ensures that even with minimal ground forces in the future and marginal or nonexistent reconstruction, the regime will likely be able to regain formerly opposition-held territory because residents will not dare to rebel.
Despite two confirmed sarin gas attacks, nearly 200 reported chlorine gas attacks, hundreds of attacks on residential neighborhoods, and various negotiated ceasefires, most recently on February 24, the Syrian regime has faced few repercussions, sparking fear that the norms of international human rights law is unraveling on a massive and very public scale. The Syrian regime will face difficulties rebuilding a devastated country, securing newly acquired territory, and even possibly stemming an insurgency in years to come—but for now it is effectively terrifying a civilian population.
Given that most countries have ample access to chlorine gas, a chemical widely used for civilian purposes, this tactic could be used anywhere on civilian populations if there are no repercussions. It is possible that the perpetrators will never face justice, but developing a solid base of evidence could help keep them accountable in the future. Given that both the regime and the Russians deny wrongdoing, they have no reason to refuse the entry of a commission to investigate such actions. While justice can take decades, there are actions that the UN can take now to show that the flagrant violations of international humanitarian law will not be entirely ignored. This could include the UN pulling out of Damascus, where the Syrian regime ensures they continue to provide aid to regime-held areas even when it stops them from providing aid to civilians in opposition-held areas. Providing this aid essentially frees up funds to continue the war, as experts have pointed out. The UN is sending a dangerous message to the world by working with the regime throughout the war and setting themselves up to work with regime-allied aid organizations and contractors during the future phase of reconstruction.