Syria Weekly: Assad regime finally acknowledged as chemical attacks culprit

Syria Weekly: Assad regime finally acknowledged as chemical attacks culprit
The OPCW for the first time attributed blame for Syria chemical attacks, but activists are sceptical about its significance.
6 min read
12 April, 2020
Hundreds have been killed in regime chemical attacks [Getty]
For the first time in its history, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on Wednesday identified the perpetrators of chlorine and sarin attacks in Syria. 

The naming of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime as the responsible party in the deadly chemical attacks will come at little surprise to Syria observers, but the decision comes after years of campaigning and diplomatic wrangling.

Campaigners hope it could be an important step towards accountability for chemical attacks in Syria, but most remain sceptical.

Chlorine, sarin

The investigation, conducted between 2019 and 2020, focuses on attacks in the north Hama village of Latamenah on the 24, 25 and 30 March 2017, which was seized by the regime from the opposition in August 2019.

The village was the site of a horrific chemical attack - although certainly not the deadliest in the nine-year war - on an underground hospital in 2017, which resulted in the death of two people, including a doctor.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) at the time said it suspected toxic chemicals were used when a bomb from a helicopter struck the entrance to the hospital.

"Information collected by the hospital medical staff suggests that chemical weapons were used," a member of MSF said at the time, according to 

A journalist from Orient News said that a chlorine bomb was used in the attack, which killed a surgeon, while a doctor said that an organophosphate was used.

"Immediately after the impact, patients and staff reported suffering severe respiratory symptoms and burning of mucous membranes - symptoms consistent with an attack using chemicals," the medical report stated.

"Dozens of cases reached Hama’s field hospitals suffering from severe frosting in the mouth, irritation in the eyes and shortness of breath due to exposure to organophosphate."

On Wednesday, the OPCW acknowledged that chlorine was used in the attack and attributed blame.

"At approximately 15:00 on 25 March 2017, a helicopter of the Syrian Arab Air Force, departing from Hama airbase, dropped a cylinder on the Ltamenah hospital; the cylinder broke into the hospital through its roof, ruptured, and released chlorine, affecting at least 30 persons," the OPCW said in a press release.
The next step must of course be justice for all those who were killed by the Syrian regime
- Laila Kiki, The Syria Campaign

A day earlier, the Syrian regime launched another aerial attack using the nerve agent, sarin, the OPCW concluded, which hit an agricultural area close to the village.

The OPCW found in its investigation that a Syrian regime Su-22 jet from the 22nd Air Division dropped an M4000 aerial bomb, containing sarin, on the village injuring at least 16 people.

The third chemical attack on the village took place on 30 March, which also saw the deadly sarin nerve agent used, injuring at least 60 people.

The attacks were launched from Al-Shayrat airbase in Homs province, which was also held responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack on 4 April 2017 and targeted in retaliatory US bombing.

Head of the Investigation and Identification team, Santiago Oñate-Laborde concluded that no other actor who could be responsible for the attacks but the Syrian regime

"[T]he IIT has concluded that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the perpetrators of the use of sarin as a chemical weapon in Ltamenah on 24 and 30 March 2017, and the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon on 25 March 2017 were individuals belonging to the Syrian Arab Air Force," he said.

"Attacks of such a strategic nature would have only taken place on the basis of orders from the higher authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic military command. Even if authority can be delegated, responsibility cannot. … In the end, the IIT was unable to identify any other plausible explanation."

Series of attacks

The report comes after a long battle by activists for accountability for a series of chemical attacks, almost all blamed on the Syrian regime.

Among the deadliest was the suspected sarin attacks on residential areas in Eastern Ghouta in August 2013, which resulted in between 300 and 1,729 deaths, almost all civilians.

The Syrian regime denied claims it carried out the attacks, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But it avoided retaliatory strikes after it agreed to handover its chemical stockpiles for destruction, which saw the OPCW - responsible for overseeing the operation - awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013.

This did not prevent further chemical attacks from taking place, including the use of nerve agent sarin. In 2017, more than a hundred people were killed in a suspected sarin attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun in 2017 and Douma a year later, which killed up to 50 people.

The attacks have seen criticism directed at the OPCW for their claims that the Syrian regime’s stockpiles had been surrendered and destroyed, as well as the perceived toothless authority of the organisation in not attributing blame to chemical attacks.

In 2018, a UK bid to give the OPCW powers to apportion blame for chemical attacks passed its final hurdle, despite attempts by Syrian regime-backer, Russia, to block the motion. Before this, the OPCW could only acknowledge that chemical attacks had taken place but could not attribute blame.

The Syria Campaign this week welcomed the long-awaited acceptance of the OPCW that the Assad regime has gassed its citizens, despite the limited scope of this probe.

"Independent irrefutable proof that Assad gassed civilians is a long time coming," said Laila Kiki in a statement.

"Investigations are only helpful if they apportion blame and are then used as evidence to hold the perpetrators of some of the most heinous war crimes of our time to account. The next step must of course be justice for all those who were killed by the Syrian regime."

Sam Hamad, who wrote this week about the report. He said that although the report does provide an "official" source blaming the regime for the chemical attacks - and possibly lead to more Assad officials being sanctioned - it's generally too little, too late.

"The only possible function have is if the Assad regime is ever forced to reckon with its crimes, if it was every prosecuted in some manner. The report and its attribution of blame would be clear and almost incontestable evidence of war crimes," Hamad told The New Arab.

"But as it stands, the Assad regime is nowhere near facing justice and even in its function as a counterpoint to Russian propaganda it is quite useless given conspiracism acts by discounting officialdom – so the UN is part of the 'regime change' conspiracy."

Syria Weekly is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin