UN Chemical Weapons Investigators to Visit Syria’s Shayrat Air Base

United Nations- UN investigators will this week travel to the Shayrat air base in Syria that the United States and its allies say was used to launch the sarin gas attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province last April.

The team from the joint UN-OPCW probe, known as the JIM, left Monday for Damascus and were to go to the Shayrat airfield, a Security Council diplomat, who asked not to be named, told Agence France Presse on Wednesday.

The trip to the airfield comes just weeks before the release of a much-awaited report on the Khan Sheikhoun attack that the West and a UN commission have said was carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

The United States in April launched a missile attack on Shayrat after concluding that Syrian aircraft, loaded with sarin gas, had departed from that airfield to attack Khan Sheikhoun.

The JIM visit to Shayrat would address criticism from Russia that the panel is biased by refusing to accept Syria’s offer to visit the military base.

Western diplomats have expressed skepticism however, suggesting the visit would be used by Damascus to try to bolster its assertion that the sarin gas was released by an accidental air strike on a storage depot in rebel-held Idlib.

The joint investigation of the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)  earlier this year presented a report confirming sarin gas was used in the attack at Khan Sheikhoun that left 87 people dead.

Syria’s regime has denied any involvement and maintains it no longer possesses chemical weapons after a 2013 agreement under which it pledged to surrender them.

OPCW: Sarin Used in Syria 5 Days before Khan Sheikhoun Attack

The Hague- Sarin nerve agent was used in an ‘incident’ at a northern Syrian village in late March, five days before the deadly attack on Khan Sheikhoun that left more than 80 people dead, the world’s chemical watchdog has said.

“Analysis of samples collected (by the OPCW)… relates to an incident that took place again in the northern part of Syria on the 30th of March this year,” the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons told AFP in an interview on Wednesday.

“The results prove the existence of sarin,” Ahmet Uzumcu said.

The Khan Sheikhoun attack on April 4 was previously believed to have been the first use of sarin by the Syrian regime since the deadly August 2013 attack in and around Damascus which killed hundreds of people.

Two days after Khan Sheikhoun, the United States fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase from which it said the attack was launched.

At least 87 people including 30 children died in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, in the opposition-held province of Idlib.

But Uzumcu said sarin was used in the opposition-held village of Latamneh, some 25 kilometers south of Khan Sheikhun on March 30.

He said the OPCW’s fact-finding mission had retrieved soil samples, clothing and metal parts “which were sent to our laboratories and we received the results a few days ago”.

It is “worrying that there is some sarin use or exposure even before the April 4 incident,” he said.

Uzumcu pointed out that the OPCW’s fact-finding mission team was unlikely to visit the area, where fighting is still ongoing between Syrian regime forces and armed opposition groups.

But “the (fact-finding team) is making every effort to contact the victims,” Uzumcu said.

Syria’s regime has denied involvement and claims it no longer possesses chemical weapons after a 2013 agreement under which it pledged to surrender its chemical arsenal.

It says “Syria has not and will not use toxic gases against its people because it does not have them.”

UN war crimes investigators last month said they had evidence that Syrian forces were behind the attacks, the first UN report to officially blame the Bashar al-Assad regime.

In total, the OPCW is investigating as many as 45 suspected chemical attacks in Syria since mid-2016, the watchdog said in April. 

The JIM has already determined that Syrian regime forces were responsible for chlorine attacks on three villages in 2014 and 2015, and that ISIS militants used mustard gas in 2015.

UN Confirms Syrian Regime’s Responsibility for Khan Sheikhoun Chemical Attack

Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Professor Paulo Pinheiro gestures during a press conference ahead of his mission on at the United Nations office in Geneva, September 30, 2011.

London, Geneva- UN investigators said on Friday they had evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for a Sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed 87 people on April 4.

In the first UN report to formally refer to the regime’s responsibility, the UN commission of inquiry on the human rights situation in Syria announced on Wednesday that it had collected “a large amount of information” indicating that a Syrian aircraft was behind the horrific chemical attack on April 4.

“On April 4, as part of an airstrike… the Syrian air force used Sarin gas, killing more than 80 people, most of them women and children,” the report said.

“All the evidence can prove that there are enough objective reasons to believe that the air force dropped a Sarin gas bomb,” it added.

Wednesday’s report described the Khan Sheikhoun attack as a war crime and blamed the Syrian regime for at least 23 other chemical attacks, AFP reported. AP, for its part, quoted officials as saying that the regime was responsible for 20 of the 25 attacks since 2011.

“The lack of access to information did not prevent us from reaching facts or reasonable conclusions about what happened during the attack and who was behind it,” the committee’s chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, told a news conference.

UN investigators said they had documented a total of 33 chemical attacks to date, in their 14th report since 2011. They added that Syrian government forces carried out 27 attacks, including 7 between March 1 and July 7.

The investigators, who were prohibited by the Syrian authorities to access the territory to conduct their investigations, said they based their conclusions on photographs of rocket fragments, satellite images and eyewitness accounts.

They concluded that a Sukhoi 22 launcher, only owned by Syrian warplanes, carried out four strikes on Khan Sheikhoun at around 6:45 am on April 4.

While Damascus and its ally Moscow confirmed that chemicals had spread in the air after an air strike hit an arms depot producing chemical munitions and belonging to opposition factions, investigators rejected the suggestion, asserting that they had found no evidence to support the allegations.

Moscow Shrugs Off Washington’s ‘Solid Evidence’ on Syria Chemical Attack

Khan Sheikhoun, Syria – The United States is desperately preventing international expert visits to al-Shayrat Syrian airbase that it had attacked with cruise missiles in April, the Russian foreign ministry said Thursday.

The attack came after the US accused the Syrian regime of using the deadly sarin gas in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

Washington’s announcement that it has evidence over Bashar Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun is baseless, the Russian foreign ministry’s nonproliferation department chief Mikhail Uliyanov was quoted as saying.

His comments came in response to claims made by CIA Director Mike Pompeo that the US possesses “solid evidence” on the Syrian army’s involvement in the April 4 attack on Khan Sheikoun that killed at least 87 people, including children.

On Wednesday, relatives of the victims gathered in a semi-circle at the reported site of the attack, holding up pictures of their loved ones — many of them toddlers. 

“The pain of separation has not left me for a single second — not me, nor any of those who lost a relative or loved one,” Abdulhamid Youssef, 28, told Agence France Presse.

His twin toddlers, his wife and 19 other relatives died on April 4. 

A heartbreaking picture of Youssef, shellshocked and holding the lifeless bodies of his children on the day of the attack, sparked worldwide outrage. 

“All I hope for is that my children are the last ones who will be killed. Pain is hard. Separation is hard. I hope that this is the conclusion of Syria’s sorrows,” he told AFP.

He visited his children’s graves as dusk fell, pulling out weeds from around their simple markers. 

The United Nations’ chemical weapons watchdog, the OPCW, concluded last month that sarin was used as a chemical weapon in Khan Sheikhoun.

An joint OPCW-UN team will now be responsible for determining who carried out the attack.

“I had hoped that the pain would disappear with the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad and an end to the violence in Syria,” Youssef told AFP.

Head of Khan Sheikhoun Chemical Attack Inquiry Appeals for Countries to Back Off

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London- An international inquiry aims to report by October on who was to blame for a deadly sarin gas attack in Syria’s Khan Sheikhoun in April, the head of the probe has said, as he appealed for countries to back off and stop telling investigators how to do their work.

While Edmond Mulet, head of the joint United Nations and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inquiry, did not name any countries, diplomats said Russia regularly pressured the investigators.

“We do receive, unfortunately, direct and indirect messages all the time, from many sides, telling us how to do our work,” Mulet told reporters after briefing the UN Security Council on Thursday.

“Some of those messages are very clearly saying if we don’t do our work according to them … they will not accept the conclusions,” he said. “I appeal to all … let us perform our work in an impartial, independent and professional manner,” he said, adding the results would be presented in October.

Syrian-ally Russia has publicly questioned the work of the inquiry, which was created by the Security Council in 2015, and said the findings cannot be used to take UN action and that the Syrian regime should investigate the accusations.

The inquiry has so far blamed Syrian regime forces for three chlorine gas attacks in 2014 and 2015 and ISIS militants used mustard gas in 2015. In response to those findings Western powers tried to impose UN sanctions on Syria in February but this effort was blocked by Russia and China.

The Syrian regime has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons.

Investigators are currently looking at two cases – the exposure of two Syrian women to sulfur mustard in an apparent attack in Um Hosh, Aleppo last September and a deadly April 4 sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun that prompted the United States to launch missile strikes on a Syrian air base.

In both cases an OPCW fact finding mission has already determined that chemical weapons were used. Western governments have blamed the Syrian regime for the Khan Sheikhoun attack, which killed dozens of people. Syria has denied any involvement.

Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013 under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States.

Syrian Regime Ready to Protect Chemical Inspectors

Syria

London – Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad accused the US and Israel of ordering terrorists to forge all evidence in Khan Sheikhun, Idlib countryside, and fill up the hole created after bombing the area.

He accused Western governments of “create favorable conditions for their terrorist groups to use chemical weapons.”

Speaking at a press conference in Damascus on Monday, Meqdad reiterated that Syria destroyed all its chemical arsenal and stressed that his country will discuss counter-terrorism efforts during the coming Astana talks.

Although Syria has destroyed all its chemical arsenal, we still see attempts to attack the achievements made by the Syrian Arab Republic” Meqdad noted, before adding that “the enemies of Syria” have no other means to justify their intervention in Syria, “except this kind of cheap propaganda and cheap use of chemical weapons.”

Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) issued a report confirming that Sarin gas was used in April in Khan Sheikhun killing dozens, while western countries stated that the regime is responsible for the attack and asked for international inspectors to be sent to the town.

The Syrian government is prepared to protect international inspectors and provide all necessary conditions for the OPCW visit, indicated the deputy minister.

Meqdad underlined that the Syrian government had already destroyed all of its chemical weapons overseen by a joint mission led by the United Nations and OPCW.

Regarding the Astana peace talks, Meqdad stated that consultations are going on among all involved parties.

The deputy foreign minister emphasized that representatives from the Damascus government were talking with delegates from armed opposition groups only because Syrian government authorities were seeking to establish peace and stability in the country.

He added that the talks have their own agenda and the Syrian government deals with all efforts aiming at countering terrorism, whereas the UN is calling for negotiations to discuss Resolution 2254.

OPCW Confirms Sarin Used in Khan Sheikhoun Attack

A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

A fact-finding mission by the UN’s chemical watchdog, the OPCW, has confirmed that sarin nerve gas was used as a chemical weapon in the April 4 attack in the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun.

“Based on its work, the FFM (fact-finding mission) is able to conclude that a large number of people, some of whom died, were exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance,” said the confidential report, parts of which were obtained by several news agencies.

“The release that caused this exposure was most likely initiated at the site where there is now a crater in the road,” it added.

“It is the conclusion of the FFM that such a release can only be determined as the use of sarin, as a chemical weapon.”

The findings by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will now be taken up by a joint UN-OPCW panel to determine whether Syrian regime forces were behind the attack.

At least 87 people including many children were killed in the attack that the United States, France and Britain have said was carried out by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The US made a retaliatory cruise missile strike days later against a Syrian airbase from where it said the chemical weapons attack was launched.

“I strongly condemn this atrocity, which wholly contradicts the norms enshrined in the Chemical Weapons Convention,” OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said in a statement on the Khan Sheikhoun attack. “The perpetrators of this horrific attack must be held accountable for their crimes.”

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson urged the international community to work together to bring to justice those responsible for the Khan Kheikhoun attack.

OPCW’s confirmation that sarin was used as a weapon “cannot be ignored,” Johnson said.

Although the report did not apportion blame, Johnson said that “the UK’s own assessment is that the Assad regime almost certainly carried out this abominable attack.”

“I urge our international partners to unite behind the need to hold those responsible for this atrocity to account,” he added.

US Ambassador Nikki Haley said in a statement that she had the “highest confidence in the OPCW report.”

“Now that we know the undeniable truth, we look forward to an independent investigation to confirm exactly who was responsible for these brutal attacks so we can find justice for the victims,” she added.

The OPCW-UN joint investigative mechanism (JIM) has already determined that Syrian regime forces were responsible for chlorine attacks on three villages in 2014 and 2015, and that ISIS used mustard gas in 2015.

Russia, Syria’s ally, has dismissed the findings as not credible. In February, Moscow vetoed a UN resolution that would have imposed sanctions on Syria over chemical weapons use in the six-year war.

Almost a Month after Trump’s Airstrike, Syria Remains a Barbaric Battlefield

Members of the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, remove a victim from the rubble of his house on April 8 in the southern Syrian city of Daraa.

Nearly a month has passed since a sarin gas attack on the Syrian village of Khan Sheikhoun prompted President Trump to bombard a regime airbase with cruise missiles. The good news since then is that there have been no further attacks on civilians using sarin — though the regime of Bashar al-Assad is believed to possess several tons more of it — or chlorine, though “barrel bombs” filled with that chemical were routinely dropped on hospitals, schools and apartment buildings before April 7.

Now for the bad news, which has been almost entirely ignored by a White House that long ago moved on to other issues: Syrian and Russian planes have been pounding civilian targets across Syria on a daily basis with bunker busters, cluster bombs, phosphorus and barrel bombs packed with shrapnel. On a typical day last week, between 70 and 80 people were killed in the civil war, according to reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights — about the same number as died from the gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun.

Did Trump make Syrians any safer? “Sadly speaking, no,” says Raed al-Saleh, the head of the White Helmets civil defense organization, which told the world about the sarin attack. “They managed to stop the use of chemical weapons. But the killing still goes on with all the other kinds of weapons.”

During a visit to Washington last week, Saleh grimly described the rubble his teams have been digging through in the past several weeks. There was the Shaam Hospital, which was built into an underground cave six miles west of Khan Sheikhoun: Russian planes dropped six bunker busters on it on April 22, collapsing it and trapping doctors and patients under heavy stone. On Wednesday and Thursday, three more hospitals were bombed in the same northwestern region. In two of those cases, the planes came back to strike the White Helmets’ rescue operations.

The organization has become a prime Russian target since it provided evidence of the sarin attack, Saleh said. In the days after the US missile salvo the White Helmets’ center in Khan Sheikhoun was bombed; the staff survived in an underground shelter but all their vehicles were destroyed. Two other nearby White Helmets facilities were struck, including in Saleh’s hometown of Jisr ash-Shugur. Meanwhile Russia launched an all-out propaganda offensive: In a briefing in Moscow on Thursday, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman accused the group of collaborating with ISIS and an al-Qaeda affiliate as well as providing “the US a pretext to carry out an act of aggression.”

In fact the White Helmets have been an island of humanity in an otherwise bleak barbarian landscape. As of last week they had counted nearly 91,000 people saved since Saleh helped to establish the group in rebel-controlled northern Syria in 2013. He says it now has 3,300 workers in 120 centers across nine Syrian provinces. One hundred eighty-four have been killed and 500 injured, including eight who died in an airstrike Saturday. Many of the casualties came in deliberate bombings of rescue operations. Yet Saleh says there is a long waiting list of volunteers ready to join when spots open up: “When we request 10 volunteers we get applications from 700.”

The rescuers are paid a monthly salary of about $150 — but their real motivation is saving their friends and neighbors. “Every time they pull a baby from the rubble they find the motivation to go on,” said Farouq Habib, an aid and training coordinator for the group. International support has been heavy: Most major Western governments have supplied funding, including more than $20 million from the Obama administration; an online campaign has attracted more than 200,000 small donors and more than $12 million in contributions.

The White Helmets have become a leading candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize. But the 34-year-old man who leads them is anything but sanguine. Wearing a black suit, black shirt and black tie with purple stripes, Saleh spoke in a funereal monotone as he described the group’s strategy for avoiding Russia’s “double-tap” strikes on rescuers: “We don’t have one. We have to be available immediately at the site. Minutes or seconds can save lives. So we don’t have the option to wait.”

When I asked Saleh how Syria’s carnage could end, he cited what he said was the only day since 2011 when no Syrians were killed: Feb. 28, 2016, when a cease-fire brokered by the United States and Russia went into effect. It soon crumbled, but Saleh says that is the only way out: “a political solution” that comes about from “serious will from the major political powers.”

In other words, a single US airstrike isn’t enough. Unless and until Trump is willing to do more, the White Helmets will still be digging though rubble.

(The Washington Post)

French Intelligence Blames Assad Forces for Sarin Attack

A report by French intelligence services blames the regime of Bashar al-Assad for a suspected chemical attack in rebel-held Idlib province in northern Syria that killed 87 people, Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Wednesday.

The analysis of samples taken at the scene of the April 4 attack in the Idlib town of Khan Sheikhoun showed “there is no doubt that sarin gas was used,” Ayrault told journalists after presenting a declassified report compiled by French intelligence services.

Ayrault said that France now knows “from sure sources” that “the manufacturing process of the sarin that was sampled is typical of the method developed in Syrian laboratories.”

He added that “this method bears the signature of the regime and that is what allows us to establish its responsibility in this attack.”

The report said jihadist groups in the area did not have the capacity to develop and launch such an attack and that ISIS was not in the region.

Assad’s claim to AFP news agency on April 13 that the attack was fabricated, was “not credible” given the mass flows of casualties in a short space of time arriving in Syrian and Turkish hospitals as well as the sheer quantity of online activity showing people with neurotoxic symptoms, said the six-page document.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the airstrike that the United States launched at a Syrian military base earlier this month damages the prospects of a political settlement for the war-torn country.

The airstrike was in response to Idlib’s chemical attack that Washington blamed on the Syrian regime.

Lavrov told a security conference that the US response “pushes the prospect for a wide international front on terror even further away.”

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said earlier on Wednesday Russia had to boost security measures at its air base in Syria after the airstrike. Russia has provided an air cover for the regime’s offensive on moderate rebels and ISIS jihadists.

US-Backed SDF Units Push into ISIS-held Bastion in Tabqa, Syria

Syria

London – Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by Washington, entered on Monday the strategic ISIS bastion in the Tabaqa city located in Syria’s Raqqa governorate, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“They seized control of several points in the town’s south and were advancing on its western edges,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

In an online statement, the SDF said it had captured ISIS-held positions in west Tabqa, including a roundabout, and part of a southern district.

“There are now clearing operations in the liberated positions,” the SDF said.

The US-led coalition warplanes carried out “intense” strikes in support of the offensive, Rahman said, adding that one raid had killed seven children and four women trying to flee Tabqa.

Tabqa sits on a key supply route about 50 kilometers west of Raqa, and served as an important ISIS command base, housing the group’s main prison.

The assault on Tabqa began on March 22 when SDF forces and their US-led coalition allies were airlifted behind ISIS lines south of the Euphrates River.

The ensuing fight has been intense, with ISIS dispatching suicide bombers daily to try to slow the offensive and coalition warplanes intensifying their raids.

“The real battle begins now,” Abdel Rahman said on Monday, adding that ISIS militants had “no way” out of the town.

More so, Air raids on Khan Sheikhoun have continued, with seven people killed in strikes on the town market on Monday, the Observatory said.

It came as Russia’s defense ministry said the pro-regime Syrian army would halt fire around Khan Sheikhoun if experts were allowed in to conduct a probe.

The ministry said Damascus was “ready to declare a complete moratorium on the activities of its troops, aviation and artillery in the area” if investigators were sent in. Syria’s regime has not commented on the offer.

For his part, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed his hope that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) would finally send its specialists to Khan Sheikhoun and the air base, and that the probe would be transparent. Lavrov’s words were laid out during a joint press conference with his European counterpart Federica Mogherini.