In the years 1970-1980, Syria accumulated one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons. The Syrian regime acknowledged this on 23 July 2012 through the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This programme was one of the principal threats in terms of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction whose reduction is a key French foreign policy objective.
In 2013, when the Syrian conflict had already been raging for two years, suspicions first emerged as to the use of sarin gas by the regime. In April, in particular, the towns of Saraqib (south-west of Idlib) and Jobar (greater Damascus) were affected. In those respective locations, 20 people and 40 people were poisoned in the attacks for which the regime was undoubtedly responsible. The United Nations established an international commission of inquiry to shed light on these crimes, at the request of France, the United Kingdom and the United States.
It is in this context that the chemical attack occurred in the Ghouta area (greater Damascus) on 21 August 2013, killing hundreds of civilians. According to some reports, the death toll reached 1,500. The evidence collected on the spot confirmed without a shadow of doubt that a massive and coordinated attack was conducted that night by the Syrian regime. This was a major turning point in the Syrian crisis.
Under the threat of a French-American intervention, Syria bowed to pressure from the international community. The Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2118 (2013) establishing a mechanism for dismantling and monitoring the Syrian chemical weapons programme. In the event of non-compliance with this resolution, it is also provided that the Security Council shall be seized of the matter to enable it to adopt measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Lastly, a joint UN and OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) Mission was established to monitor the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons.
Following the adoption of those measures, significant progress was achieved in 2014 as regards dismantling: it was possible to remove from the Syrian territory the entire stockpile of chemical weapons declared by Damascus for it to be destroyed, while the destruction of storage and production facilities is about to be completed.
However, many issues are still unresolved. First, grey areas remain as to whether the initial declaration by Damascus is sincere and exhaustive, as it is suspected of concealing items prohibited by the OPCW.
But, above all, information of concern reporting the use of chlorine gas began to emerge in 2014 and is still doing so today. As the use of chlorine is not prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Security Council was compelled to act again by adopting resolution 2209 (2015) condemning any use of any toxic chemical by all parties, including chlorine gas. Once again, because of the way these attacks were conducted (by dropping barrels from helicopters), there was absolutely no doubt that the regime was responsible for them.
Yet the Syrian regime continued to use chlorine gas in defiance of international humanitarian law and Security Council resolutions. Since resolution 2209 was adopted in March 2015, more than 30 incidents involving the use of chlorine have been reported in Syria.
As part of its fight against impunity, France is taking action to put a stop to these crimes and to bring those responsible before international justice. The next logical step consists in investigating to determine precisely who is responsible for these attacks, and France supports in this regard the adoption of a new Security Council resolution.