Cutting through propaganda to track possible and confirmed sarin attacks inside Syria from December 2012 to April 2017
Last week UN investigators issued a report concluding that the Assad regime had used sarin nerve agent in an attack on Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria in April 2017, as well as carrying out 26 other chemical attacks.
The Assad regime and Russia — assisted by their supporters — denied the conclusions, as they have done with all the attacks, including the multiple assaults near Damascus in August 2013 that killed more than 1,400 people.
Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat, the specialist geolocation site, has monitored the use of chemical weapons throughout the Syrian conflict. He has posted a 10,000-word history of the cases involving sarin:
*The first possible attack by the Assad regime’s forces, in Homs city in December 2012
*The March 2013 attack in Khan al-Assad in Aleppo Province, where responsibility is still disputed
*Possible attacks between March and August 2013
*The Assad regime’s August 21, 2013 attacks near Damascus
*The Khan Sheikhoun attack
….Data from various sources, including declassified material from French intelligence, a timeline from the Arms Control Association, and The Havard Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Weapons, points to the initial allegations of chemical weapon use in Syria in 2012. One of the first was a December 23, 2012 incident in the Khaldiyeh and Bayada neighborhoods of Homs. Several videos posted online showed the victims of the attack, with one video published with English subtitles.
Local activists quoted by Al Jazeera on December 24th stated “We don’t know what this gas is, but medics are saying it’s something similar to sarin gas.” Al Jazeera later cited a “former scientist for the Syrian chemical weapons program” who claimed Sarin was used to halt advances by rebel forces in a number of towns, including “Homs’ al-Khalidiyeh district”, and that a “diluted mix of sarin and isopropyl alcohol was likely used in December 2012.”
However, the claims of Sarin use were also made alongside claims that another chemical agent was used in the attack, known as “Agent-15” or “BZ“. The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) interviewed witnesses and victims of the attack, and described the “probable” use of BZ:
The gas effects started [a] few seconds after the area was shelled. Right after the shelling, patients described seeing white gas with odor, then they had severe shortness of breath, loss of vision, inability to speak, flushed face, dizziness, paralysis, nausea and vomiting, and increased respiratory secretions. Doctors who treated patients said that patients had pinpoint pupils and bronchospasm. Patients were treated in a field hospital. Gas masks were not available.
In January 2013, Foreign Policy published details of a cable, signed by the US Consul General in Istanbul, Scott Frederic Kilner, and sent to the State Department, detailing the consulate’s investigation into reports of chemical weapon use in Syria. This included interviews with activists, doctors, and defectors, including Mustafa al-Sheikh, a high-level defector and key official in Syria’s WMD program. Foreign Policy reported that an Obama administration official stated, “We can’t definitely say 100 percent, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec. 23.”
The day after the Foreign Policy report was published, White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement: “The reporting we have seen from media sources regarding alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria has not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program.”
While the exact nature of the chemical agent remains unclear, the results of its use were between 5-7 reported deaths and 50-100 injured, according to doctors contacted by Foreign Policy and reports by SAMS published by the US-based Humanitarian Resource Institute.
On the morning of March 19, 2013, reports were published by the Syrian news agency SANA accusing rebel groups of attacking the town of Khan Al Assal, west of Aleppo city, with chemical weapons. Initial reports from state media claimed the attack launched from rebel-held Kafr Dael, 5 km north of Khan al Assal, killed “25 people and wounded dozens”, with a Reuters photographer describing what he encountered at hospitals treating the victims:
A Reuters photographer said victims he had visited in Aleppo hospitals were suffering breathing problems and that people had said they could smell chlorine after the attack.
“I saw mostly women and children,” said the photographer, who cannot be named for his own safety.
He quoted victims at the University of Aleppo hospital and the al-Rajaa hospital as saying people were dying in the streets and in their houses.
In addition to the civilian victims, various sources claimed soldiers had been victims of the attack, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claiming in initial reports that 16 soldiers were among the dead. Footage of the victims receiving treatment was published by SANA and broadcast by international media.
The response of the Syrian opposition was to allege forces loyal to the Syrian government were responsible for the attack:
The Aleppo Media Center, affiliated with the rebels, said there were cases of “suffocation and poison” among civilians in Khan al-Assal after a surface-to-surface missile was fired at the area. It said in a statement the cases were “most likely” caused by regime forces’ use of “poisonous gases”.
An activist in Aleppo province who identified himself as Yassin Abu Raed, not his real name, confirmed the attack and said there were at least 40 cases of suffocation in the area and several deaths. But he said no details were available as casualties were being taken to a government controlled area in Aleppo.
Abu Raed declined to give his real name because of security concerns.
He said it did not make sense for the rebels to fire a chemical weapon at an area they had recently seized, and accused the government instead.
“Why would the Free Syrian Army bomb themselves with a chemical weapon?” he asked.
Russia supported the Syrian government allegations, while the US denied rebel groups had used chemical weapons. On March 20th, the Syrian Government contacted the UN Secretary General, requesting “a specialized, impartial and independent mission” to investigate Khan al-Assal, with other member states requesting an investigation of all chemical incidents reported in Syria. By March 26th, the Secretary General had appointed Professor Åke Sellström to head the United Nations fact-finding mission to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Meanwhile, both sides continued to accuse each other of being responsible for the attack.