The global chemical weapons watchdog on Wednesday for the first time explicitly blamed Syria for toxic attacks, saying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air force used the nerve gas sarin and chlorine three times in 2017.
The findings came in the first report from a new investigative team set up by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to identify the perpetrators of attacks in Syria’s ongoing nine-year-long civil war.
Western nations and rights groups condemned Syria following the release of the report, which will now go to the UN among others to decide what and if any further action should be taken.
In March 2017, Syrian fighter jets dropped sarin on the northern village of Lataminah and a military helicopter dropped a barrel bomb full of chlorine on the same village, the probe found.
The OPCW said that the team “has concluded that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the perpetrators of the use of sarin as a chemical weapon in Lataminah in 2017 ... and the use of chlorine ... were individuals belonging to the Syrian Arab Air Force.”
Member states of the OPCW agreed two years ago to give The Hague-based watchdog new powers to attribute blame for attacks, despite the objections of Syria and its ally Russia. Previously, it had only been able to say whether chemical strikes had occurred, but without naming the perpetrators.
The OPCW said that the new Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) could not identify the precise chain of command, but that orders for the attacks must have come from senior commanders.
“Attacks of such a strategic nature would have only taken place on the basis of orders from the higher authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic military command,” IIT coordinator Santiago Onate-Laborde said.
“Even if authority can be delegated, responsibility cannot. In the end, the IIT was unable to identify any other plausible explanation,” he said in a statement.
Western nations and human rights groups praised the OPCW report, saying it proved Syria continued chemical attacks on its own population.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “no amount of disinformation from [al-]Assad’s enablers in Russia and Iran can hide the fact that the Assad regime is responsible for numerous chemical weapons attacks.”
“The unchecked use of chemical weapons by any state presents an unacceptable security threat to all states and cannot occur with impunity,” Pompeo said in a statement.
German Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas agreed.
“Such a blatant violation of international law must not go unpunished,” he said.
Human Rights Watch’s UN director Louis Charbonneau said that the “OPCW’s conclusions should be used to support criminal justice for the individuals responsible.”
However, OPCW head Fernando Arias said that the IIT was not there to name individuals.
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