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.

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.

International Confirmation: Sarin Used in Syria, Ankara Makes Hints of New Operation

Moscow, Beirut, Ankara- The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed on Friday that banned Sarin gas was used in April’s chemical attack that killed dozens of people in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.

The Hague-based watchdog said “the perpetrators of this horrific attack must be held accountable for their crimes,” but the investigation fell short to blame any party for the attack.

The OPCW report was sent to the UN Security Council for a joint investigation in order to find the suspects. A council meeting on July 5 is expected to discuss the findings.

US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley said in a statement: “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.”

For his part, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said: “The exact responsibility for dropping the Sarin will now go to a joint investigative mechanism to be confirmed but I’ve got absolutely no doubt that the finger points at the Assad regime.”

However, the Russian Foreign Minister doubted the OPCW report, and said its “conclusions are still based on very doubtful data obtained from the same opposition and the same notorious NGOs of the White Helmets type, and not on the site of the tragedy.”

Meanwhile, Brett McGurk, the US special envoy to the coalition against ISIS, was holding talks in Ankara on Friday amid reports that Turkey could launch the “Euphrates Sabre” operation in the countryside of Aleppo, which means that Ankara plans to tighten the noose on the Kurdish-controlled city of Afrin.

McGurk’s visit also coincided with a phone call held between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss the latest developments in Syria, the war on ISIS and the US decision to arm the Syrian Democratic Forces that include fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Separately, sources said that head of the Syrian regime Bashar Assad promoted his brother Maher to Brigadier General, with reports predicting that the latter would play a leading role in the “Revolutionary Guards.”

Russian-Iranian Bid for New Chemical Probe Rejected

The Hague- The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) rejected on Thursday, through a voting process, a Russian-Iranian proposal to form a new team to investigate the purported chemical attack against Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province on April 4.

The British delegation to the Organization said on its Twitter account: “The #OPCW Executive Council has overwhelmingly rejected the Russian and Iranian decision which attempted to undercut the FFM”, referring to the fact-finding mission.

The draft-resolution, which was submitted by Moscow and Tehran, and obtained by AFP, had called for a new investigation by OPCW “to establish whether chemical weapons were used in Khan Sheikhoun and how they were delivered to the site of the reported incident.”

The draft-resolution, however, overlooked the fact that the international body, based in The Hague, was already investigating the April 4 attack on Idlib province, which claimed the lives of 87 people, including many children.

It also called for investigators to visit the Shayrat airbase — bombed by the United States after the attack — to “verify allegations concerning the storage of chemical weapons” there.

The British delegation said on Twitter that the Russian move had “attempted to undercut” the OPCW’s existing fact-finding mission (FFM).”

“Needless to say – FFM investigation continues” and “the UK fully supports it,” it added.

Meanwhile, Russian Defense Ministry’s spokesperson Igor Konashenkov doubted the investigation, saying that western experts could not explain “how representatives of the White Helmets managed to work for such a long period of time and remain alive without gasmasks and special protection equipment.”

On Wednesday, OPCW said that sarin or a similar banned toxin was used in an attack in Idlib.

Reuters quoted the organization’s director, General Ahmet Uzumcu as saying that the results of the analysis “indicate that sarin or a sarin like substance was used”.

The finding was based on tests on bio-medical samples collected from three victims during their autopsies that were analyzed at two OPCW-designated laboratories, the OPCW said, according to Reuters.

International experts mull Syrian chemical weapon proposal

Members of a UN investigation team take samples in the Damascus countryside of Ain Terma, Syria. (AP Photo/United media office of Arbeen)
Members of a UN investigation team take samples in the Damascus countryside of Ain Terma, Syria. (AP Photo/United media office of Arbeen)
Washington and London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Russian proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international supervision would require the complete cooperation of a regime which is very secretive about its arsenal, in an operation which is difficult to carry out amid a civil war, say international disarmament experts.

If the proposal was successful, it would mean a fundamental change in Damascus’s stance, which has to date refused to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and avoided questions about the arsenal it denied existed until very recently. This arsenal is considered among the world’s largest and French intelligence services have estimated its volume at “more than 1000 tonnes.”

Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, told French news agency AFP that “the first stage starts with Syria immediately signing the agreement to ban chemical weapons,” which came into force in 2007.

In addition to joining the treaty, Damascus must provide a list of its arsenal and allow inspectors into the country to verify its statements and “investigate every ounce of chemical materials and ammunition,” according to spokesman of the organization, Michael Luhan.

It is also possible to employ UN inspectors for this task in a similar way to the task carried out last August in Syria, or in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, according to Kimball. He also said “the problem with executing that task from a practical point lies in guaranteeing the safety of the inspectors and the safety of the chemicals in the long term.”

The expert did not hide his skepticism, however, saying “it is difficult to imagine the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons during a civil war,” adding that “this is not the kind of work you want to do under the threat of missiles in the area.”

David Kay, a former senior UN inspector in Iraq, said the task required large numbers of inspectors to guarantee the inspection of all the sites around the clock and to stop anyone entering these sites.

The West fears that President Assad could lose control of these chemicals–which include Mustard gas and the nerve agents VX and sarin–and that they will fall into the hands of extremist opposition groups.

Following the Russian proposal, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced on Monday that areas controlled by the UN should be established in Syria to secure and destroy the chemical weapons. This would cost billions of dollars and take many years. The United States has spent USD 35 billion over the last two decades destroying its stockpile, in an operation which will not end before 2021.

Luhan said manufacturing chemical weapons is something, but destroying them is a different matter, “because it is more costly and sensitive at both technical and legal levels.”

The operation to remove the danger is different, depending on whether the chemical is attached to a missile as is the case in America, or is stockpiled before use, as is the case in Russia. In the first case, the weapons must be destroyed by burning them in specialized plants. In the second case, the chemicals can be deactivated by adding a chemical compound.

French intelligence service reports published in September indicate that the Syrian arsenal is “stored in a binary format, which means in the form of two chemical materials which are mixed before use.” This is similar to the system used in Russia, who is suspected in helping Syria build its chemical weapon program in the 1970s.

The Syrian regime has a number of research centers in the Damascus suburbs, Aleppo, Homs, Latakia and Hama, and has produced hundreds of tonnes of chemical materials every year, according to the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which lists all WMD arsenals in the world.

UN reports points to chemical weapons use in Syria

A picture taken on April 26, 2013 shows Abu Tarek, a 74-year-old retired army officer, trying on a homemade gas-mask assembled using a plastic bottle, coal, cotton, gauze, cola, and cardboard, for protection against chemical weapons, in Syria's northern Latakia province. (AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL MEDINA)

A picture taken on April 26, 2013 shows Abu Tarek, a 74-year-old retired army officer, trying on a homemade gas-mask assembled using a plastic bottle, coal, cotton, gauze, cola, and cardboard, for protection against chemical weapons, in Syria's northern Latakia province. (AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL MEDINA)
A picture taken on April 26, 2013 shows Abu Tarek, a 74-year-old retired army officer, trying on a homemade gas mask assembled using a plastic bottle, coal, cotton, gauze, cola and cardboard, for protection against chemical weapons, in Syria’s northern Latakia province. (AFP PHOTO/MIGUEL MEDINA)
London, Asharq Al-Awsat—UN investigators said yesterday that they had “reasonable grounds” to believe that limited amounts of chemical weapons had been used in Syria, without specifying by which side.

A report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria made reference to four separate incidents where chemical weapons were used, adding that “it has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator.”

The UN report listed the four separate incidents of alleged chemical weapons use as: Khan El-Assal, near Aleppo on March 19; Al-Outaiba, near Damascus, on March 19; Sheikh Maqsood district of Aleppo on April 13; and the town of Saraqeb on April 29.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius announced that tests carried out in French labs had verified that sarin gas has been used in Syria. The samples were smuggled out of Syria by French journalists working for the Le Monde newspaper last week.

“We have no doubt that the gas is being used. The conclusion of the laboratory is clear: there is sarin gas,” he said.

The government and the rebels had previously exchanged accusations of chemical weapons use during the two-year-old civil war in Syria.

The UN report did not identify whether it was the regime or the rebels who were responsible for the chemical weapons use, acknowledging that either side could be responsible.

Urine and blood samples have been taken from Syrians, mostly refugees and casualties, to confirm chemical weapons use.

The UN Commission of Inquiry emphasized on Tuesday that “war crimes and crimes against humanity have become a daily reality in Syria where the harrowing accounts of victims have seared themselves on our conscience.”

“There is a human cost to the increased availability of weapons,” it added.

Following the UN report yesterday, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) claimed that “there is no basis for comparison between those who target helpless people every day with explosives, killing women and children and systematically crushing the popular revolution, and those who carry light weapons to protect the people.”

In a statement, the SNC announced its “rejection and condemnation of all violation of international laws and agreements, regardless of who the perpetrator is.” The statement comes after the UN report claimed that human rights violations had been committed by both sides in the Syrian conflict.

Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, Free Syrian Army (FSA) joint military command spokesman Gen. Qassim Saad Eddin said: “The regime is the only party which has this type of weapons, and this requires a certain level of technical knowledge.”

When asked about the possibility of the FSA using chemical weapons, he said: “The regime is fabricating these charges against us in front of the international community.”

“The regime usually utilizes such weapons in the areas that it is unable to capture and gain control of,” he added.

The general stressed that the Assad regime’s forces have increased their use of banned weapons in an attempt to secure as much gain as possible before the expected Geneva II conference.

As the war continues to rage in Syria, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of disease epidemics sweeping the country.

Dr. Jaouad Mahjour, director of the Department for Communicable Diseases at the WHO’s Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, said: “All the risk factors that enhance the transmission of communicable diseases in emergencies are present in the current crisis in Syria and its neighboring countries.”

“We are anticipating a number of public health risks from water-borne diseases, specifically hepatitis, typhoid, cholera and dysentery.

Saraqeb’s Agony

Buildings destroyed by shelling and bombing in the town of Saraqeb, Idlib province, Syria (AAA)
Buildings destroyed by shelling and bombing in the town of Saraqeb, Idlib province, Syria (AAA)
Saraqeb, Asharq Al-Awsat—It’s the details in the dust that give away the enormity of what’s happened in Saraqeb. The child’s shoe, stained brown and separated from its partner, lying next to one half of a broken china saucer; the relics of normality scattered over a heap of twisted cable and broken masonry. This is just one shattered house in a pulverized street, and just one street in an echoing, abandoned neighborhood. The only sounds breaking the heavy silence are the whirr of the regime’s reconnaissance helicopters overheard and a ‘crack crack crack’ as a bored rebel fighter plays with his Kalashnikov in a nearby empty building. But somehow, crazily, an ice cream parlour is still open for business in the middle of it all. In the searing midday heat of a May day in Idlib Province, the only customers are a group of Free Syrian Army fighters, their combat fatigues incongruous next to the pastel colored desserts on the counter.

Saraqeb has grown used to bombing and shelling and the other conventional weapons of war, but three weeks ago, residents say, the game changed. In his airy office on the second floor of an unremarkable building on the city’s main street, Dr Mohammed Walid Tamer opens his laptop and pulls up a video file. It shows a panoramic wide shot of the city, a barrel load of explosives hurled from a government helicopter onto the streets below, and an enormous cloud of smoke and dust rising high into the air. The doctor pauses the video and rewinds the last few seconds. “Look,” he says. He points to a tiny stick figure thrown with the debris fifty feet up into the air. “That’s a person.”

His next clip shows the aftermath: civilians running into a clinic clutching people ashen with dust and blood loss, and four people carrying a dead woman on a bed because there aren’t enough stretchers to go round. “At this point we didn’t realize what had happened,” says the doctor. “But within half an hour we knew. As soon as we saw that people were foaming at the mouth we knew that it was a chemical attack.”

The camera hones in on a young man. His breaths come noisily and painfully and a milky liquid is spilling from his mouth. His pupils are tiny pin pricks in the middle of the vivid red whites of his eyes. Twenty six people died instantly in the airstrike and in the days afterwards the doctors in Saraqeb’s hospital saw dozens of people suffering with symptoms brought on by the bomb’s toxic cloud. “Even the people who went to the site to help the injured started to faint and vomit,” the doctor says. “The ambulance drivers got sick. Even the doctors who treated the patients in the clinic got headaches and stomach pains.” Soon after the attack the people started leaving Saraqeb. “Now the city’s like a ghost town,” the doctor says. “Most of the people have left, but they are still bombing us. Yesterday an air strike killed another ten people here.” Fifty thousand people used to live in this city; now the streets are eerily empty.

At first Dr Tamer and his colleagues thought that their patients had been poisoned by phosphorus gas. But they knew the importance of taking evidence, even in the chaos of the first hours after the attack. “We took soil samples and clothes from the people affected, and we took them straight away,” he says. “We don’t have the facilities here to test them properly, so we sent them to Turkey. And when the intelligence services there tested them they discovered that it was Sarin gas.”

Two barrels, allegedly containing Sarin mixed with TNT, were dropped on Saraqeb that day, each poisoning an area of one kilometer in diameter. But there was a third barrel, one that didn’t explode as it should have done. “When we found that one, we discovered that it contained phosphorus,” says the doctor. “We think that the regime dropped it to cover up the Sarin. Phosphorus is used in fertilizer, so they could have claimed that the people were poisoned because of an agricultural accident.”

One person, an elderly lady called Mariam Al-Khatib, died from the effects of the Sarin. But Dr Tamer has collected the names of the dozens more who were poisoned and recovered—including a pregnant eighteen year old woman—and may still suffer long term effects in the future. The files on his laptop are the evidence that shows that the Syrian regime has crossed US President Obama’s ‘red line’ in Saraqeb. But so far there is still there is no comeback from the international community, and the doctor doesn’t believe that there ever will be. “First they’ll ask whether it was the regime or the opposition who did this,” he says. “Then when they decide that it’s the regime, they’ll ask was it Maher Al-Assad or Bashar. And if they decide that maybe it was Maher, they’ll still not do anything.”

So Saraqeb is left to cope alone. The hospitals have run out of Atropine, the medicine they need to treat the victims. They have no gas masks or protective clothing for the ambulance and hospital staff, and no more oxygen or ventilators to treat the victims of any future chemical attacks in the city. And Dr Tamer expects that there will be more attacks. “This is a strategic point in Syria,” he says. “Saraqeb is on the main supply route from Damascus to the north. So this is just the latest attack.”