After the use of chemical weapons of mass destruction (CWMD) in the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun in April, American and French intelligence publicly assessed that the perpetrator was the regime of Bashar al-Asad, and President Donald Trump acted swiftly to punish the atrocity. The United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic released a report on 6 September that ratifies these findings, concluding that Asad attacked the population of Khan Shaykhun with chemical weapons.
The U.N. has documented twenty-five chemical attacks between March 2013 and March 2017, “of which 20 were perpetrated by government forces and used primarily against civilians.” Just during the reporting period—1 March to 7 July 2017—the Asad despotism attacked civilians at least three times with chemical weapons, in Latamina, Eastern Ghuta, and Khan Shaykhun.
At about 6:30 on 30 March, “an unidentified warplane dropped two bombs in an agricultural field” to the south of al-Latamina. The first made no sound, though the second exploded. At least eight-five people “suffered from respiratory difficulties, loss of consciousness, red eyes and impaired vision.” Twelve farmers, two of them minors, located nearly one-thousand feet away were injured, and “nine medical personnel who treated patients without protection also fell ill.”
The rebellion does not have an air force, nor does the former Syrian al-Qaeda branch Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), nor does the Islamic State (IS). The pro-Asad coalition’s “aerial campaign in the area, the absence of indications that Russian forces have ever used chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, and the repeated use of chemical weapons by the Syrian air force” leave little doubt about who is responsible for the Latamina poison gas attack. The Commission was “unable to identify the exact agent” used on this occasion, but the symptoms “indicate poisoning by a phosphor-organic chemical, such as a pesticide or a nerve agent.”
(The U.N. report also documented the Asad regime’s systematic use of conventional weaponry to destroy medical facilities and infrastructure, including confirming the reports from human rights organizations that five days before the chemical attack, on 25 March, Asad’s regime assaulted the hospital in al-Latamina, dropping a barrel bomb from a helicopter at about 13:00, “killing three civilian men—a surgeon and two patients—and injuring a number of staff and patients.”)
The Asad regime has “continued the pattern of using chemical weapons against civilians in opposition-held areas”, the United Nations reports, weaponizing chlorine in a number of zones, with the East Ghuta suburbs of Damascus being a particular target of this policy:
As part of its offensive to fully besiege Barza, Tishreen and Qabun, three rockets were launched on the afternoon of 29 March from government forces positions into a residential area of central Qabun municipality, close to the Al-Hayat hospital, as well as into neighbouring Tishreen. One of the rockets released a white cloud in Qabun and witnesses recalled the spread of gas, which smelled strongly of domestic chlorine. Thirty-five persons were injured, including one woman and two children. Victims exhibited symptoms consistent with chlorine exposure …
On 7 April, shortly after midday, Al-Hayat hospital received two men suffering from milder manifestations of the same symptoms. In the first week of July, government forces used chlorine against Faylaq ar-Rahman fighters in Damascus on three occasions: on 1 July in Ayn Tarma, on 2 July in Zamalka and on 6 July in Jobar. In total, 46 fighters suffered from red eyes, hypoxia, rhinorrhoea, spastic cough and bronchial secretions.
Idlib and Hama were also victims of persistent regime attacks with chlorine.
Khan Shaykhun was “the gravest incident”, the U.N. Commission noted, where at least eighty-three people were slaughtered with Sarin nerve agent on 4 April, sixty-percent of them women and children—twenty-three women and twenty-eight children. At least 293 others were injured by the gas attack in Khan Shaykhun, 103 of them children.
There has been a concerted campaign to deny that the Asad regime was responsible for the CWMD attack in Khan Shaykhun, led by such luminaries as:
- Former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who was removed from the scene for a time because of imprisonment but soon got to work attacking the mainstream opposition to Asad upon his release;
- Professor Theodore Postol of MIT, whose alternative thesis on events in Khan Shaykhun works only so long as the laws of time do not and who collaborated with a pro-Hizballah conspiracy theorist to exculpate Asad for a prior CWMD attack;
- The former British ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, a longstanding, vocal supporter of Asad, connected directly to the regime’s lobbying effort in the United Kingdom;
- Noam Chomsky, the well-known linguist and anti-American critic whose career began with his commentary on the Indochina war, notably a defence of the Khmer Rouge regime on the basis that its excesses in Cambodia, always assuming they exist, were the “direct consequence” of American policy, a position he has, mutatis mutandis, maintained ever since;
- Gareth Porter, an investigative reporter who gained prominence during the Vietnam war for his relentless efforts to minimize communist criminality, beginning with his denial that the Viet Cong had massacred civilians in their thousands at Hue, moving on to a denial that the Vietnamese Stalinists massacred their opponents after the takeover, and culminating, naturally, in a denial—repeated before Congress—that the Cambodian genocide was taking place while the killing fields were in full operation [UPDATE: Porter produced a new article on 13 September denying Asad’s responsibility for Khan Shaykhun]; and
- Perhaps most prominently: Seymour Hersh, the famous American journalist who made his name by revealing to the public that the U.S. military was punishing those U.S. soldiers involved in murdering civilians in the Vietnamese village of My Lai in March 1968. Hersh regained some prominence in 2004 when, in not dissimilar circumstances, he reported that the U.S. military had begun legal proceedings against those—notably Charles Graner and Lynndie England—that had engaged in torture and maltreatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Since then, Hersh has produced a raft of increasingly hysterical stories on the Middle East, whether it was the events surrounding the death of Usama bin Ladin or U.S. policy from Iran to Lebanon and now Syria (see: here, here, and here).
This list is by no means exhaustive. The Commission methodically dispenses with the considerable disinformation stockpiled by the above-mentioned and many others in relation to the Khan Shaykhun attack.
The Commission “conducted 43 interviews with eyewitnesses, victims, first responders and medical workers. It also collected satellite imagery, photographs of bomb remnants, early warning reports and videos of the area”. The results are encyclopedically documented in the appendix. The Commission, further, reviewed the findings of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which released a report on 30 June that, among other things, torpedoed Hersh’s thesis.
Ultimately, “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 use of sarin by Syrian forces also violates the” Chemical Weapons Convention that Asad signed as part of the Russian-orchestrated diplomacy that spared his regime retribution for running over President Obama’s “red line” by murdering 1,400 people with Sarin nerve agent on the morning of 21 August 2013.
Important as these findings are, they warrant two caveats. First, the use of Sarin by the Asad regime would appear to be a good deal more widespread than international investigators are able to keep up with. Second, it should be understood that in the annals of the Asad regime’s crimes against humanity, weapons of mass destruction constitute a tiny component. The Asad regime—backed at all stages by Iran and Russia—has used its air force to obliterate cities and with them tens of thousands of civilians, for example, and Asad’s prison system is an archipelago of extermination with few precedents since the Nazi Holocaust in the scale and quality of its cruelty. Alongside the tens of thousands of people already murdered in Asad’s jails—a number we will never truly know now the regime has installed crematoria to destroy the evidence—there are at least 75,000 people who have “disappeared” into these concentration camps, currently undergoing a daily routine of torture that could be cut short by murder at any moment.
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UPDATE: On 4 October 2017, the head of OPCW, Ahmet Uzumcu, spoke to AFP and confirmed that his organization had assessed samples taken from the 30 March chemical attack against Latamina, and the results “prove” that Sarin was used. “What we know at the moment is not much. Fifty people were reportedly injured. There were no deaths reported,” Uzumcu said.
There have been at least three prior Sarin attacks, all of them by the Asad regime: in Khan al-Asal (19 March 2013), Saraqib (29 April 2013), and East Ghuta (21 August 2013). The Asad regime has alleged that its forces were attacked with Sarin in areas around Damascus—Bahariya (22 August 2013), Jobar (24 August 2013), and Ashrafiya Sahnaya (25 August 2013)—though the evidence remains unclear.
Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society