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World

Syria 'not yet free of chemical weapons'

All chemical weapons were to have been removed from Syria by this weekend. But that won't happen because many different chemicals can be used as weapons, and President Bashar al-Assad may have other hidden stockpiles.

Doubts are growing in the West that the Syrian regime really has revealed all its chemical weapons stockpiles. Some diplomats believe the country still has access to such weapons, and the news agency Reuters has even reported that there is intelligence to prove it without offering many details.

Syria denies these claims. Bashar Jaafari, the country's representative at the United Nations, has said that if the evidence exists, it should be turned over to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) because authorities cannot simply pretend to have secret evidence.

The OPCW has been supervising the removal of chemical weapons from Syria in the past months. This Sunday (27.04.2014), all the weapons that the Syrian government declared are due to be removed from the country ahead of their destruction. It remains unclear whether this deadline will be met, even though more than 90 percent of what is on the list is said to have been checked off. The OPCW would not comment on DW's questions about the new allegations against Syria or the progress of the removal operation.

Victims of the alleged gas attack in Ghouta, Syria

Hundreds of people were killed in the attack near Damascus in August, 2013

Chemical weapons expert Ralf Trapp considers it a success. "A year ago, no one would have believed that Syria would become a member of the chemical weapons convention and that disarmament would happen," he said, before adding that he believed all chemicals that "can be abused effectively as a weapon" have been taken out of the country.

An impossible task

But not all deadly materials are on the convention's list. There have been reports recently of chlorine gas attacks in the country. Chlorine gas is highly toxic and was used as a weapon in the First World War, but it is not outlawed. "Chlorine gas can be a very effective weapon," says Trapp. "Chlorine is heavier than air, and so can sink into cellars and stay trapped."

But, it is also a chemical used and manufactured in large quantities for a number of different applications in industry and private households, such as water purification and decontamination. "It would be impossible to ban or restrict this material," says Trapp, adding that the same is true for a number of other chemicals.

"You can't get rid of the chemistry," he said. "It's all a question of the dose. There are materials in every chemical industry that are toxic. If you use them against people, then people will be hurt or killed." Moreover, the Syrian chemical weapons sector is not small: "There are always chemicals that can be abused. Any chemical can be poisonous."

Inspections continue

And, of course, different materials have different effects. Sarin is significantly more poisonous than chlorine gas, and because it has no civilian applications, it is categorically a weapon. The Sarin attacks near Damascus in August 2013, which killed hundreds of people, prompted the pressure on the Syrian government in the first place.

Ralf Trapp

Ralf Trapp considers the operation a success, despite some shortcomings

According to some Western diplomats, these weapons could still be in Syria. Reuters quoted a government employee who alleged that a large quantity of Sarin disappeared before the OPCW inspectors arrived, and that there were other "anomalies," although the report did not expand on the allegations.

For Jaafari, these claims are just further attempts to unnecessarily extend the OPCW mission in Syria. As far as he is concerned, the allegation that Damascus is hiding stockpiles is just an attempt to blackmail the government. But Trapp points out that Syria would not escape the inspections in any case. "Syria is now a signatory to the chemical weapons convention, a member of the OPCW," he said. "That's why inspections will continue to take place, as is set out in the convention for all states."

Trapp also points out that the only thing that distinguishes Syria from other states in the convention is that chemical weapons were actually used there recently. For that reason, inspections need to be particularly thorough and all suspicions need to be pursued.

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