On 3 August 2016 two alleged chemical gas attacks were reported in northern Syria, in the first, cylinders suspected of containing chlorine gas were dropped in residential areas in the city of Saraqeb in Idlib province by either Syrian government forces, or the Russian Air Force, according to the anti-regime, voluntary search-and-rescue group Idlib Civil Defence.
In the second alleged incident, the Syrian government claimed that “terrorist groups” carried out a gas attack that killed five people in the besieged city of Aleppo, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) northeast of Saraqeb.
These alleged attacks took place more than six months after the OPCW announced that the US company Veolia, that had been contracted by the OPCW to dispose of part of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile, had completed disposal of 75 cylinders of hydrogen fluoride at its facility in Texas.
The OPCW said that it completed the destruction of all chemical weapons declared by the Syrian Arab Republic. The need to devise a technical solution for treating a number of cylinders in a deteriorated and hazardous condition had delayed this disposal process.
Commenting on this development, the OPCW Director-General, Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, said: “This process closes an important chapter in the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapon programme as we continue efforts to clarify Syria’s declaration and address ongoing use of toxic chemicals as weapons in that country.”
Following the 3 August incidents the OPCW said that it continues to examine any credible reports it receives including pertinent information that might be shared by States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Director-General of the OPCW recalled, “States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention deem the use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances as reprehensible and wholly contrary to the legal norms established by the international community”.
According to a recent report by the Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS) nearly 1,500 people have been killed in chemical weapons attacks in Syria during the five-year civil war. The report claims that the vast majority of the documented attacks and the ensuing civilian casualties were perpetrated by the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
The report documents 161 chemical attacks in Syria, details of which were gathered from doctors operating on the ground in the areas that bore the brunt of chemical warfare, and which led to the deaths of 1,491 people and 14,581 injuries due to exposure to chemicals. More than a third of the attacks used chlorine gas, and the vast majority of those came after a UN Security Council resolution condemning its use.
The most devastating chemical attack was carried out by the Assad government in August 2013 in the besieged Eastern Ghouta near Damascus. The attack used sarin gas and may have killed more than 1,000 civilians.
2015 saw the greatest use of chemical agents in the war, with 69 documented attacks, despite the dismantling of much of Syria’s stockpile, as the use of nerve agents such as sarin all but ceased, only to be replaced with widespread attacks using so-called “barrel bombs” laced with chlorine.
Russia, Syria’s key military ally, vehemently denied that the 3 August chemical attack took place and said the claims of it using chlorine weapons were fabricated by the media. At the same time the United States was not ready to officially call the incident in Saraqeb a chemical attack, but there is growing confidence that this was the case and US officials think chlorine was possibly used. Evidence points to the Assad regime because the attack came from the sky and the anti-regime groups do not have any aircraft.
These ongoing incidents call into question the effectiveness of the deal brokered by the major powers that was supposed to dismantle much of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, but attacks using chlorine have since continued in the country.
Moreover, the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL) has also deployed chlorine and mustard agent in attacks on opposition and anti-ISIL fighters. Again, verification of ISIL’s capability to acquire and use chemical weapons without an effective method of delivery, for example, aircraft.Nevertheless, in what some observers considered a reaction to the claimed attack in Saraqeb, Russia announced that its Tu-22M3 strategic bombers had attacked ISIL targets in the Syrian province of Raqqa on 11 August. Six Russian Air Force bombers destroyed an ISIL chemical weapons factory and killed its personnel near the terrorist stronghold in Raqqa. Russian air strikes also destroyed a large warehouse containing weapons, munitions and fuel and a large ISIL training camp.
Again, there has been no independent verification of these claims and chemical attacks, by some or all of the diverse groups battling for control of was weary Syria, are likely to continue until an unlikely diplomatic solution becomes a reality.