Damascus chemical attack, two years on.

Posted: 08/16/2015 by editormary in Activists and Activism, Human Rights, Maps, Middle East, Politics, Refugees, Syria, War
Tags: ,

WRITTEN BY SAMANTHA FALCIATORI
The nearly 1,400 people poisoned to death on Aug. 21, 2013 do not have an official murderer yet, but ballistic analysis leaves little doubt. Here is what we know and what cannot be told of that terrible night.

Between 2:00 and 5:00 am on August 21, 2013 in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta nearly 1,400 people, including 400 children, were killed in Syria’s largest chemical attack. According to Doctors Without Borders, in just 3 hours their hospitals received 3,600 people with symptoms of neuro-intoxication.


Victims of the chemical attack.

It was not the first time that toxic gas was used: as early as May 2013 in Jobar (another Damascus suburb in the opposition’s hands) a team of reporters from the French newspaper Le Monde was involved in a chemical attack,  presumably by government forces against the FSA (the moderate forces of the opposition). The team was there to document even more earlier reported cases of chemical attacks in the district. Among them there was Laurent van der Stockt, the most affected of the team: tests conducted in France on his biological samples revealed, as he himself declared, traces of sarin nerve gas. Their reports and testimony describe a terrible reality that was already widespread. In April the use of chemical weapons was also recorded in other areas, but never on a large scale. Until the attack in Ghouta, in the densely populated neighborhoods of Zamalka and Moadamiya. But why Ghouta?

Credit, BBC

Credit, BBC

Because in July 2012 the FSA offensive on Damascus had been successful and the opposition had taken control of some areas surrounding the capital, including Ghouta, threatening the Assad government as never before, who denied responsibility in the chemical attack and accused the rebels. The FSA and the civilians of Ghouta, however, accused the regime of having used chemical weapons to crush the opposition near Damascus.

The UN immediately opened an investigation with a fact-finding mission – which was already in Damascus on August 21 to investigate other cases of chemical weapons use in Khan al Assal and Sheik Maqsood (Aleppo) and Saraqeb (Idlib) – and confirmed the use of chemical weapons in the September 2013 report. The mission interviewed survivors, doctors, nurses and rescue workers, collected many samples (urine, hair, blood, soil, metal, etc …), including fragments of the missiles used, then analyzed them in the laboratories of the Organization for the Prohibition of chemical Weapons (OPCW), which confirmed the use of sarin nerve gas dropped through surface-to-surface missiles.

 A UN chemical weapons inspector in Ghouta (Credit to: Ammar al-Arbini/AFP/Getty)

A UN chemical weapons inspector in Ghouta (Credit to: Ammar al-Arbini/AFP/Getty)

In December 2013, the UN published another report on 16 chemical attacks registered before and after August 21, of which only 7 had been investigated. For none of them the responsible could be assessed. However, in some of these attacks, like the one on April 29 on Saraqeb and on Sheik Maqsood on April 13, 2013 the alleged gas was dropped, according to eyewitnesses, by Syrian army helicopters (which is only force in Syria to have aviation). To this regard, the report says on page 79: “Syrian government officials said they have no information to offer on the alleged incident.” More doubts remain on the case of Khan al Assal, the only case that also Russia looked into, producing a 100-page report, which was never published but delivered to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, in which Russia accused the rebels.

Assigning blame is not easy for a political body such as the UN, considering that at the Security Council sit both allies of the Syrian government and of the opposition. This is why the report does not determine who has used chemical weapons even in the case of Ghouta: the purpose of the mission was to ascertain the use, not those who used them, as explained by Ban Ki-Moon. If on the one hand not determining who is responsible may be politically convenient, on the other hand it is a double-edged sword: it means that the report can be interpreted in favor of the 2 opposite thesis. In fact, Russia has blamed the rebels, going as far as to accuse the UN inspectors of having conducted a “prejudicial and biased” work, while the US, France and Britain have blamed the Assad government.

Let’s start with what is certain: the details that emerge from the report and from the ballistic missile trajectories makes it possible to trace the launch site. Among the most accurate independent works are those by Human Rights Watch and the New York Times. In the report on pag. 26 it is stated that of the 5 missiles launched on August 21 only 2 allow one to calculate the trajectory: the 1st and 4th, respectively launched on Moadamiyah and Ein Tarma. The 1st has an angle of 35° and an azimuth of 215°, while the 4th has an angle of 285° and an azimuth of 105°, which means that tracking back the launch site, the only result is the 104th Brigade of the Republican Guard.

Credit to: Human Rights Watch

Credit to: Human Rights Watch

It is one of the Syrian government bastions, on Mount Qasioun, a place overlooking the Presidential Palace where the Republican Guard and the infamous 4th Army Division (led by Assad’s brother, Maher) are located, which would mean that the order came directly from Maher Assad, as some UN officials believe. The issue is complicated: according to some frantic phone calls between high-ranking Syrian officials intercepted by the BND, the German intelligence service, by Israeli and American intelligence, it would seem that Bashar Assad is not personally involved in the chemical attack. Indeed, the intercepted calls reveal that 4th Division commanders had been asking the Presidential Palace for the authorization to use chemical weapons for 4 and a half months and that Bashar had always denied. It is likely that Maher Assad made the decision alone. In any case, there is broad agreement that it was the Syrian government who used chemical weapons.

In fact, Mount Qasioun is one of the strongholds more firmly in the hands of the regime, where government troops launch their attacks on rebel areas. The argument put forward by the Syrian government and its ally Russia is that, as Putin himself wrote for the New York Times: “No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke [military] intervention”. Which in fact, after the attack seemed to be imminent, when Obama found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to act on the threat made to Assad the previous year to use force in the event of a chemical attack, which was a red line.

But if so, it should at least be explained not only how the rebels would have been able to steal nerve gas from the regime, but also how they managed to penetrate the stronghold of government troops and self-launch sarin. To this regard, it is useful the statement of prof. Ake Sellstrom, head of the UN mission, who in this interesting interview (page 10) admits: “If you try the theory that it was the opposition that did it, it is difficult to see how it was weaponised. Several times I asked the government: can you explain – if this was the opposition – how did they get hold of the chemical weapons? They have quite poor theories: they talk about smuggling through Turkey, labs in Iraq and I asked them, pointedly, what about your own stores, have your own stores being stripped of anything, have you dropped a bomb that has been claimed, bombs that can be recovered by the opposition? They denied that. To me it is strange. If they really want to blame the opposition they should have a good story as to how they got hold of the munitions, and they didn’t take the chance to deliver that story”.

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In September 2013 a military intervention in Syria to eliminate the chemical threat, opposed by most of global public opinion, seemed imminent, although the US themselves were not excited at the idea. In fact, they seized the Russian proposal to dismantle the chemical arsenal of Damascus with the regime’s consensus.

The Syrian government had denied for years that it possessed any chemical weapons, but, when pressed, not only had it to admit possessing them (revealing, to the surprise of the inspectors, also production plants artfully disguised, such as labs on mobile trucks with 18 wheels), but it also had to access the Chemical Weapons Convention to dismantle them and to allow OPWC inspectors  into the sites. On paper the mission was successful; in reality, not quite. In May 2015, when the mission was virtually over, OPCW inspectors found other  undeclared sites where the Syrian government was working on Sarin and VX nerve gas. This shows that the Syrian government has lied regarding its arsenal and therefore could still possess chemical weapons. All this seems to confirm many claims, spread by several parties from 2013, that the Syrian government was moving chemical weapons into friendly countries, such as Lebanon and Iraq, so that more than once (as in January and May 2013) Israeli jets bombed Syrian convoys bound for these countries to prevent arms transfers.

More detailed are statements from Syrian army deserters who warned several times of chemical weapons transfers across borders and of their use. But perhaps the most important testimony comes from Brigadier General Zaher Saket, former commander and chemical weapons officer in the 5th Division of the Syrian army, who defected in March 2013 and who now works with the OPWC mission. He revealed the chain of command behind the use of chemical weapons and that the orders are to use them in those areas in opposition hands where the army is unable to eradicate the enemy. Saket also revealed that he was ordered to use chemical weapons three times, the first time in October 2012. The order to release poison gas on Sheikh Maskeen, Herak and Busra (in the province of Deraa) came from Brigadier General Ali Hassan Ammar, but Saket did not execute the orders and replaced the mixture of phosgene and chlorine gas that he was supposed to use with a harmless water-based mixture. The third time was in January 2013, but his supervisor became suspicious about the lack of victims after the attacks, so Saket was forced to flee to Jordan. As of September 2013, according to Saket, chemical attacks by the regime had been 34.

One of the weekly Kafranbel protests marking the first chemical attack anniversary. Credit to: Occupied Kafranbel

One of the weekly Kafranbel protests marking the first chemical attack anniversary. Credit to: Occupied Kafranbel

On August 7, 2015 the UNSC unanimously approved resolution S/RES/2235 that should create for the first time an investigation mechanism to determine who is responsible for the chemical attacks in Syria. Perhaps one day truth will be ascertained and those responsible will be judged. For now, we have the terrible testimonies of survivors.

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