Chemicals used in Idlib attacked in Syria: HRW 


April 15, New York: Human Rights Watch said that Syrian government forces used toxic chemicals in several barrel bomb attacks in Idlib governorate between March 16 and 31, 2015. Syrian rescue workers reported that these attacks affected at least 206 people, including 20 civil defense workers. One attack killed six civilians, including three children. The attacks violated the Chemical Weapons Convention and a United Nations Security Council resolution.

HRW conducted inquiries into six attacks in which Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs containing gas canisters that local residents reported contained chemicals. In three of these attacks, witness accounts and photo and video evidence strongly indicated a chemical attack; three other incidents require follow-up inquiries. While Human Rights Watch cannot conclusively establish the chemical used, several witnesses described a chlorine smell. Syrian government forces have previously dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas.

“Syrian authorities appear once again to have shown complete disregard for human suffering by violating the global prohibition against chemical warfare,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The UN Security Council and countries that are members of the Chemical Weapons Convention need to respond strongly.”

Syrian Civil Defence volunteers, a group of rescue workers operating in areas outside the control of the government, documented 14 barrel bombs that contained apparently toxic chemicals. They reported that they were used in seven attacks in four locations in Idlib governorate between March 16 and 31. Local activists and journalists reported additional similar attacks.

In three attacks examined by Human Rights Watch, people near the impact sites exhibited symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals, and gas canisters were among the barrel bomb remnants at the impact sites, Human Rights Watch said. Witnesses described a strong chlorine smell at the impact sites or from the clothes of those affected.

All the attacks took place in territory controlled by armed opposition groups and in the context of fighting for control of the city of Idlib. On March 18, the Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra and other armed opposition groups opened a major offensive against government forces in the city that culminated in its capture on March 28.

Two witnesses near the targeted areas in two of the incidents said they heard helicopters shortly before the attacks. First responders saw and filmed remnants of barrel bombs, which can only be delivered by aircraft. Only government forces are known to use barrel bombs in Syria.

Among the remnants, witnesses reported finding containers typically used for refrigerants in refrigerators and air-conditioners. Videos and photos from the aftermath of five attacks, including material shared by the Syrian Civil Defence, show containers of a size, shape, and design commonly used for refrigerants. These canisters are easy to refill with other gases and widely available in Syria.

Three doctors who treated those exposed in two of the attacks told Human Rights Watch that symptoms included trouble breathing, burning eyes, burning sensation in the throat, and coughing. In the most serious cases, the doctors described patients suffering from pulmonary edema, or fluid in the lungs. Keith Ward, an independent expert on the detection and effects of chemical warfare agents, reviewed the clinical signs and symptoms described to Human Rights Watch and the videos of victims from two of the attacks and said they were consistent with exposure to a choking agent.

It was not possible to conclusively determine what toxic chemicals were used, Human Rights Watch said. The chlorine smell reported by rescue workers and doctors, a local journalist’s report of a yellow gas leaking from a refrigerant canister after an attack on Idlib city, and the Syrian government’s previous use of chlorine, suggest this chemical. Some symptoms of the victims are also consistent with acute exposure to refrigerants or to toxic gases that can result from the combustion of such refrigerants, but exposure to refrigerants alone would not account for the smell of chlorine.

Witness accounts, photos, and videos also indicate that barrel bombs in at least five attacks contained bottles with a red liquid, which Human Rights Watch has not been able to identify. It is unknown what role, if any, this red liquid may have played in the attacks or their medical consequences.

The Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria ratified in October 2013, bans attacks that use an industrial chemical as a weapon. Among other obligations, each member country agrees never to “assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention.”

On March 6, 2015, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2209 in which it expressed concern that toxic chemicals had been used as a weapon in Syria and decided that in the event of non-compliance, it would impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

The Security Council, which discussed reports of toxic attacks in Syria on April 2, should take decisive action to stop the use of toxic chemicals as a method of warfare, including by establishing responsibility for the attacks and imposing an arms embargo on parties using such weapons, Human Rights Watch said.

The Security Council should direct all parties to the conflict in Syria to grant the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) access and provide for the mission’s safety and security in areas under their jurisdiction or control. On March 25, the OPCW director general stated that they are monitoring “the recent reports suggesting that toxic chemicals may have been used as weapons in the Idlib province” of Syria.

“The Syrian government appears to be thumbing its nose at the Security Council and international law yet again,” Houry said. “The Security Council shouldn’t delay getting to the bottom of this recurring use of chemical weapons and press the government to stop.

The Oslo Times

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