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Watchdog links Syria to deadly 2017 nerve-agent attacks

People stand in front of damaged buildings in the town of Douma, the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack near Damascus, April 16, 2018.
People stand in front of damaged buildings in the town of Douma, the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack near Damascus, April 16, 2018. (Hassan Ammar/AP)
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An international watchdog on Wednesday firmly linked Syria’s government to deadly sarin and chlorine attacks on a rebel town in 2017, bolstering the case that President Bashar al-Assad continued using lethal chemical weapons after he ostensibly surrendered his stockpile three years earlier.

Syrian helicopters and planes dropped chemical bombs on the town of Ltamenah in three days of attacks in March 2017, killing or sickening more than 100 people, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded in a report released in The Hague.

The exhaustively detailed, 82-page report is the first by the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team, which is systematically reviewing evidence of past chemical attacks in Syria in an attempt to ascribe blame. Drawing on a trove of evidence collected over several years, the investigators identified the specific Syrian military units involved, as well as the aircraft and munitions used in attacks between March 24 and March 30 of that year.

“Attacks of such a strategic nature would have only taken place on the basis of orders from the higher authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic military command,” said Santiago Oñate-Laborde, the coordinator of the panel, commonly known as the IIT. “In the end, the IIT was unable to identify any other plausible explanation.”

Report: Syrian military carried out more than 300 chemical attacks

The OPCW previously concluded that sarin and chlorine were used at Ltamenah, but the chemical watchdog’s rules barred it from attributing responsibility for the attacks. The IIT was created in 2018 amid Western frustrations over the lack of accountability for hundreds of deaths from chemical weapons during Syria’s nine-year civil war.

“This type of attribution is the first step toward accountability,” said Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, in response to the report. “It provides a strong body of evidence that can be used by states and international organizations to impose real consequences on the Assad regime.”

Syria and Russia have steadfastly denied any use of chemical weapons, including at Ltamenah, instead insisting that rebels or outsiders staged the attacks.

The Assad government denied for years that it possessed chemical weapons. But in August 2013 it agreed to surrender 1,300 tons of lethal chemicals and precursors and to destroy its production facilities in the wake of a sarin attack in the Damascus suburbs that killed more than 1,400 people. Assad also joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bars future production and use of chemical weapons.

For Washington, chemical weapons “Red lines” are always blurry

After ostensibly giving up its arsenal, Syria shifted to poison-gas attacks using chlorine, a common industrial chemical that is used to treat drinking water but that can be lethal if inhaled in high concentrations. There were no confirmed incidents using far-deadlier sarin nerve agent until the attacks in Ltamenah in 2017.

The Ltamenah incidents received scant attention at the time because the town was the scene of active fighting and inaccessible to outside groups. Less than a week later, the deaths at Ltamenah were eclipsed by larger sarin attack in the nearby town of Khan Sheikhoun, where at least 90 civilians were killed and at least 300 injured. It was the Khan Sheikhoun attack that prompted President Trump to order the first U.S. airstrike on Syrian government forces on April 4, 2017.

Human rights groups have cheered the IIT investigation as a means of refuting conspiracy theories and countering rampant disinformation campaigns disputing Syria’s involvement the chemical attacks.