The Cable

Soviet-Era Bomb Used in Syria Chemical Weapon Attack, Claims Rights Group

Human Rights Watch says Syria has stepped up nerve agent warfare in past year, flouting a commitment to eliminate its chemical weapons program.

Syrians bury the bodies of victims of a a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, a nearby rebel-held town in Syrias northwestern Idlib province, on April 5, 2017.
International outrage is mounting over a suspected chemical attack that killed scores of civilians in Khan Sheikhun on April 4, 2017. 
Warplanes had carried out a suspected toxic gas attack that killed dozens people including several children, a monitoring group said. 
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said those killed in the town of Khan Sheikhun, in Idlib province, had died from the effects of the gas, adding that dozens more suffered respiratory problems and other symptoms. / AFP PHOTO / FADI AL-HALABI        (Photo credit should read FADI AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians bury the bodies of victims of a a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, a nearby rebel-held town in Syrias northwestern Idlib province, on April 5, 2017. International outrage is mounting over a suspected chemical attack that killed scores of civilians in Khan Sheikhun on April 4, 2017. Warplanes had carried out a suspected toxic gas attack that killed dozens people including several children, a monitoring group said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said those killed in the town of Khan Sheikhun, in Idlib province, had died from the effects of the gas, adding that dozens more suffered respiratory problems and other symptoms. / AFP PHOTO / FADI AL-HALABI (Photo credit should read FADI AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images)

The Syrian government most likely used a Soviet-made weapon containing the nerve agent sarin in an April 4 attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, according to an investigation by Human Rights Watch.

The findings by the New York-based advocacy group add to the mounting evidence that Syria carried out the deadliest chemical weapons attack in the country since August 2013, when the U.S. government alleged that Syrian helicopters dropped sarin bombs on the town of eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, killing more than 1,400 people.

The alleged attack on Khan Sheikhoun resulted in the deaths of more than 92 people, including 25 members of a single family. It also persuaded U.S. President Donald J. Trump to order the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian government’s Shayrat air base in Homs, the staging ground for the attack on Khan Sheikhoun.

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said the attack on Khan Sheikhoun was part of the Bashar al-Assad regime’s expanding use of nerve agents that further undercuts claims by Syria and Russia that the sarin released into the atmosphere over Khan Sheikhoun was the result of a Syrian airstrike against an opposition controlled chemical weapons arsenal. Speaking at a Monday press briefing at United Nations headquarters, Roth said the new evidence “renders the Syrian and Russian cover story utterly implausible.”

The Syrian government, he noted, has used chlorine-filled weapons repeatedly during the the country’s civil war, and had dropped more lethal nerve agent bombs in three other attacks in and around Hama since the end of last year. Syrian warplanes struck the town of al-Lataminah, Hama, on March 25, injuring 169 people, including both civilians and combatants, with an unspecified nerve agent. Syrian jets also hit the towns of Jrouh and al-Salaliyah, on Dec. 12, with nerve agent. Those two attacks killed 67 people.

The persistence of chemical weapons use in Syria’s 6-year conflict underscores the limits of a 2013 U.S.-Russian brokered pact that resulted in Syria’s commitment to dismantle and destroy a previously clandestine chemical weapons program. The attacks have also led the United States and other key allies to believe that Syria has failed to disclose the existence of hidden stockpiles of chemical weapons agents and munitions.

Under the terms of the 2013 deal, which averted a threatened U.S. airstrike, the Syrian government eliminated the vast majority of its declared chemical weapons, including the destruction under international supervision of 1,300 metric tons of chemical precursors and agents.

But the Syrian government began weaponizing chlorine — a common industrial chemical that Syria is authorized to possess but not to use as a weapon. Human Rights Watch has documented 16 instances of the Syrian government using chlorine bombs since April 2014. A joint investigation by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, has concluded that the Syrian government used chlorine in at last three cases between 2014 and 2015. Islamic State forces, according to the investigation, used mustard gas during a battle in the town of Marea. The OPCW, meanwhile, maintains that chemical weapons have been used in at least 45 attacks since the middle of 2016.

A Syrian warplane bombed Khan Sheikhoun at around 6:45 a.m., sending up a cloud of smoke and dust near the town’s central bakery. A few minutes later, a warplane dropped three or four high-explosive bombs.

Residents near the bakery said they immediately fell sick.

“It was like judgement day — people were collapsing everywhere,” said Abdelaziz al-Youusef, one of the 32 eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch. “Those who stayed asleep did not wake up. Those who were in basements suffocated and died.”

“It felt like the air had weight. It got harder to breath; tears were running down our faces, and our eyes were burning,” a teacher who lived nearby told Human Rights Watch.

The culprit, according to the rights group, was a Soviet-era bomb.

HRW reviewed photographs of the crater that it claims likely includes the remnants of a KhAB-250 bomb, one of two Soviet munitions designed specifically for delivering sarin.

The remnants include a twisted metal fragment, painted with green lines — which is generally used to identify chemical munitions — and a metal cap that resembles one that seals a KhAB-250 bomb after sarin has been poured into it.

The rights group said there is no publicly available record of Syria possessing such a weapon, and that there is no evidence that Russia has participated in chemical weapons attacks.

But the Human Rights Watch report stated that “Russian forces continue to provide active military support to Syrian forces despite extensive evidence that the latter are using chemical weapons and targeting civilians.”

The Russian mission to the U.N. did not respond to a request for comment on the group’s findings. But Moscow has repeatedly denied that Syria is using chemical weapons.

Photo credit: FADI AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, May 3, 2017: The sarin gas attack on eastern Ghouta occurred in August 2013. A previous version of this article mistakenly said the attack occurred in March 2013.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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