OPCW establishes helicopter dropped two cylinders with chlorine on town of Saraqeb
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has formally concluded that chlorine was “likely used” in an attack on the town of Saraqeb in Idlib Province in northwest Syria in February 2018.
The assault followed a pro-Assad ground offensive, enabled by Russian airstrikes, that took part of the southeast of the province over the winter. Saraqeb remained with the opposition, as the ground attacks were halted so pro-Assad forces could concentrate on the reoccupation of East Ghouta near Damascus.
The attack was part of the latest wave of pro-Assad campaign of conventional and chemical bombing across the province, almost all of which has been held by the opposition since 2015. In April 2017, a sarin attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun killed about 90 people and injured hundreds.
Because of a Russia veto in the UN Security Council last November, the OPCW cannot attribute responsibility for the Saraqeb attack.
A Smell of Chlorine and Breathing Difficulties
The report is based on interviews with witnesses, including some of the 11 victims, health workers, and first responders, study of environmental samples, and examination of two cylinders.
The witnesses described how a helicopter — which only regime and Russian forces use in the seven-year conflict — dropped the two cylinders, described as “barrels”, about 9:15 pm. The cylinders did not explode; instead, the chlorine was released through “mechanical impact”.
Patients showed signs and symptoms of irritation of tissue, consistent with exposure to chlorine and other toxic chemicals. Victims suffered from breathing difficulties and vomiting, some falling unconscious.
The OPCW’s Joint Investigative Mechanism formally reported that the Assad regime carried out several chlorine attacks in northwest Syria in 2014 and 2015, before Russia blocked the extension of its mandate.
Occupants of a basement near one of the two impact sites reported the odor of chlorine. They suffered shortness of
breath, nausea, and a burning sensation in the eyes. Some lost consciousness. Other witnesses succumbed as they tried to reach the roof of an adjacent building, despite using cloths to cover their mouth and nose.
First responders who reached the second site, a field near an agricultural bank, also encountered a “strange smell”. The first rescuer lost consciousness, while others had breathing difficulties.
Regime and Russian Responses
In mid-March the Assad regime replied to a request for information with a three-page report. The document noted that Saraqeb had not been under regime control for a long time, and put forth its own analysis based on public summaries.
The OPCW asked for more supporting information. The regime never responded.
Russian State media give a summary of the OPCW findings this morning. They emphasize that the inspectors did not attribute responsibility — without noting that this is impossible because of Moscow’s veto last November. TASS also chides that the US State Department “pinned the blame for [the attack] on the Syrian government without any evidence”.
RT is blatant in its attempt to bury the report, “OPCW Says Chlorine ‘Likely’ Used in Syria Based on Open-Source Info & Samples Provided by Jihadists”.
Some Douma Residents Return from Regime Shelters
Hundreds of people displaced from Douma, the center of the East Ghouta region near Damascus, have returned to their homes after the two-month pro-Assad offensive that overran the area from February to April.
Families arrived from regime shelters in a convoy of five buses on Tuesday night. Another 10 buses were preparing to return “dozens” of families to East Ghouta late Wednesday afternoon, a medical doctor in Douma said.
Zaher al-Masri, a Douma native who has been in a shelter since March, said:
There were moments of joy and weeping. My God, in spite of everything that has happened to us….You hear the families crying that they are returning to their communities, to their homes. It’s a feeling you can’t describe.
Masri said he was not permitted to return to Douma, as only families were invited to register and board buses.
Sources said single men and those wanted for military service have not been permitted to return. A humanitarian worker in Douma said returnees have been thoroughly questioned and those with any suspected connection to the opposition have been put back in shelters.
Families are being asked about every family member, what work they have been doing over the past years, whether they completed military service, and whether they took part in any armed action.
More than 158,000 people were displaced from East Ghouta during the pro-Asssd ground offensive, chemical attacks, and regime and Russian airstrikes. About 120,000 went to opposition-held northern Syria, while an estimated 44,000 were in regime shelters.