UN Confirms Assad Regime’s Sarin Attack on NW Syria in April

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Doctors treat a young victim of the Assad regime's sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria, April 4, 2017

UN investigators have confirmed the Assad regime’s sarin attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria on April 4.

The report for the UN Human Rights Council said the assault was among 27 chemical attacks by the regime: “Government forces continued the pattern of using chemical weapons against civilians in opposition-held areas. In the gravest incident, the Syrian air force used sarin in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, killing dozens, the majority of whom were women and children.”

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has already found that “sarin or a sarin-like substance” was used on Khan Sheikoun, but its fact-finding mission did not have the authority to assign responsibility.

Multiple witnesses have said a regime Su-22 jet fighter dropped the munition with the nerve agent, amid other conventional airstrikes. Unlike the other bombs, the device with sarin did not explode but landed with a thud as the chemical was released.

Activists said at least 92 people were killed and almost 600 wounded. The UN report says at least 82 deaths have been confirmed, including 28 children and 23 women. Among 293 injured were 103 children.

The UN report on Khan Sheikhoun is based on 43 interviews with eyewitnesses, victims, first responders, and medical workers; satellite imagery,17 photographs of bomb remnants, early warning reports, and videos. It also takes into account the OPCW evidence, including samples from victims, and findings.

The team notes that it sent a note to the regime’s representative in Geneva on April 7 requesting information, but “at the time of writing, no response has been received”.

The report concludes: “The Commission finds that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Syrian forces attacked Khan Shaykhun with a sarin bomb at approximately 6.45 a.m. on 4 April, constituting the war crimes of using chemical weapons and indiscriminate attacks in a civilian inhabited area.”

The Assad regime and its ally Russia have put out a series of contradictory explanations to try and dismiss the incident. Bashar al-Assad has said the attack was “100% fabrication”; however, his agencies gave Khan Sheikhoun samples to the OPCW that verified the presence of sarin. Russia has acknowledged that a chemical was released and that a Su-22 was attacking, but it created the story that the jet fighter hit a “rebel warehouse” with chemical stocks. No evidence of such a warehouse was ever produced, and Moscow’s explanation overlooked that sarin is not active until it is mixed in a munition.

After investigating the multiple regime and Russian claims, the UN report gives a comprehensive rebuttal including no evidence of a rebel weapons depot — with the implication that Russia tried to portray a damaged grain silo as the “wrehouse” — and exposure of the regime Foreign Ministry and Russian Ministry of Defense’s erroneous timings for events.

In addition to its conclusion on the sarin attack, the UN commission documents deliberate airstrikes on the only medical facility in Khan Sheikhoun, as it was treating victims. It notes that the regime and/or Russian warplanes used
“cluster incendiary munition”.

By bombing the al-Rahma medical point, which also destroyed ambulances, Syrian and/or Russian forces committed the war crimes of deliberately attacking protected objects, and intentionally attacking medical personnel and transport.

The team said they had documented 33 chemical weapons attacks, confirmed the 27 by the Assad regime, including seven between March 1 and July 7. They also noted “Syrian and/or Russian forces continued to target hospitals and medical personnel”.

In addition to the assault on Khan Sheikhoun, pro-Assad forces have been using a chemical, probably chlorine, in “toxic gas” attacks in northeast Damascus and nearby suburbs in recent months.

The UN team has not yet identified perpetrators in six of the earliest attacks.

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Scott Lucas is Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham and editor-in-chief of EA WorldView. He is a specialist in US and British foreign policy and international relations, especially the Middle East and Iran. Formerly he worked as a journalist in the US, writing for newspapers including the Guardian and The Independent and was an essayist for The New Statesman before he founded EA WorldView in November 2008.

14 COMMENTS

  1. The report was not carried out by weapons investigators but, rather, by a Human rights council:
    https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G17/234/18/PDF/G1723418.pdf?OpenElement
    Here is the “evidence” that the UN commission cites, taken almost wholly from the previous HRW report:

    1. “Photographs of the impact site show a hole, too small to be considered a crater, and the remnants of what appears to have been a Soviet- era chemical bomb.” (this has already been debunked)
    2. “Two parts of the bomb were found at the site, a large piece of the weapon body marked in green for chemical payload and a filler cap for chemical weapons.” (again straight from the HRW report).
    3. “The Commission identified three of the bombs as likely OFAB-100-120.” These are conventional.
    4. “The Commission cannot discount the possibility that interviewees did not acknowledge the existence of a chemical weapons depot out of fear of retaliation or out of loyalty to HTS or armed groups.”

    • 1. The report was carried out by UN investigators and presented to the UN Human Rights Council.

      2. The evidence is all original findings of the team — none of it is “taken from the Human Rights Watch report” (although its findings reinforce those of HRW) — as well as noting the findings of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission this summer.

      3. Your claimed quotes are rather desperate distortions. Here is the full, proper finding on the chemical munition:

      “Based on crater analysis and satellite imagery, the Commission was able to identify three conventional bombs, likely OFAB-100-120, and the
      remaining a chemical bomb. The chemical bomb landed in the middle of a street in a northern neighbourhood of Khan Shaykhun, approximately 150 meters from al-Yousuf park, close to a bakery and a grain silo, which interviewees explained was not operational and unused for any purpose after having been hit by an airstrike in 2016. Eyewitnesses further recalled how this bomb made less noise and produced less smoke than the other three bombs, which is confirmed by video footage of the attack. Photographs of the impact site show a hole, too small to be considered a crater, and the remnants of what appears to
      have been a Soviet-era chemical bomb. The small hole is indicative of a weapon which used a contact fuze and small burster to deploy chemical agents, with the kinetic energy of the bomb’s body creating most of the hole. Two parts of the bomb were found at the site, a large piece of the weapon body marked in green for chemical payload and a filler cap for chemical weapons. Although the Commission is unable to determine the exact type of chemical bomb used, the parts are consistent with sarin bombs produced by the former Soviet Union in the 250kg-class of bombs, which would have approximately 40kg of sarin,
      depending on the munition used.”

      4. Yes, the Commission identified three conventional bombs *in addition to* the chemical munition.

      5. Here is the full, proper statement about the mysterious “rebel warehouse” (correcting for your flagrant distortion):

      “In its investigation, the Commission considered and investigated all potential scenarios, including claims put forward by Russian and Syrian officials. The Commission has not, however, found any evidence to support the claim that HTS or armed groups had a weapons depot in the area where the chemical bomb impacted. Satellite imagery shows damage to a structure at a nearby grain silo which could correlate with the area where the victims of the sarin release were found, though the silo and a nearby bakery were empty following airstrikes last year. Furthermore, the Russian Federation Ministry of Defence and
      the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs argue that the weapons depot was hit between 11.30 a.m. and 12.30, while the evidence laid out above overwhelmingly indicates that the sarin gas was released at around 6.45 a.m.

      Though the Commission cannot discount the possibility that interviewees did not acknowledge the existence of a weapons depot out of fear of retaliation or out of loyalty to HTS or armed groups, it notes that it is extremely unlikely that an airstrike against such a depot could release sarin stored inside that structure in amounts sufficient to explain the numbers of casualties recorded.”

      • 1. The report just repeats the HRW claim that the rocket shown in the small hole in the road was actually a Soviet-era bomb which it fails to identify. The report provides no physical evidence at all to back this claim. Two indepedent weapons experts have demonstrated it was a rocket and not an aerial chemical bomb.
        2. The fact that 3 conventional bomb (sites) were identified, backs up the government claim that they conducted *conventional airstrikes* on rebel targets in Khan Sheiykhoun.
        3. Regarding the CW depot, the silo was clearly hit by the air force. The reporters claim any sarin inside the silo would have been destroyed, but this is completely incorrect if the sarin was kept in liquid form.
        4. The point about the witnesses goes beyond the alleged depot strike. The Comission admits that the witnesses could either be rebel sympathisers or were fearful of retribution from the militants controlling the town. That, in itself, means all of their testimony cannot be regarded as being credible and reliable.

        • As you have already 1) failed to note the original research in the report; 2) deliberately distorted the information in the report; 3) failed to note any of the 43 interviews carried out for the report; 4) failed to note the comprehensive rebuttal of the regime-Russia propaganda over a “Russian warehouse”; 5) failed to note the evidence of the munition that buries the disinfo/dubious analysis (Barton, Postol, etc.)….

          I think we all know why are you flailing here. I leave you to that task.

          • 1) Did UN investigators carry out any investigation of and examine the actual location Scott? If not, then there is no “original research in the report”
            2) 43 interviews are meaningless if those being interviewed are lying
            3) There was no mention of a Russian warehouse
            5) Zero evidence has been produced that a Sarin attack was perpetrated by said munition.

            • 1. Original research — as report makes clear, if you read it — includes interviews, soil samples, satellite images, audio, geolocation data, biometric and biological data. Please consider before replying further.

              2. When you have any basis to challenge the veracity of the interviews, please do so.

              3. I have no clue what you are talking about.

              4. You clearly have not read the OPCW report, this report, or any report about the incident.

              • 1. Original research — as report makes clear, if you read it — includes interviews, soil samples, satellite images, audio, geolocation data, biometric and biological data. Please consider before replying further.

                The OPCW acknowledges that its personnel did not gain access to Khan Sheikhun at any time. Only that it used connections with “parties with knowledge of and connections to the area in question,” to gain access to samples that were collected by “non governmental organizations (NGOs)” ie White Helmets which have ZERO credibility. Under no circumstances could any samples taken by White Helmet personnel and subsequently turned over to the OPCW be considered viable in terms of chain of custody. Same holds true for any biomedical samples evaluated by the OPCW

                2. When you have any basis to challenge the veracity of the interviews, please do so.

                Sure.

                1. Interviews involved the White Helmet.
                2. The method of identifying the munition with the nerve agent was based on the alleged sound it made even though this is clearly absurd on it’s face
                3. To date, no physical evidence has been produced of there actually having been a chemical weapon, let alone what kind of weapon was allegedly employed.

                4. You clearly have not read the OPCW report, this report, or any report about the incident.

                A/HRC/36/55 ridiculously says wind from S to E at Khan Sheikhoun 06:45 4 APR based on ‘historical weather forecasts’ – ignoring the actual wind direction of the day.

                A/HRC/36/55 ridiculously claims temperature 13C at Khan Sheikhoun at 06:45 4 APR. Despite it being 9C at Latakia and 7C at Damascus. pic.twitter.com/UGRJ554ZfI

                You wrote that Multiple witnesses have said a regime Su-22 jet fighter dropped the munition with the nerve agent, amid other conventional airstrikes.

                Yet the OPCW report states that

                6.19 Although, some witnesses advised that the release was due to a munition dropped
                from an aircraft, the FFM was unable to retrieve any items from the site which would
                indicate the means of dispersal of a chemical.
                After analysing photographs and video
                supplied by witnesses, the FFM could not establish with a great degree of confidence
                the means of deployment and dispersal of the chemical.

              • 1. No, OPCW and UN investigators used multiple witnesses from multiple backgrounds. The line “White Helmets only” is a propaganda smear.

                2. Again on the chemical munition, you clearly have no understanding of why the sound matters (because a chemical munition is different from a conventional bomb) and you have not read the UN report on the basis for concluding chemical munition.

                3. You are unable to note that temperature varies from city to city and your assertion on wind is unsupported.

                4. Your response to “multiple witnesses” citing jet fighter is an irrelevance about retrieval of munition. And again you have ignored details in UN report which verifies the munition and capability of dispersal of chemical.

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