The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has issued a report concluding that — despite restrictions on its investigation, including a roadside bomb and gunfire to deter a visit to a key site — chemical weapons attacks on civilians in April and May are “likely”.
Activists, witnesses, and doctors have claimed that Syrian warplanes dropped chlorine canisters inside barrel bombs on several occasions in Hama and Idlib Provinces, including on the towns of Kafrzita, al-Tamaneh, and Telmenes. Several people died from inhalation of chlorine gas and hundreds were injured.
The attacks occurred as regime forces were checked in attempts to take nearby Morek, on the main highway from Hama to the northwest.
The OPCW describes in detail how in detail how it tried to reach Kafrzita, which was attacked again just after inspectors arrived in Damascus, but was prevented on May 27 by an attack on its convoy. This prevented it “from presenting definitive conclusions”.
However, the inspectors were able to review the testimonies of eyewitnesses and doctors who treated victims. They write:
the available information cannot be dismissed as unconnected, random, or of a nature attributable to purely political motives. This information lends credence to the view that toxic chemicals, most likely pulmonary irritating agents such as chlorine, have been used in a systematic manner in a number of attacks.
Because of the restrictions on their inquiry, the inspectors do not state that the Assad regime was responsible; however, through the emphasis on this information — provided by those who said that Syrian planes carried out the attacks — puts the burden of suspicion on Damascus.
This is reinforced by another passage in the OPCW report. Before the inspectors tried to reach the sites of the attacks, they were briefed for several days by regime officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Feisal Mikdad.
Initially, Mikdad played down any notion of an attack. He said, “Enquries had not yielded any reports of the hospitalisation of victims or reports by local authorities to that effect”, although “this enquiry excluded field hospitals in rebel-held areas”.
A Foreign Ministry team then tried the line “that armed terrorist groups, some of which included foreigners, were engaged in efforts to obtain and use toxic chemicals”: “At two locations, in Tartous and Al-Bayda, chemicals had been captured from armed opposition groups and that a chlorine-producing plant located some 40 kilometers from Aleppo had been seized by armed groups.”
The report suggests the OPCW team was not convinced: “These discussions concluded with the (inspectors) stressing the importance of primary material, preferably Government documentation that would serve to validate some of the material, such as original transcripts of the intercepts and additional information regarding the confiscated chemicals at Tartous and Al Bayda.”
There is no indication in the report that the regime ever provided the requested primary evidence.