For the first time, the U.N. formally blames Assad regime and Islamic State extremists for using poison gas in Syria.
A U.N.-authorized investigation has determined that both the Assad regime and the Islamic State used chemical weapons in Syria in recent years, the first time that the United Nations has officially assigned blame for the use of outlawed weapons in Syria’s five-and-a-half year conflict.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air force carried out at least two chemical weapons attacks against opposition-controlled towns between 2014 and 2015, while extremists from the Islamic State shelled a Syrian village with mustard gas in the summer of 2015, according to the findings of a joint investigation by the United Nations and the world’s chemical weapons watchdog. A copy of the report, which is confidential, was obtained by Foreign Policy.
The findings by the so-called Leadership Panel will almost certainly spur the United States and its European allies, especially Britain and France, to make the case for imposing sanctions on Syria, or to prosecute those responsible at the Hague-based International Criminal Court. But they will likely face intense resistance from Russia, Syria’s closest ally, and China, which traditionally opposes the use of sanctions.
The three-member panel, headed by Argentine chemical weapons expert Virginia Gamba, was established by the U.N. security council in August 2015 to identify the individuals, armed groups or government agencies that used chemical weapons in Syria. They focused on nine cases where an earlier fact-finding mission established that chemical weapons had been used: eight involved the Syrian government’s alleged use of chlorine gas, and one involved the use of sulfur mustard by the islamic State.
The panel found “sufficient evidence” that a Syrian Air Force helicopter dropped an explosive that released a toxic substance, likely chlorine, on a “concrete block building” in Talmenes on April, 21, 2014. An estimated 200 people were sickened by the toxic gas, which smelled like rotten eggs, and it left at least three dead. It also found “sufficient evidence” to conclude that a Syrian Air Force helicopter dropped a chlorine-filled barrel bomb on a home in Sarmin, releasing a “toxic substance, which match the characteristics of chlorine.” The bomb killed all six occupants of the house, according to the 95-page report.
On August 21, 2015, Islamic State forces shelled the Syrian opposition stronghold of Marea with some 50 shells, including several filled with sulfur mustard. The following day, locals arrived at a local hospital showing “symptoms related to exposure of sulfur mustard,” the panel noted.
The panel said that its investigation was hamstrung by dire security conditions that precluded visits to the sites or interviews with local eyewitnesses, and had sought an additional six months to conclude its work. They only had enough confidence to make definitive judgments in three cases. The team reported varying degrees of certainty about Syrian complicity in the remaining seven cases.
The report “points to the Syrian government’s and ISIS’s responsibility for the sickening, illegal use of chemical weapons in Syria,” said Louis Charbonneau, the U.N.representative for Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “The U.N. Security Council should now ensure that those responsible for these attacks are brought to justice in a court of law.”
Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, welcomed the report and urged the investigators to continue their probe into the seven unresolved cases of alleged Syrian government’s chemical weapons use.
“An independent team of international experts has now confirmed a pattern of use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime that mirrors numerous other confirmed cases of chemical weapons use across Syria,” Power said. “This horrific and continuous use of chemical weapons by Syria represents…an affront to a century’s worth of efforts to create and enforce an international norm against the use of chemical weapons.”
The report’s release adds to mounting international concern over Syria’s chemical weapons program. A separate, secret report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, raised concerns that Syria may be hiding evidence of undeclared chemical weapons activities.
The cases examined by the panel — managed jointly by the United Nations and the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — represent a tiny fraction of the total number of alleged chemical weapons attacks undertaken in Syria. While the frequency of such attacks decreased after the joint investigation team was established, the panel estimates that there have been more than 130 alleged chemical- or toxic-chemical weapons attacks, including with sulfur mustard, sarin, VX and chlorine, between December, 2015, and August, 2016.
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