February 18, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Weapons of Mass Destruction, Displacement, and Despair

• On February 15, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed the Islamic State had used mustard gas in August 2015 in Iraq

• The Assad regime used another weapon of mass destruction (WMD), sarin gas, in August 2013, killing almost 1,500 Syrian civilians

• Along with the destruction in Syria, including that of vital infrastructure and medical facilities, WMDs also trigger mass displacement, depopulating the country and destabilizing the region

• The strategic and tactical infliction of mass destruction will continue to ravage Syria as the country’s conflict staggers into its fifth year. 


Mass destruction extends beyond the immediate victims of those weapons classified as WMDs; in Syria, the use of chemical and other weapons is concurrently destroying the country, distressing its neighbors, and destabilizing the European Union (EU). When it comes to inflicting mass destruction, the cascading effects of population displacement and despair are not merely collateral damage—they are the primary strategic objective. 

It is certain that both the Assad regime and the so-called Islamic State have used chemical weapons in Syria. The use of chemical weapons by the Islamic State in Iraq was further confirmed this week by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Tests showed that mustard gas, a tactical WMD, had been used against Kurdish fighters near Erbil, Iraq, in August 2015. Two months earlier in northwest Syria, the terrorist group used chemical weapons, perhaps chlorine, in an attack against Kurdish fighters. The Assad regime was responsible for a particularly horrific attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghoutta in August 2013, where an estimated 1,500 civilians were killed by the nerve agent sarin gas.

The use of chemical weapons in Syria—and in Iraq as well—is a tactical tool meant to terrorize groups of civilians or fighters. It is just one of the many war crimes being committed by the Islamic State and the Assad regime as they destroy the population each claims to protect. Further mass destruction is perpetrated in the persistent and intentional destruction of medical facilities, schools, and vital infrastructure, such as water and electricity. Suspected Russian or Assad regime airstrikes hit numerous hospitals this week, killing at least 20 in one instance. The targeting of hospitals, also a war crime, not only kills the injured, but needed medical personnel as well, and destroys vital equipment and supplies. When hospitals and schools are not only unable to provide shelter, but actually bring with them an increased risk of attack, people are forced to flee. 

One of the Syrian war’s most destructive effects is the mass population displacement it has provoked; more than 4.6 million Syrians have fled the country as refugees. Another 7.6 million have fled their homes, yet remain in Syria as internally displaced persons (IDPs). As bad as the refugee crisis is in neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan—and even in the EU—the warmer weather and more extreme fighting forecast for the coming months will make the situation much worse. 

While parts of Syria are being depopulated, the massive displacement is destabilizing the region and beyond. The cohesion of the EU and the open borders concept are being reconsidered by countries concerned about the terror threats—both real and inflated—accompanying an uncontrolled influx of desperate people. This form of destruction has the ability to alter politics and policies with massive consequences.

The scale of devastation wrought by both chemical weapons and deliberate campaigns of destruction is staggering; 11% of Syria's population has been killed or wounded, a quarter of all schools destroyed, and half of all Syrian children remain out school. Both the relentlessness and the enormity of the suffering represent a further kind of destruction: a permeating despair that bodes poorly for any postwar Syria. Every hospital, school, water sanitation or power plant that is destroyed—and the increasingly immense loss of life—serves to reinforce the despair shared by all Syrians that their society will never heal, as well as that of the international community, that conflict resolution—to say nothing of reconstruction—will be unachievable.


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