An investigative team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons accused the Syrian government of launching three chemical attacks on one village in 2017.

Ben Hubbard

By Ben Hubbard

BEIRUT, Lebanon — An investigative team with the international group that monitors compliance with the chemical weapons ban accused the Syrian government on Wednesday of having launched three chemical weapons attacks on one village in northern Syria in March 2017, sickening scores of people.

The team, established by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said in a report that in the span of one week, Syrian fighter jets had twice dropped bombs containing sarin nerve agent on the village and a helicopter had targeted its hospital with a cylinder containing chlorine.

Reports of chemical weapons use have surfaced frequently during Syria’s nine-year civil war, and officials from the United States, Turkey and other countries have accused the Syrian government of using banned weapons to try to break the back of the rebel movement that is seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

The O.P.C.W. verified the use of chemical weapons in many of these cases, but had refrained from assigning blame for who deployed them, raising criticism from activists that holding back such judgments diminished the chances for accountability.

So the organization established an investigative body, known as the Investigation and Identification Team, that was assigned to determine responsibility for chemical weapons use in Syria. The report on Wednesday was the team’s first, and it pointed the finger at Mr. al-Assad’s forces.

The team based its investigation on a range of evidence, including witness testimonies, videos, forensic reports on recovered munitions scraps, medical records and satellite imagery, the report said.

While acknowledging reports of dozens of chemical attacks in Syria, the report focused on three, in the rebel-held village of Ltamenah in northern Syria during the last week of March 2017.

On March 24, the team found, a Syrian fighter jet dropped a bomb carrying sarin on the village, sickening 16 people. The next day, a Syrian military helicopter dropped a cylinder containing chlorine on the village’s hospital, which crashed through the roof, released its noxious fumes and sickened 30 people. On March 30, a Syrian fighter jet dropped another bomb on the village containing sarin, sickening at least 60 people.

Sarin is a banned nerve agent, and its use is considered a war crime. While chlorine has legal uses in industry and cleaning, its use as a chemical weapon also is considered a war crime.

The investigative team said it had examined alternative possibilities for each attack, including claims by the governments of Syria and Russia, a close Syrian ally, that the attacks had been staged by anti-government activists to demonize Mr. al-Assad’s government. But the team called its conclusions “the only ones that could be reasonably reached from the information obtained.”

Such attacks, the team’s report said, could only be carried out based on orders from “the highest levels” of the Syrian military. But names of those believed responsible were redacted from the public version of the report.

Despite the mounting evidence of repeated chemical weapons use by Mr. al-Assad’s forces, little has been done by the international community to hold them or their leaders accountable. But Wednesday’s report provided some consolation to survivors of the attacks it described.

“Until today, my bones, my eyes are hurting,” said Ahmad al-Rahmoun, who passed out after breathing in gas from the attack on March 30. But he wondered why it had taken so long for an international body to assign blame.

“Why did they wait until today to accuse Bashar?” he said of Mr. al-Assad, calling for him to be prosecuted as well as “all the pilots behind such attacks.”

The Syrian government has denied throughout the war that its forces have used chemical weapons while accusing rebels and anti-government activists of faking attacks to generate international sympathy. Russia and Iran, another strong ally of Mr. al-Assad, have backed his denials.

The O.P.C.W. team said in its report it had received no cooperation from the Syrian government in its investigation, nor was it able to visit the attack sites.

The Syrian government did not immediately comment on the findings. The United States, a strong supporter of the team’s investigation, welcomed the report as a demonstration of what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called O.P.C.W.’s “unbiased and professional” work.

“No amount of disinformation from Assad’s enablers in Russia and Iran can hide the fact that the Assad regime is responsible for numerous chemical weapons attacks,” Mr. Pompeo said in a statement.

The attacks in Ltamenah received little attention at the time because they did not kill anyone, but they came just days before a Syrian government chemical attack on another town nearby, Khan Sheikhoun, killed more than 80 people on April 4, 2017.

President Trump responded to that attack by ordering the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at military sites in Syria to punish Mr. al-Assad for using chemical weapons.

The White House later declassified a report that accused Syria of not only carrying out the attack, but also working with the Russian government on a disinformation campaign to deflect blame.

After the deadliest chemical attack in Syria’s war, on an area near Damascus known as Ghouta in August 2013, Russia facilitated an international agreement for Syria to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles and dismantle its capabilities.

While members of the Obama administration lauded the agreement for getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons peacefully, reports of chemical attacks by Mr. al-Assad’s forces continued to surface.

The three chemical attacks attributed to the Syrian government in Wednesday’s report came after Syria was supposed to have relinquished all of its chemical weapons.

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.

IIT concludes units of the Syrian Arab Air Force used chemical weapons in Ltamenah, Syria in March 2017

“At approx 6:00 on 24 March 2017, an Su-22 military airplane belonging to the 50th Brigade of the 22nd Air Division of the Syrian Arab Air Force, departing from Shayrat airbase, dropped an M4000 aerial bomb containing sarin in southern Ltamenah, affecting at least 16 persons.”

THE HAGUE, Netherlands – 8 April 2020 – The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released today the findings of the first report by the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT). The IIT is responsible for identifying the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic where the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) has determined that chemical weapons have been used or likely used in Syria.

The IIT’s first report sets out its mandate, the legal and practical challenges of its work, and the findings of the investigations conducted between June 2019 and March 2020, focusing on the incidents in Ltamenah, Syrian Arab Republic on 24, 25, and 30 March 2017. The IIT’s investigation and analysis included a comprehensive review of all of the information obtained including: interviews with persons who were present in the relevant places at the time of the incidents, analysis of samples and remnants collected at the sites of the incidents, review of the symptomatology reported by casualties and medical staff, examination of imagery, including satellite images, and extensive consultation of experts. The investigation relied on relevant FFM reports as well as on samples and other material obtained directly by the Technical Secretariat in the territory of Syria.

The report reached the following conclusions:

  • At approximately 6:00 on 24 March 2017, an Su-22 military airplane belonging to the 50th Brigade of the 22nd Air Division of the Syrian Arab Air Force, departing from Shayrat airbase, dropped an M4000 aerial bomb containing sarin in southern Ltamenah, affecting at least 16 persons.
  • 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.
  • At approximately 6:00 on 30 March 2017, an Su-22 military airplane belonging to the 50th Brigade of the 22nd Air Division of the Syrian Arab Air Force, departing from Shayrat airbase, dropped an M4000 aerial bomb containing sarin in southern Ltamenah, affecting at least 60 persons.

In his recorded statement to States Parties, OPCW Director-General, H.E. Mr Fernando Arias, underscored that:

“[t]he IIT is not a judicial or quasi-judicial body with the authority to assign individual criminal responsibility, nor does the IIT have the authority to make final findings on non-compliance with the Convention. … It is now up 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.”

The IIT Coordinator, Mr Santiago Oñate-Laborde stated in his remarks that:

“[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. … 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.”

The first report by the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team has been shared with all States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention and the United Nations Secretary-General.

Background

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) is responsible for identifying the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic.  The IIT identifies and reports on all information potentially relevant to the origin of those chemical weapons in those instances in which the OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) determines or has determined that use or likely use occurred, and cases for which the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) has not identified the perpetrators of chemical weapons use in Syria.

The IIT is comprised of a multi-disciplinary team of staff, which includes experienced investigators, analysts and a legal adviser who are led by a Coordinator. The team conducts its activities in an impartial and objective manner. The IIT is part of the OPCW Technical Secretariat and functions under the authority of the OPCW Director-General. The Technical Secretariat provides regular reports on its investigations to the OPCW’s Executive Council and to the United Nations Secretary-General for their consideration.

The OPCW Technical Secretariat established the IIT as mandated by the decision of the Conference of the States Parties titled Addressing the Threat from Chemical Weapons Use (C-SS-4/DEC.3) dated 27 June 2018.

As the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention, the OPCW, with its 193 Member States, oversees the global endeavour to permanently eliminate chemical weapons. Since the Convention’s entry into force in 1997, it is the most successful disarmament treaty eliminating an entire class of weapons of mass destruction.

Over 97% of all chemical weapon stockpiles declared by possessor States have been destroyed under OPCW verification. For its extensive efforts in eliminating chemical weapons, the OPCW received the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.

Seven years have passed since the first public accusation by the Syrian Opposition accusing the Syrian regime of using internationally prohibited Chemical weapons. Thousands of photos and videos showed the suffocation of children, women, and elderly. However, the Syrian Regime and its allies have always denied using the chemical weapons, rather accusing the Syrian Opposition of doing so at every ground attack the regime was launching or whenever it was difficult for its troops to surround a specific area under the control of the Opposition, although the Assad regime have used intensive and random aerial as well as artillery shelling, and have killed thousands of civilians.

After using the internationally prohibited chemical weapons for several times in the ongoing Syrian conflict for almost a decade, the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibiting of Chemical Weapons) has finally published the results of the first report by its investigation team (IIT) which is responsible for identifying the party that used the chemical weapons in Syria. This report came after the declaration of the Fact-Finding Mission sent by the same organisation, that chemical weapons have been used in Syria.

The above-mentioned report included a thorough investigation in which all the information collected by the investigation team has been reviewed. The information was collected from areas that witnessed the chemical attacks on the 24th, 25th, and the 30th of March 2017 in al-Latamneh town and its surroundings in the northern countryside of Hama. The report included samples and remnants analysis, interviews with eyewitnesses, the symptoms reported by victims, photos examination (including satellite images), as well as intensive consultation with experts.

The report also identified the type of airplanes that launched the rockets loaded with chemical weapons, its affiliation (to which air force does it belong), the airport they took off from, the type of the shell, the type of the chemical substance (Sarin two times, and Chlorine one time), the place that was shelled and its nature, in addition to the number of the victims in each attack.

Finally, the report clearly identified the party that is responsible for using the chemical weapons by mentioning (they were Syrian Air force’s personnel), the coordinator of the teams also declared that “such strategic attacks would have never been able to be committed unless they were given by the supreme authorities of the military leadership of the Syrian Arab Republic”.

Thus, it has finally been proved to the international community and the world that the Syrian regime that had signed the prohibition of the chemical weapons convention in October 2013, has clearly violated its terms by using the chemical weapons against the civilians several times, which led to the death of thousands of Syrian people.

Now after nine years of waiting for justice, the Syrian people have the right to question the following: 

Isn’t it the time yet for the victims’ families to witness practical procedures taken by the international community to hold the Syrian regime accountable for its crimes, after it has been proven that the regime had committed war crimes against them? 

Isn’t it the time yet for Syrians to see their murderer behind bars? 

Would justice ever have an actual meaning after they have seen the world leaving them behind to face a criminal dictator who has mastered killing and torturing them?