OPCW says Syrian forces perpetrated 2017 chemical attack
BEIRUT - Syrian Arab Air Force pilots flying Sukhoi Su-22 military planes and a helicopter dropped bombs containing poisonous chlorine and sarin nerve gas on a village in the country's western Hama region in March 2017, a new team at the global chemical weapons watchdog has concluded in its first report.
The special investigative unit was established by members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 2018 to identify perpetrators of illegal attacks.
The Hague-based body had previously confirmed that sarin and chlorine were used in two attacks in the town of Al-Lataminah, which was the subject of the new report. Another deadly sarin assault took place a few days later on April 4 in nearby Khan Sheikun, killing more than 80 people.
Until now the OPCW had only been authorised to say whether chemical attacks occurred, not who perpetrated them. But the watchdog's member states voted in 2018, following a UN resolution, to give the organisation new powers to name those who use toxic arms.
That led to the formation of the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), a move that was opposed by Moscow and Damascus. The IIT was tasked with "identifying the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic where the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission has determined that chemical weapons have been used or likely used in Syria."
Officials in the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its military backer Russia have repeatedly denied using chemical weapons and accuse the Syrian opposition and its international backers of staging attacks to implicate the Assad regime's forces.
Russian and pro-Assad media outlets, both in the region and internationally, have rejected the OPCW's findings and portrayed its investigations as fabricated and part of a Western plot for regime change in Syria.
In its report, the IIT said more than 100 people were affected by the attacks, carried out on March 24, 25 and 30 in 2017 in Lataminah.
Syria's 50th Brigade of the 22nd Air Division of the Syrian Air Force dropped M4000 aerial bombs containing sarin on the town and a cylinder containing chlorine on a hospital, a summary of the report said. The raids were conducted from the Sharat and Hama air bases, it said.
While individuals were identified by the OPCW investigators, their names have been redacted from the report, which was to be circulated to the OPCW's 193 member states on Wednesday.
"There are reasonable grounds to believe that the perpetrators of the use of sarin as a chemical weapon in Lataminah on March 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," OPCW team leader Santiago Onate-Laborde said in a statement.
"Attacks of such a strategic nature would only have taken place on the basis of orders from the higher authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic military command," he said. "Even if authority can be delegated, responsibility cannot. In the end, the IIT was unable to identify any other plausible explanation."
The OPCW's identification team is not a judicial body and it will be up to the OPCW's members, the UN Secretary General and the international community to "take any further action they deem appropriate and necessary" OPCW chief Fernando Arias said.
An alleged chlorine attack on the Syrian town of Douma led US President Donald Trump to carry out missile strikes on Syrian government targets in April 2018, with the backing of France and Britain. But the new report stopped short of naming the culprit of the Douma attack in which at least 40 people died; that investigation has become a major bone of contention between Damascus and its Russian ally and Western nations.
Created in 1997, the OPCW was initially a technical body to enforce a global non-proliferation treaty, but it has become the focus of diplomatic conflict between Syria and Russia on one side and the United States, France and Britain on the other. The organisation was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013.
The new report will likely lead to fresh calls for accountability for the Assad regime, which has continued to deny the use of chemical weapons and insists it handed over its weapons stockpiles under a 2013 agreement, prompted by a suspected sarin gas attack that killed 1,400 in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.