The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has released the results of a long investigation on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. It concluded that the Syrian air force used such weapons on attacks on its own people in 2017. 

Although the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly denied this, the watchdog agency concluded in a devastating 82-page report that the government was behind several chemical weapons attacks during the civil war that has been wracked the country for the past ten years.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the regime of Bashar al-Assad is responsible for “atrocities” that rise to the “level of war crimes,… crimes against humanity.” He said that the United States agrees with the OPCW’s findings.

“The United States shares the OPCW’s conclusions and assesses that the Syrian regime retains sufficient chemicals — specifically sarin and chlorine — and expertise from its traditional chemical weapons (CW) program to use sarin, to produce and deploy chlorine munitions, and to develop new CW,” Pompeo said.

Photo of chemical weapon found in Latamina (OPCW).

A joint United Nations-OPCW mission had been investigating reported chemical attacks in Syria for some time. When an extension of the mission’s mandate was brought in front of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), it was vetoed by Russia. (The Russian government has repeatedly turned a blind eye to acts of its longstanding ally Assad.) 

So, in order to circumvent the UNSC’s decision the OPCW created a new Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) to carry out the probe on the reported chemical attacks.

Their findings showed that a chemical attack, which affected over 100 people in the opposition-held town of Latamina, was conducted by the Syrian air force.

Additionally, the investigation discovered that just days after the Latamina attack, the Syrians used sarin gas, which reportedly killed more than 80 people, on the nearby town of Khan Sheikhoun. It also found that the Assad regime had used chlorine gas as a weapon on several other occasions during the civil war.

Providing some details from the investigation, the IIT said that:

  • On 24 March, a Syrian Su-22 military plane belonging to the 50th Brigade of the 22nd Air Division of the Syrian AF from Shayrat airbase, dropped an M4000 aerial bomb containing Sarin in southern Latamina, affecting 16 people.
  • On 25 March, a Syrian air force helicopter, from Hama airbase, dropped a cylinder on the Latamina hospital. The cylinder broke through the roof, ruptured and released chlorine, affecting 30 people. (See photo.)
  • On 30 March, a Su-22 belonging to the 50th Brigade of the 22nd Air Division of the Syrian AF,  from Shayrat airbase, dropped an M4000 aerial bomb containing Sarin in southern Latamina, affecting 60 people.
  • Another incident in Douma on April 7, 2018, that killed 40 people gave “reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place”, and that the “chemical contained reactive chlorine.”

Santiago Oñate-Laborde, the IIT Coordinator, noted that “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 the authority can be delegated, responsibility cannot.”

In response to these chemical attacks, the Americans and British launched airstrikes on the Syrian regime and warned Assad that if he were to continue using chemical attacks against his own people, they’d respond again. 

Although the Syrian chemical weapons program was supposedly shut down a few years ago, a recent airstrike by the Israeli air force in central Syria last month reportedly hit a new chemical weapons manufacturing facility. If this is true, it would show that the Assad regime is resuming the production of chemical weapons. 

Amos Gilead, the former Director of Policy and Political-military affairs at the Israeli Ministry of Defense as well as the head of the Israeli Defense Force’s Military Intelligence Research Division said in an interview with Breaking Defense, “The Syrians had a stockpile of 1,300 tons of chemical weapons before the world demanded [its abolishment]. But while a big part was destroyed the regime still keeps a quantity of these agents including deadly VX, and there are no signs that they are going to give it up. They need it in order to deal with the enemies of the Assad regime.”

Amos added, ”When a few grams of these chemical agents can kill, the fact that the Assad regime is still keeping relatively big quantities is a real cause for concern.”

OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias noted that the issue now falls “to the Executive Council and the Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the United Nations Secretary-General, and the international community as a whole to take any further action they deem appropriate and necessary.”