Assad Regime Carried Out 2018 Chlorine Attack in Syria, Investigators Say - The Wall Street Journal.

Steven L. Robinson

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Assad Regime Carried Out 2018 Chlorine Attack in Syria, Investigators Say

Findings by international chemical-weapons watchdog add to evidence of Syrian government’s war crimes

By Jared Malsin/The Wall Street Journal/Jan. 27, 2023

An international chemical-weapons watchdog on Friday blamed the Syrian air force for a 2018 chlorine attack that killed at least 43 people, adding more evidence of war crimes committed by the government of President Bashar Al Assad during the country’s decadelong civil war.

A report from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said investigators concluded that Mr. Assad’s forces were behind the April 2018 attack, basing their findings on 70 chemical samples, 66 witness statements, satellite data and other forensic evidence. 

During the attack, military personnel loyal to Mr. Assad dropped chlorine cylinders from a helicopter on apartment buildings in the city of Douma, just outside the Syrian capital, the report said. The U.S., France and the U.K. responded to the chemical attack with missile strikes targeting the Syrian government later that month.

The investigators “considered a range of possible scenarios and tested their validity against the evidence they gathered and analyzed to reach their conclusion: that the Syrian Arab Air Forces are the perpetrators of this attack,” the report said

The Syrian government didn’t immediately comment. Syria’s mission to the United Nations in New York didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The findings add to evidence of crimes committed by the Syrian military and allies of Mr. Assad over more than 10 years of war that unfolded since a 2011 revolution that sought to overthrow his government. Mr. Assad’s forces, backed by Russia and Iran, also have used indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, industrial-scale torture and starvation sieges in a long campaign to end an armed rebellion against his rule, according to investigations by the U.S. government, the U.N., journalists and human-rights groups.

Courts in Germany have convicted Syrian government officers and members of the extremist Islamic State group in recent years, opening the door to potential trials of other alleged war criminals in the future.

Chlorine is a choking agent. Its greenish-yellow clouds of gas cause shortness of breath, wheezing, respiratory failure, irritation in the eyes, vomiting, and sometimes death. Chlorine’s effects are also largely psychological: The chemical triggers fear, shock and panic in a way that other conventional weapons don’t.

The Syrian regime has used the chemical in a range of attacks on rebel-held areas of Syria, U.N. and OPCW investigations show. A study published in 2019 by the Global Public Policy Institute, an independent think tank in Berlin, found that the government had carried out 98% of the 336 chemical attacks executed in Syria up to that time.

Videos from the 2018 chemical attack from the Syria Civil Defense rescue organization, known as the White Helmets, showed civilians’ lifeless bodies lying in their homes, people foaming at the mouth and crying children being treated for the effects of the gas.

The findings Friday come at a critical time for Syria when Mr. Assad is starting to rekindle diplomatic relations with a range of countries that had once spurned him as an illegitimate dictator. 

Turkey, the main backer of Syria’s rebel groups, began a diplomatic opening to Damascus last year, following similar moves from Gulf Arab states that had also once supported the rebellion. Mr. Assad managed to survive the uprising against him, but large parts of the country remain outside his control, in the hands of a range of rebel groups, U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, and the Turkish military and its allied armed groups.

For many Syrians, the Assad regime’s repeated use of chemical weapons became a symbol of Western inaction to stop a war that left some 400,000 people dead and forced 13 million people to flee their homes. Former President Barack Obama labeled the use of chemical weapons a “red line” following a 2013 attack that killed hundreds of people.

The 2018 mass killing in Douma was also a prime example of how Russia clouds public perception of human-rights violations committed during war, analysts say. At the time, Russian officials accused the White Helmets humanitarian group of staging the attack. 

After World War I, nations appalled by the effects of chemical weapons signed the Geneva Protocol in 1925, which banned the use of chemical and biological weapons. The OPCW was set up to oversee implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty signed by 193 countries that went into force in 1997. The treaty calls for a ban on chemical weapons.