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Watchdog Report Finds Syrian Government Forces Behind 2017 Chemical Attacks

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) determined that the Syrian air force was responsible for three chemical attacks on a Syrian village. The 2017 attacks, which involved chlorine and sarin nerve gas, affected 106 people in the opposition-held town.

The report from the organization's Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) was published on 7 April 2020. According to the report, Syrian authorities refused to cooperate with the nine-month long investigation. Instead, investigators interviewed 20 witnesses and reviewed previous witness testimonies and sample analyses, and consulted with other experts.

According to the BBC, Syrian government officials, led by President Bashar al-Assad, have denied accusations that they used chemical weapons, instead accusing enemy insurgents of staging events to implicate government forces. 

Investigators found that of the three attacks on the town of Ltamenah, occurring on 24, 25, and 30 March 2017, two were carried out by a military airplane from the 50th Brigade of the 22nd Air Divsion of the Syrian Arab Air Force, and another was like accomplished with the use of a Syrian Arab Air Force helicopter from the Hama airbase. The investigators added that the kind of sarin used in two of the attacks is only known to have been manufactured by the Syrian government. 

"Additionally, metal fragments found at or in the vicinity of the sites where the attacks took place are, according to experts and specialists consulted by the IIT, most likely parts of an aerial bomb, the M4000, produced only by the Syruan Arab Republic," the report said in a summary written by IIT Coordinator Santiago Oñate-Laborde.

Although the investigation could not determine the ultimate source for ordering the attacks, "attacks of such strategic nature would have only taken place on the basis of orders from the higher authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic military command, and that even if authority can be delegated, responsibility cannot." 

Fernando Arias, director-general for the OPCW, said that "It is now up to the Policy-Making Organs of the OPCW, to the the United Nations Secretary General, and to the international community as a whole to take any further action they deem appropriate and necessary."

According to CNN, the UN Security Council would consider the accountability and repercussions of the report; however a U.S. State Department official said that ties between the Russian and Syrian governments, plus China's expected support of Russia, would make it unlikely of further action on the report from the UN.

Syria has been besieged by civil war since 2011, after pro-democracy demonstrators were met with a violent and deadly response from government forces, triggering unrest and protesters calling for Assad's resignation. Assad claimed dissenters were terrorists supported by foreign powers, and the violence escalated into civil war, which has since claimed more than 360,000 lives, not including the more than 190,000 people missing and presumed dead, more than 1.5 million left with a permanent disability, at least 6.2 million internally displaced, and 5.7 million as refugees seeking shelter in other countries. More than pro- and anti-Assad sentiments now drive the war, with fighting also occurring between the country's religious groups, other idealogical interests, and even the involvement of outside governments and terrorist groups.