Despite the continuing violence in Syria making any normal civil life absolutely impossible, Bashar Al Assad has decided to press ahead with the June 3 presidential elections that he is certain to win. He has gone so far as to find 11 political trusties who have been ordered to declare their candidacies so as to offer the voters some kind of nominal choice and make the elections appear more respectable. The Syrian opposition and its western backers have criticised the decision to hold presidential elections while the country is engulfed in fighting and the day after Al Assad announced his candidature, two car bombs in Homs killed at least 36 people.

More seriously, the Syrian opposition forces have accused the government of attacking rebel-held areas with chlorine gas several times in recent months, which will be investigated by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The appearance of chlorine has opened a huge area of doubt over Syria’s apparent willingness to cooperate with international norms.

Last summer, when Syria avoided a US military strike by offering to eliminate its stockpile of illegal chemical weapons, the Syrian authorities failed to disclose that they also had large stocks of chlorine, which is no longer officially considered a warfare agent. Today, it is normally regarded as an industrial commodity rather than a weapon, but that does not stop it from being used as a weapon should the government decide to do so.

This makes a mockery of the apparent success by the joint United Nations-OPCW mission, which has been eliminating Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile and has removed more than 90 per cent of Syria’s declared chemicals. This does not include chlorine or any other chemical outside the OPCW’s legal definition of a weapon. It is impossible to know what else Al Assad has been hiding in the depths of his military and security apparatus, so the combination of this secrecy over weapons of mass destruction and the fierce continuing violence make it impossible to respect the results of the imminent elections.