An activist wearing a gas mask is seen in an eastern Damascus suburb where Syrian government forces allegedly used chemical weapons, August 22, 2013. (Reuters)

Syrian opposition activists allege government forces launched a devastating poison gas attack this week that killed hundreds of civilians in suburban Damascus. If true, it would be the war’s worst atrocity – and would mock the “red line” warning that U.S. President Barack Obama issued to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad exactly a year ago.

The claims also reinforce the urgency of bolstering the chemical weapons inspection regime in Syria. Five months after their first alleged use, the world has no clear picture of how often or by whom chemical weapons have been employed, nor about the security of remaining weapons depots.

The reports emerge at a time when a U.N. investigative team is already in Syria, charged with assessing past reports of chemical weapons use by both the Syrian army and rebels. The team is led by Ake Sellstrom, a talented Swedish scientist who previously served as an inspector for the UNSCOM and UNMOVIC inspection regimes in Iraq.

insights cfr INSIGHT: At Stake in Syria   the Chemical Weapons TabooAs in the past, Damascus has denied the reports, insisting that although it has such weapons, they would be used only to defend the country from external attack – never “inside Syria”. Given the presence of weapons inspectors, some outside observers may be tempted to dismiss the attacks as fabrications. But as Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commander of the U.K.’s Joint Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Regiment told the BBC, the scenes that have emerged on YouTube and other social media, including children having convulsions, would be “very difficult to stage-manage.”

Because Syria is a non-party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the treaty’s implementing arm – the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – is technically not allowed to conduct inspections in that country. But U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has gotten around that formality by invoking a special authority established in 1987 following chemical weapons use by Iraq, the cumbersomely titled “Secretary General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons.” This dispensation allows the U.N. chief to conduct investigations of any alleged use if a U.N. member state requests it. Fortunately, French President Francois Hollande and U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague have delivered, insisting U.N. inspectors be granted access to the area and that the issue be raised promptly in the U.N. Security Council. The Arab League has backed these demands. It’s high time for the United States to join this chorus – and provide the weapons inspectors with all the diplomatic and logistical support they need to conduct a credible investigation.

“At stake is nothing less than the preservation of one of the most important global norms to have emerged over the past century.” – Stewart M. Patrick, Council on Foreign Relations

The investigation of a chemical weapons allegations is a highly technical undertaking that requires specialized expertise and protocols. Getting experts to the scene promptly is essential, since residue from chemical agents can dissipate within a few days. Investigators will want to seal off the area, to protect it from further contamination (or manipulation), and collect samples of soil, rubble or vegetation. They will conduct interviews with witnesses and medical examinations of survivors, taking urine, blood and other biomedical samples that may contain telltale markers. They will also need to negotiate with families to obtain samples from the deceased (as well as from dead animals).  Initial chemical analysis of these can be conducted in a mobile field laboratory. But more definitive conclusions will require sending samples to an international network of accredited laboratories maintained by the OCPW, based in the Hague.

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The bodies of victims of what activists say was a chemical attack are seen laid out on a truck at a cemetery in the Hamoria area, in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, August 21, 2013. (Reuters)

Putting an end to chemical weapons use in Syria – and holding its perpetrators accountable for war crimes – has implications far beyond the current conflict. At stake is nothing less than the preservation of one of the most important global norms to have emerged over the past century. Although self-styled “realists” often dismiss the power of ethics in world affairs, the global prohibition on the possession and use of chemical weapons provides one of history’s most impressive examples of collective self-restraint by sovereign nation-states. It is a norm that merits defending.

During World War I, the Allies and Central Powers used nearly 125,000 tons of chemical agents on the battlefield, causing the deaths of 100,000 soldiers and permanently wounding or disabling another million. Moral revulsion at the horrors of the Great War helped generate global support for a taboo against such weapons. In negotiating and signing the CWC, governments were declaring the use of chemical weapons to be – like the institution of slavery – “beyond the pale.” In recent decades, dozens of countries have reduced or entirely eliminated their stockpiles according to the treaty’s provisions. The civil war in Syria marks the first documented use of such weapons since the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein employed them against Iran and the Kurdish minority in his own country. Holding the line on their further use is essential to preserve an invaluable prohibition regime.

This post was originally published on blogs.cfr.org.

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 INSIGHT: At Stake in Syria   the Chemical Weapons Taboo

Stewart M. Patrick

Stewart M. Patrick is a senior fellow and director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.