The global chemical weapons watchdog said Friday that its investigators found “reasonable grounds to believe” Syria’s air force dropped two cylinders containing chlorine gas on the city of Douma in April 2018, killing 43 people.
A report by a team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons offered the latest confirmation that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons during his country’s grinding civil war.
“The use of chemical weapons in Douma — and anywhere — is unacceptable and a breach of international law,” OPCW director general Fernando Arias said.
Syrian officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the findings. Syria joined the OPCW in 2013 under pressure from the international community after being blamed for another deadly chemical weapon attack, but does not recognize the investigation team’s authority and has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons.
The organization said “reasonable grounds to believe” is the standard of proof consistently adopted by international fact-finding bodies and commissions of inquiry that investigate potential violations of international law.
Friday’s report said that standard was met through evidence indicating at least one Syrian air force Mi8/17 helicopter dropped two yellow cylinders on Douma during a government military offensive to recapture the city,.
One of the cylinders hit the roof of a three-storey residential building and ruptured, “rapidly released toxic gas, chlorine, in very high concentrations, which rapidly dispersed within the building killing 43 named individuals and affecting dozens more,” according to the report.
A second cylinder burst through the roof of another building into an apartment below and only partially ruptured, “mildly affecting those who first arrived at the scene,” the report said.
Syrian authorities refused the investigation team access to the sites of the chlorine attacks, and has had its OPCW voting rights suspended.
The investigators interviewed dozens of witnesses and studied the blood and urine of survivors as well as samples of soil and building materials, according to the watchdog agency.
Alternate Russian, Syrian theories rejected
Several Russian-backed theories about the attack were tested but could not be substantiated, the team found. Those included that chlorine cylinders and bodies had been planted at the scene by opposition forces and that the poisonous gas had come from a nearby warehouse used by insurgents. Syria once claimed that bodies of people killed elsewhere in the country were taken to Douma to look like gas attack victims.
The report found that the two cylinders carrying chlorine were modified and filled at the Dumayr air base and the helicopter or helicopters that dropped them were under control of the Syrian military’s elite Tiger Force.
Survivors reached by The Associated Press in the aftermath of the Douma attack said they were overwhelmed by the smell of chlorine. Activists said many of the dead were found with foam around their mouths, an indicator of suffocation. Medical workers said they treated people for symptoms that included difficulty breathing and fainting.
The United States, Britain and France blamed Syrian government forces and launched punitive airstrikes. Syria denied responsibility.
Douma was the final target of the government’s sweeping campaign to seize back control of the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus from rebels after seven years of revolt. Militants gave up the town days after the alleged attack.
International Criminal Court bid denied
The OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team effectively replaced an earlier investigative mechanism set up between the United Nations and OPCW in 2015 that was disbanded in 2017 after Russia vetoed an extension of its mandate in the Security Council.
British diplomats at the OPCW tweeted that they were studying the report: “We will work with partners on next steps. #NoImpunity”
In an attempt to ensure accountability for crimes in Syria, the United Nations has established an “International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism.” It is mandated to preserve and analyze evidence of crimes and prepare files for potential trials in international courts or tribunals.
LISTEN | George Stroumboulopoulos on the humanitarian crisis in Syria:
On The Coast9:01George Stroumboulopoulos travelled to Syria in September to hear the hardships Syrians are facing right now
Bringing perpetrators in Syria to justice remains a long way off. Syria’s ally Russia has, in the past, blocked efforts by the UN Security Council to order an International Criminal Court investigation in Syria.
The ongoing conflict that started in Syria more than a decade ago has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced half the country’s prewar population of 23 million.
The OPCW team previously identified Syrian forces as responsible for three chemical attacks in Latamneh in March 2017 and one in Saraqeb in February 2018.
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