Syria conflict: President Assad’s forces accused of using chlorine gas against rebels despite pledges to give up chemical weapons

Report by international weapons inspectors claims the deadline to remove Syria’s declared stockpile of chemical weapons is now unlikely to be met

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The Independent Online

Chlorine gas was used in a “systematic manner” in Syria this year, long after the government of President Bashar al-Assad pledged to give up other toxic weapons such as sarin, according to preliminary findings from international weapons inspectors.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission said this week that evidence “lends credence to the view that toxic chemicals, most likely pulmonary irritating agents such as chlorine, have been used”.

The OPCW’s investigation followed French and US allegations that Assad’s forces may have used industrial chemicals against rebel-held areas this spring.

The agency also said that a deadline to remove Assad’s declared stockpile of chemical weapons from Syrian soil is now unlikely to be met. Inspectors have removed about 92 per cent of the declared material, including sarin, but have not been able to get the necessary co-operation and clearances to extract the final 8 per cent.

“Ongoing delays in transporting the remaining 8 per cent of chemicals mean that Syria will miss the target date of 30 June for the complete destruction of its chemical weapons programme,” said the OPCW’s Director General, Ahmet Uzumcu.

The Obama administration has not decided what action, if any, it might take in reaction to the preliminary evidence cited by the OPCW, said the State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, on Wednesday. She said the White House would “evaluate” the final conclusions before deciding whether Syria had again crossed President Obama’s “red line” that chemical warfare is intolerable. She would not speculate about any US action that might follow.


The US representative to the OPCW blamed Syria and suggested this week that the international body get much tougher on the Assad regime. “It was certainly the expectation of the United States and other members of the council that the elimination of Syria’s entire chemical weapons programme would be completed by 30 June 2014,” said Robert Mikulak. “Syria has deliberately frustrated the council’s efforts to complete destruction,” he added. “The council will need to acknowledge that Syria has not met its obligations to remove these dangerous materials so that they can be destroyed.”

The Obama administration forcefully condemned use of sarin gas by Assad’s forces last summer and prepared for air strikes in Syria before referring the matter to Congress. Syria then agreed to give up its chemical weapons.

The sarin nerve gas attack in a rebel-held Damascus suburbs killed more than 1,000 people last summer. Médecins Sans Frontières said at least 3,600 patients had displayed “neurotoxic symptoms”.

UN weapons inspectors collecting samples at Zamalka, east of Damascus, last August (EPA)

An OPCW team went to Syria to investigate the new allegations of chlorine use. Chlorine has many peaceful uses but can be deployed in gas form as a chemical weapon, and such use is banned under an international treaty. Syria did not have to declare chlorine as part of its agreement to give up chemical weapons.

The investigating team was attacked with a roadside bomb and gunfire on 27 May, preventing inspectors from reaching the site of an alleged attack in the village of Kfar Zeita, the preliminary report said. “The attack on the team and the resulting denial of access prevents it from presenting definitive conclusions,” the report said.

Despite not being able to visit the site of the alleged attack, OPCW officials spoke to doctors in Kfar Zeita “and obtained their verbal medical reports relating to the treatment of individuals allegedly affected by exposure to chlorine,” Agence France-Presse reported. The team also saw video footage of the alleged attack and of alleged munitions used in the attack, some of which remained intact.

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