Amnesty International Says Syria's Latest Chemical Attack Was Another Alleged War Crime

Syria’s government, headed by Bashar al-Assad, has committed a fresh war crime in Syria, according to Amnesty International. The organization claims that Assad’s forces have wiped out an entire family in a chlorine gas attack. Many other civilians were reportedly exposed to the toxic gas, which was supposedly offloaded in two separate attacks on March 16. A representative of the Syrian military has denied responsibility for the attacks, which killed six. The report is the latest in a long line of allegations of chemical warfare that have been laid against Assad’s government.

Yesterday, The Guardian reported that opposition activists accused Assad of using chlorine gas in the attacks on Idlib, in the northwest of the war-stricken country. Unverified images and videos of the attack had been published on social media sites. “This was a bombing by the apostate and criminal Assad regime, which is supported by the west and Arab states,” The Guardian quoted a narrator of one video as saying. A military source told the publication that the reports were opposition propaganda.

The Amnesty International bulletin draws on eyewitness statements from the two villages that were targeted (in an area controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate). A doctor and civil defense officer confirmed that victims exhibited symptoms commensurate with a chemical weapons attack. The assault came just days after Kurdish authorities in Iraq claimed ISIS had employed chlorine gas against peshmerga (Kurdish military) forces.

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The use of chemical weapons is banned by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, but despite chlorine’s use in warfare being covered by the general prohibition, the gas was not specified on the list of banned substances — unlike mustard gas and sarin gas.

The Assad regime’s recourse to chemical weapons first came to international attention in August 2013, after a sarin attack on the Ghouta area around Damascus left more than 1,400 dead. Subsequent intelligence reports linked the Syrian government to multiple chemical attacks in the preceding year. International uproar prompted Assad to agree to relinquish control of deadly toxins used to manufacture chemical weapons. In December of that year, a Danish-led task force prepared to remove the noxious material from Syria. They then planned to deliver the materials to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to be destroyed.

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Syria ended up handing over around 1,300 metric tons of toxic material, according to Reuters, but evidence suggests that chlorine gas was used repeatedly in villages in northern Syria in early 2014. Last month, OPCW claimed that the international task force had obliterated 98 percent of Syria’s stated stores of chemical weapons. The report came after the destruction of a subterranean chemical weapon production facility — the first of 12 such structures slated to be destroyed. Yet, reports of chemical weaponry continue to emerge. Last September, the U.S. vocalized concerns that Assad may have hidden stockpiles of chemical weapons from the international task force.

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A February 2015 Foreign Policy article alleges that Iran is partly to blame for Assad’s apparent immunity. Despite suffering devastating losses to Saddam Hussein's mustard gas in the Iran-Iraq War and consequently urging the world to ban chemical weapons, Tehran is now attempting to shield Assad from international censure, according to the FP article. Iran recently blocked moves by the U.S. and Russia that would have made it possible for the head of OPCW to report to the UN Security Council the results of his agency’s investigation into Assad’s use of chlorine as a weapon of war. At the time, Iran claimed that accusing Assad of chlorine use would be premature. Nevertheless, earlier this month, the UN Security Council passed a U.S.-drafted resolution that condemned the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon in Syria.


But the horrifying advance of ISIS has made even the U.S. soften its Assad policy. Having initially demanded that Assad step down immediately, Obama’s administration is now gunning for more gradual change in Syria. The U.S. government is still equipping rebels, The New York Times points out — but now they’re doing so in order to assist in the fight against ISIS rather than in an attempt to oust the incumbent Syrian government.

Despite the State Department recently confirming that they would not engage directly with Assad, The Washington Post points out that the administration’s current approach is a far cry from their stance in 2013 — when Obama considered a military strike against Syria in response to the government’s use of chemical weaponry. In the fraught current climate, tacit cooperating with Syria’s strongman perhaps seems like the only sensible option.

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