Syria kills civilians with chemical weapons, and all we can do is count the bodies

New report says Bashar al-Assad's forces carried out 27 of 33 chemical attacks since 2011

Victims of a chemical weapons attack lie on the ground, in Khan Shaykhoun, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria. CREDIT: Alaa Alyousef/AP
Victims of a chemical weapons attack lie on the ground, in Khan Shaykhoun, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria. CREDIT: Alaa Alyousef/AP

U.N. war crimes investigators said on Wednesday that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons at least two dozen times, killing scores of civilians, including children, during the course of the country’s ongoing five-and-a-half year civil war.

The report mentions violations of basic international humanitarian and human rights laws by Syrian government as well as various opposition factions. It places the blame for the majority of chemical attacks – 27 out of 33 – squarely on the shoulders of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces:

Government forces continued the pattern of using chemical weapons against civilians in opposition-held areas. In the gravest incident, the Syrian air force used sarin in Khan Shaykhun, Idlib, killing dozens, the majority of whom were women and children. In Idlib, Hamah, and eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syrian forces used weaponized chlorine.

Although, at times, witnesses told the commission that fighters were injured or killed in chemical weapons attacks, the report notes that “the use of chemical weapons is prohibited in all circumstances, including when a military objective is present.”

It was in response to the Khan Shaykun attack on April 4 that President Donald Trump ordered an attack on a Syrian airbase, firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at an airbase near Homs on April 6. The strikes did little to impede Assad’s forces. The Syrian president denies using chemical weapons on his own people.


Since the April 6 attack on the Syrian airbase, the Trump administration has changed direction in Syria in promising Russia, Assad’s staunch ally, to end a covert CIA program that armed opposition forces there.

The U.N. report, the commission’s 14th since 2011, said the perpetrators behind the remaining six attacks have not yet been identified. It also said that children have suffered disproportionately in this war:

For example, out of the 179 individuals killed during the chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun and the suicide bombing in Al-Rashidin, 54 per cent of the deaths were of children.

The report also highlighted civilian deaths caused by U.S. coalition strikes in its fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), including the series of strikes on a prayer hall next to a mosque in Aleppo, which resulted in dozens of civilian deaths, including children, on March 16.


In presenting its findings in June, U.S. Central Command said the strike was justified because Al Qaeda fighters were holding a meeting at the prayer hall, but U.N. investigators found no evidence of such a meeting – only villagers gathering for a religious lecture that was to be followed by evening prayers and a meal.

Rights groups have been alarmed over the rising number of civilian deaths in Syria, as well as in Iraq, since Trump took office in January, as U.S.-backed coalitions fight to reclaim territory held by ISIS.