New Mission To Investigate Whether Syrian Regime Is Still Using Chemical Weapons

CREDIT: AP Photo/Peter Dejong

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog announced on Tuesday that it would be sending a new mission to Syria, this time to investigate claims that the government has utilized chlorine gas in its attacks against civilians.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in a brief release announced the decision of Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü to create a new mission to “establish facts” as to whether Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government has taken to using chlorine gas in lieu of other weapons in its rapidly diminishing chemical arsenal. “The Syrian government, which has agreed to accept this mission, has undertaken to provide security in areas under its control,” the statement from the OPCW reads. “The mission will carry out its work in the most challenging circumstances.”

For weeks now, reports have trickled out of Syria that the government utilized a toxic chemical against civilians in the opposition-dominated village of Kafr Zita, in the Hama governance of Syria. Videos released purport to show the aftermath of such an attack that took place on April 11. Reports claim that helicopters dropped a “barrel bomb” — a crude bomb composed of makeshift oil drums — that rather than containing the usual explosives and shrapnel, instead was filled with toxic gas. While victims insist that it was the government that carried out the attack, Damascus has claimed that the jihadi group Jahbat Al-Nusra that launched the deadly attack. Since the first instance on the 11th, other attacks have allegedly taken place, according to a round-up of videos and reports from independent weapons analyst Brown Moses.

Just hours after the OPCW made its decision to send a team to investigate, the Telegraph reported that it has evidence that both chlorine and ammonia were present in soil samples from alleged attack sites both in Kafr Zita and in the Idlib province. “Our results show sizeable and unambiguous traces of chlorine and ammonia present at the site of all three attacks,” the Telegraph said in announcing the results of its independent analysis. “We have unequivocally proved that the regime has used chlorine and ammonia against its own civilians in the last two to three weeks,” Hamish De Bretton-Gordon, a British chemical weapons expert involved in the testing, said in the Telegraph article.

The United States has not officially placed blame for the attacks at the feet of the Syrian government, but individual officials have expressed as much to various outlets. “Our assessment is it is, at a minimum, concentrated chlorine dropped from helicopters,” a U.S. official told CNN. “That could only be the regime.” Meanwhile, at today’s meeting of the OPCW, U.S. Ambassador Robert P. Mikulak said, “These reports are too serious to be ignored by this Council or the international community at large. The United States considers them to be a matter of serious concern requiring an immediate international effort to determine what has happened.”

As the new mission prepares to launch, the OPCW and the United Nations are currently working to finalize the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile in accordance with last year’s deal struck between the U.S. and Russia. Though Syria missed a revised deadline on Monday to have all of its weapons completely destroyed, the joint mission stated that the process — which has the goal of completing removing Syria’s chemical weapons production ability by the end of June — is currently 92.5 percent complete, a reversal from the place where the mission was just in February. That removal and destruction process, however, was never intended to account for the destruction of such chemicals as chlorine and ammonia, due to their ubiquity in non-military capacities.