The Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria- The Role of International Law.

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Syrian chemical weapons program began in the 1970s. Post-training from Egypt and the Sovereign Union, weapon production started in the 1980s. Syria was ranked number 3rd in the stockpile of chemical weapons after the U.S.A and Russia. Western intelligence believed that Syria held the largest stockpile of chemical weapons though they never admitted that they possessed chemical weapons prior to 2013. In September 2013, French intelligence put the Syrian stockpile at 1,000 tonnes, including Yperite, VX, and “several hundred tonnes of sarin”.1 By this time, Syria did not ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria agreed to join CWC and permitted for complete weapons destructions under Organisation for the prohibition of chemical weapons supervision. Since Syria joined the OPCW post-Ghouta attack, states blamed Syria for the same. According to the Assad government, Syrian weapons destructions were completed by August 2014. However, incomplete documentation and disclosure made people believe that Syria is hiding a few with them. 

What paved the path to the development of chemical weapons strategy in the 1980s in Syria?

A variety of reasons contributed to this cause: 

  1. to safeguard itself from the Israeli use of nuclear weapons
  2. post-Egypt-Israel peace treaty
  3.  to compensate for the destruction caused in Egypt, due to its lack of airpower, to safeguard itself from its neighboring state Turkey. 

What was the capability of Syria as per 2013?

Syria was in a position to produce several hundred tons of chemical weapons per year according to a 2007 survey. Another report claimed that Syria was in possession of hundreds of tons of chemical weapons. Syria was advanced enough to transmit chemical weapons through aerial bombs, surface-to-surface missiles, and artillery rockets. According to a French intelligence report, Syria was using the binary form which states that Syria has advanced quite a lot in chemical weapon technology and that they held about 1000 tons of the same. Further, it stated that for delivery, longer missiles of range 300-500 km, and for a shorter range 70 km aerial bombs, artillery rockets and surface-to-surface missiles were used. In Oct 2013; OPCW found approximately 1300 metric tons of chemical weapons. Syrian Specific studies and research centre was allegedly responsible for the production of toxic agents for wars. 

What is Syria’s Civil War about?

Syrian Civil war is fought between the Ba’athist Syrian Arab Republic, supported and guided by  Bashar al-Assad along with foreign allies and other foreign forces opposing the government. This war is considered to be the second deadliest in the present century. Prior to the onset of this civil war, people were constantly complaining about unemployment, corruption, and lack of freedom under the rule of  President Bashar al-Assad. However, in March 2011, in Derrea protests demanding democracy took place. To calm these protests, the government used deadly force. This angered the general public and they asked for the resignation of the president. The opposition saw this as an opportunity and started the use of arms. To this, Mr Assad vowed to crush what he called foreign-backed terrorism. However, through years the civil war has slowly shifted its cause from Mr.Assad. The situation right now has gotten much more complex due to the involvement of foreign states. Religion has been brought into the picture. It has become more like Sunni Muslim majority v. Shia Alawite sect. This led to the involvement of jihadist groups Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda. Syria’s Kurds who wanted self-government are another group to this civil war. 2

How many deaths did this war cause?

According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, there have been 367,965 deaths in Syria until 2018 excluding 192.035 missing people. An organization that relies on activists within Syria named Violation Documentation Centre reported that there has been a violation of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights in Syria. Further, 191,219 battle-related deaths have taken place out of which 123,279 were civilians. 

How are these chemical weapons used in Syria?

 The United Nations has confirmed the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil war. In the suburbs of  Damascus in August 2013, deadly Ghouta attack took place, in the suburbs of Aleppo in March 2013, Khan al-Assal attack took place. Though no party actively took the blame, all the fingers were pointed at the Syrian Ba’athist military. The U.N Mission started searching for sources. In this process, the U.N. mission reported that likely there has been the use of sarin in Khan al-Assal (19 March 2013), Saraqib (29 April 2013), Ghouta (21 August 2013), Jobar (24 August 2013) and Ashrafiyah Sahnaya (25 August 2013). UNHRC later confirmed the use of Sarin in all these attacks. Further, it stated that perpetrators had access to the Syrian Army’s stockpile. This was concluded by UNHRC due to the use of Sarin in the attacks. Though in 2014, destruction of Syrian Chemical weapons has taken place, many other incidents have occurred post that which included the use of chemical weapons. Allegations were mostly put on Syrian Ba’athist forces. At the international level, a number of different source gathering processes were initiated. In the year 2016, UN and OPCW blamed Syrian military force for dropping chemical weapons on the towns of Talmenes in April 2014 and Sarmin and Qmenas in March 2015 and ISIS for using sulfur mustard on the town of Marea in August 2015.3 In the year 2016, there was a nerve gas attack which killed 53 people. The U.S. Military has taken action on the Syrian Government post-Khan Shaykhun chemical attack on 4 April 2017. Syria had to face U.S. Military, France Military, and United Kingdom Military post-Douma chemical attack on 7 April 2018. While investigating the chlorine attack of 2017, U.N found the use of sarin in Lataminah. Recently, OPCW released its report stating that the Syrian Air Force is the perpetrator of the chemical weapons attack that happened in Lataminah.

What is the role of International Law in this?

Prohibition of Chemical weapons under international Law:

Usage of Chemical weapons apart from having serious medical repercussions is also illegal according to International Law. One cannot use these against foreign countries or within their country. Further, these cannot be used as a response to a previous chemical weapons attack. These were initially introduced in the 19th century and were recently amended in 1997 by CWC. CWC states that no one should produce, develop, transfer, deliver or stockpile such chemical weapons. CWC established OPCW for the implementation of the above. CWC is considered to be one of the most successful disbarment treaties. It persuades countries to use chemistry in a peaceful and positive way. According to the OPCW report released in 2016, 90% of the world’s chemical agent has been destroyed, accumulating to 72,304 metric tons. Due to the international pressure put on Syria, post-Ghouta attack; it joined CWC in September 2013. IN 2014, OPCW declared that 100% of chemical weapon destruction has been successfully completed in Syria. However, the use of Sarin, chlorine, and other strong chemicals have been suspected in 2014 and 2015. In 2016, the U.N. formed the OPCW-U.N. Joint investigation mechanism. This group held the Syrian government and ISIS responsible.

What is the response of foreign states to this situation?

Foreign states, organizations, and leaders have condemned the use of chemical weapons strongly stating the repercussions of the same. The Security Council (SC) has not yet taken any action against this. SC in 2017 had prepared a draft stating Syria to take the accountability for the attack in Khan Shaykhun which was supported by U.S., U.K., France but rejected by Russia using its veto power. SC couldn’t pass sanctions supported by the U.S., U.K., France due to the use of Russia’s Seventh Veto against this. However, SC succeeded in passing sanctions against ISIS, Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaida, and other vital groups causing trouble in Syria. Russian Veto has stopped every possible force to date to save the Syrian civilians from these attacks and wars.

Independent Mechanism:

In 2016, the U.N. General assembly formed an independent mechanism toa aid them in collecting and regulating the crimes happening in Syria. The main function of this organization is to perform pre-prosecution functions: consolidating, preserving, and analysing evidence in order to prepare files to assist in future investigations and prosecutions of those individually responsible for serious international crimes.4

Role of the International Criminal Court:

The main problem arising for ICC to prosecute the perpetrator of the crimes committed in Syria is that of jurisdiction. Since Syria is not part of the Rome Statute, ICC does not have complete jurisdiction. ICC can interfere if Syria ratified the Rome Statute, give a declaration stating that ICC can have jurisdiction or if SC provided ICC with the required power.


Syrian chemical weapons program began in the 1970s. Post-training from Egypt and the Sovereign Union, weapon production started in the 1980s. However, in 2013, post-Ghouta attack, Syria who was not earlier a member of CWC ratified CWC. Hence, CWC asked OPCW to destroy Syrian chemical weapons. IN 2014, OPCW has given a report stating that all the Syrian chemical weapons accounting to 1300 metric tons were destroyed successfully. However, post-destruction by OPCW, chemical weapons usage in Syria is still evident through various attacks that took place in 2014, 2015, and 2016. U.N. confirmed the use of Sarin and chlorine in many of the attacks after its investigation. SC tried passing a sanction, condemning the usage of chemical weapons and holding perpetrators responsible and accountable for the loss. However, vetoes passed by Russia and China objected to SC from achieving the same.  


1. Willsher, Syria crisis: French intelligence dossier blames Assad for chemical attack, THE GUARDIAN., 16 December 2016,

2. Why is there a war in Syria? -, BBC, (May 17, 2020),

3.   Rick Gladstone, Syria Used Chlorine in Bombs Against Civilians, Report Says, NYTIMES, (24 August 2016),

4.  Julia Brooks, Responding to chemical weapons violations in Syria: legal, health, and humanitarian recommendations, CONFLICT AND HEALTH, (19, Feb 2018),


Anusha Nookala

Student, Symbiosis Law School Hyderabad

Anusha Nookala is a student at Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad currently pursuing BBA LLB. She is a corporate law enthusiast.  She is an effective and attentive speaker and listener, highly organized and detail-oriented individual. For any Clarifications, feedback, and suggestion, you can reach her at

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