UN body blames Syrian government for 2017 sarin attacks on civilians


A global chemical weapons watchdog on Wednesday has for the first time explicitly blamed Syria for toxic gas attacks, saying President Bashar al-Assad’s air force used the nerve gas sarin and chlorine three times in 2017.

The findings came in the first report from a new investigative team set up by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – a UN-aligned body – to identify the perpetrators of attacks in Syria’s ongoing nine-year-long civil war.

The OPCW accuses the Syrian Air Force of twice using sarin to attack the town of Ltamenah in late March 2017. It also found that regime aircraft had bombed the same town with chlorine gas in the same week.

The three attacks took place days before the infamous sarin gas attack on the nearby town of Khan Sheikhoun, which produced some of the most shocking images of the nine-year war and one of its most bitterly contested narratives.

OPCW investigators found that the three Ltamenah attacks took place on 24, 25 and 30 March; the first and third strikes were carried out by SU-22 jets and the second by a helicopter. All three aircraft launched from the nearby Shayrat airbase.

The investigation determined the type of munitions used to deliver the poison gas, and the names and ranks of the Syrian officers who ordered the attacks, although it redacted their identities from the final report.

The report said all alternative scenarios for the casualties, which affected more than 80 people, were considered, including whether the attacks had been staged. But they had been dismissed due to the weight of evidence supporting the finding that Syrian pilots had dropped sarin on the town on the orders of senior officers.

In the aftermath of the Khan Sheikhoun attack, which killed 89 people, loyalists of the Syrian regime and the Russian government rushed to push a narrative that distressing scenes of dead and dying victims had been staged by rescuers. While not focusing on Khan Sheikhoun in this report, the OPCW said similar claims surrounding Ltamenah had been examined. It found that accounts from victims had been corroborated by interviews, which had also been supported by chemical analyses of samples retrieved from the sites.

Jerry Smith, a former OPCW investigator, said the investigation was an important moment in an ongoing effort to bring to account perpetrators of war crimes in Syria.

“To get to this point is long awaited by a big section of the international community”, he said. “It [the report]has named names, identified organisations and given a high level of specificity on at least three of these events. I suspect the US and others will ask for an executive council meeting of the OPCW. Russia doesn’t have a veto there, so it will be just a straight vote.”

Until last year, the OPCW did not have the mandate to apportion blame for chemical attacks. However, a 2018 resolution called for the organisation to be given the right to do so, and the findings are the result of a new body within the organisation, known as the Investigation and Identification team. (Source: The Guardian)