Abdel Hamid al-Youssef holds his twin children, killed in the Assad regime’s sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria on April 4, 2017

Just over five years ago, an Assad regime warplane dropped a canister filled with sarin nerve agent on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria. Within hours, more than 90 people — including more than 30 children — were killed and hundreds were injured.

Among the victims were 25 members of Abdel Hamid al-Youssef’s family, including his wife and infant twins.

“In seconds, everything was erased. Life was completely erased,” Youssef, now 33, tells Reuters.

See also How UN Concluded Assad Regime Carried Out Sarin Attack on Khan Sheikhoun

The UN and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have found the Assad regime responsible for about 35 chemical attacks during Syria’s 11-year conflict, including the assault on Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017.

However, while individual former officials have been convicted of crimes against humanity, there is still no case against Assad, his inner circle, or his military commanders.

Youssef says, “There is no deterrent for Russia. Until this day, the criminal is free.”

“Rooms of Martyrs”

The Assad regime first used sarin on August 20, 2013, in attacks on at least seven sites in East Ghouta and West Ghouta near Damascus. More than 1,400 civilians were killed.

Because Syria was not a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention, there was no international mechanism to ascribe responsibility for the attack, although UN inspectors did conclude that sarin had been deployed.

Staving off a military response from the US, Russia brokered the regime’s accession to the Convention, but Damascus continued its chemical assaults with chlorine, which is not a banned substance. Scores of civilians were killed and hundreds wounded in the series of attacks.

In the run-up to Khan Sheikhoun, the regime dropped both sarin and chlorine on nearby Latamineh. Then, about 6:30 a.m. on April 4, 2017, an Assad jet released the sarin on the town in Idlib Province.

Youssef tried to take his family to safety at his parents’ home. He stopped to help a neighbor, as his wife went ahead.

As he loaded casualties into a pickup truck, Youssef noticed that some were foaming at the mouth. Then, trying to help his niece, he lost consciousness. Hours later, he woke up in hospital.

When he returned home, he saw the bodies:

There were rooms of martyrs. I didn’t know which one to take: my brother, my nephew, my children, my wife. They put them in shrouds. We took them to the cemetery and buried them there.

The Legacy of The Attacks

Member states of the OPCW finally authorized an investigative mechanism which could ascribe responsibility for the chemical attacks. In October 2017, inspectors formally concluded that “the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017”.

Unsettled by the report, Assad’s essential ally Russia immediately disputed the report and vetoed further investigations. The regime resumed its chemical attacks, killing 43 people when it dropped chlorine on Douma near Damascus on April 7, 2018.

OPCW members, over Russia’s objections, were able to establish a new mechanism for inspections. In March 2019, the Fact Finding Mission reported “reasonable grounds” to conclude that chlorine was used; the process to ascribe responsibility is ongoing.

Russia and its allies continue their disinformation campaign to deny any chemical attacks by the Assad regime. Outlets like The Grayzone, posing as news sites, manufacture “leaks” to declare that anti-Assad groups carried out the attacks or faking them in “managed massacres”.

See also Denying Syria’s Chemical Attacks, Attacking the Inspectors — The Douma Case

Meanwhile, Youssef says he still feels the effects of the attack, fainting when he smells strong odors such as household chlorine.

Worse, he says, is the psychological impact. Each day he lives — without his wife and children — in fear.

Hamid Ketteny carried the bodies of six children killed in Khan Sheikhoun. He helped document the mass killing, battling the disinformation to cover it up.

Five years later, he says, “The silence of the international community towards the crimes previously committed here in Syria has allowed Russia and others to commit crimes in the rest of the world, and currently in Ukraine.”