International Community Opens Investigation Into Syrian Chemical Weapon Attack
Rockets loaded with chlorine gas hit Eastern Ghouta early Monday morning. The attack killed at least 20, and more than 13 people suffered suffocation, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. This isn’t the first time Eastern Ghouta, a rebel stronghold near Damascus, has been hit by chemical weapons. On August 21, 2013, the stronghold was targeted by sarin nerve agents, killing around 1,400 people.
The 2013 attack resulted in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad joining a treaty that required him to destroy his chemical weapons and promise to never use such weapons in the future. Nonetheless, chemical weapons have since been used multiple times throughout the Syrian Civil War.
Mr. Assad’s regime has frequently used chlorine gas in attacks, as it was not included on the list of chemical weapons submitted to international monitors, and thus was not a weapon that the Syrian government was forced to get rid of. However, the use of chlorine as a weapon was banned under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.
Although the U.S. has indicated concern that Mr. Assad is responsible for the attacks, he and his government body denies using chemical weapons. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke about the attack, and said that “Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in Eastern Ghouta and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons since Russia became involved in Syria.”
The Russians vetoed the renewal of an international investigation in November, which tried to find culpability for the chemical weapons attacks. Mr. Tillerson called out Russia for shielding Syria, saying that it “has breached its commitments to the United States as a framework guarantor.”
At the meeting in Paris where Mr. Tillerson spoke, 24 countries decided to impose sanctions on 25 people and companies, including importers and distributors from China and Lebanon, which were suspected of helping supply Syria with chemical weapons. The 24 countries, including France, Germany, and Turkey, launched the International Partnership Against Impunity for Use of Chemical Weapons and committed to share information on combating chemical weapons.
Syria and Russia both accused the U.S. of lying about the chemical weapon attacks. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax news agency that the U.S. promotes “rigged, unverified reports” of chemical weapons attacks in order to derail peace efforts.
Although the Syrian government continuously denies using chemical weapons, there were 161 documented chemical attacks from the start of the Syrian conflict through 2015, and according to a report from the Syrian American Medical Society, most of these attacks were carried out by the Assad regime. Furthermore, a joint inquiry of the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found that the Syrian government was responsible for using chlorine as a weapon in several attacks, as well as for using the nerve agent sarin in an attack in April, 2017.
Ole Solvang, deputy director of the emergencies department at Human Rights Watch, warns that if the use of chemical weapons in Syria “continues without any kind of reaction, without any kind of consequences, then that sends a signal to actors in other wars as well, that this international norm on chemical weapons is not as strong as we thought it was.”