The Global Watchdog for Chemical Weapons has “reasonable grounds to believe” that the Syrian Air Force dropped a chlorine bomb on a residential area in the rebel-held Idlib region in February 2018, according to a report published on Monday.
There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government.
Syria and its military ally Russia have consistently denied using chemical weapons during President Bashar al-Assad’s ten-year conflict with rebel forces, saying all such attacks were staged by opponents to make Damascus look like the culprit.
The new report from the OPCW’s chemical weapons investigation arm said no one was killed when the chlorine gas cylinder, delivered in a barrel, hit the Al Talil neighborhood in the city of Saraqib in February 2018.
But on the night of February 4, a dozen people were treated for symptoms consistent with chemical poisoning, including nausea, eye irritation, shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing.
Chlorine is not an internationally banned toxin, but the use of chemical substances in armed conflict is prohibited under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, the implementation of which is monitored by the OPCW watchdog based in The Hague.
An attack on pro-democracy protesters by Assad in 2011 turned into a civil war, with Russia and Iran supporting their government and the United States, Turkey and some Arab opponents in Damascus supporting some of the many rebel groups.
In April 2020, the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) concluded that Syrian warplanes and a helicopter had dropped bombs containing chlorine and sarin nerve gas on a village in Syria’s Hama region in March 2017.
Toxic gas is released
The latest report from the IIT also involved Syrian government forces. It concluded that “there were reasonable grounds to believe” a chlorine cylinder was released from a helicopter.
“During ongoing attacks on Saraqib, a military helicopter of the Syrian Arab Air Force Code named Alpha-253”, under the control of the Tiger Forces, struck eastern Saraqib by dropping at least one cylinder. The cylinder exploded and released a toxic gas, chlorine, which spreads over a large area and affects 12 named individuals, “the report states.
The Tiger Forces is an elite Syrian military unit generally used in offensive operations during the war, which has largely diminished as Assad has abolished most of the territory with decisive Russian and Iranian support.
“All elements indicated the presence of Tiger forces near Saraqib. They found that a helicopter was only flying over the bombed area at the time of the gas discharge,” a summary of the OPCW report said.
It is said that samples collected from the scene were examined and other possible means of chlorine contamination are being considered, but the OPCW team said nothing was found to indicate that the incident was staged by Assad’s opponents.
The team identified people believed to be involved in the alleged attack but did not release their names.
Between 2015 and 2017, a joint UN-OPCW team, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), found that Syrian government forces on several occasions used the nerve agent sarin and chlorine barrel bombs, while Islamic State military personnel were found to have used mustard gas.