GENEVA, Sept 6, (RTRS): Government forces have used chemical weapons more than two dozen times during Syria’s civil war, including in April’s deadly attack on Khan Sheikhoun, UN war crimes investigators said on Wednesday.
A government warplane dropped sarin on the town in Idlib province, killing more than 80 civilians, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said, in the most conclusive findings to date from investigations into that chemical weapon attack. The panel also said US air strikes on a mosque in Al- Jina in rural Aleppo in March that killed 38 people, including children, failed to take precautions in violation of international law, but did not constitute a war crime. The weapons used on Khan Sheikhoun were previously identified as containing sarin, an odourless nerve agent. But that conclusion, reached by a fact-finding mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), did not say who was responsible. “Government forces continued the pattern of using chemical weapons against civilians in opposition-held areas. In the gravest incident, the Syrian air force used sarin in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, killing dozens, the majority of whom were women and children,” the UN report said, declaring the attack a war crime.
Commission chairman Paulo Pinheiro told a news conference: “Not having access did not prevent us from establishing facts or reasonable grounds to believe what happened during the attack and establishing who is responsible.” In their 14th report since 2011, UN investigators said they had in all documented 33 chemical weapons attacks to date. Twenty-seven were by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, including seven between March 1 to July 7. Perpetrators had not been identified yet in six attacks, they said. The Assad government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons. It said its strikes in Khan Sheikhoun hit a weapons depot belonging to rebel forces, a claim “excluded” by Pinheiro.
The attack led US President Donald Trump to launch the first US air strikes on a Syrian air base. A separate joint inquiry by the United Nations and OPCW aims to report by October on who was to blame for Khan Sheikhoun. The UN investigators interviewed 43 witnesses, victims, and first responders linked to the attack.
Satellite imagery, photos of bomb remnants and early warning reports were used. The independent investigators said they were gravely concerned about the impact of international coalition strikes on civilians. “We continue to investigate coalition air strikes carried out to expel ISIS from Raqqa resulting in an increasing number of civilian casualties,” Pinheiro said. The report said: “In al-Jina, Aleppo, forces of the United States of America failed to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians and civilian objects when attacking a mosque, in violation of international humanitarian law.” A US military investigator said in June the air strike was a valid and legal attack on a meeting of al-Qaeda fighters. “However, the commission however has not found any evidence that such an al-Qaeda meeting was taking place,” Pinheiro said.
The American F-15s hit the building adjacent to the prayer hall with 10 bombs, followed by a Reaper drone that fired two Hellfire missiles at people fleeing, the UN report said. “Most of the residents of al-Jina, relatives of victims and first responders interviewed by the Commission stated on that on the evening in question, a religious gathering was being hosted in the mosque’s service building. This was a regular occurrence.”
The Syrian army and its allies are, meanwhile, fighting to secure and expand a precarious corridor to their comrades in Deir al-Zor a day after they smashed through Islamic State lines to break the jihadist siege. The army reached Deir al-Zor on Tuesday in a sudden, days-long thrust that followed months of steady advances east across the desert, breaking a siege that had lasted three years. However, Islamic State counterattacks lasted through Tuesday night, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported, as the jihadists tried to repel the army. It points to a tough battle ahead as the army aims to move from breaking the siege to driving Islamic State from its half of the city, the sort of street-by-street warfare in which the jihadists excel.
“The next step is to liberate the city,” a non-Syrian commander in the military alliance backing President Bashar al-Assad said. Assad and his allies — Russia, Iran and Shi’ite militias including Hezbollah — will follow the relief of Deir al-Zor with an offensive along the Euphrates valley, the commander said. The Euphrates valley cuts a lush, populous swathe of green about 260 kms (160 miles) long and 10 kms (6 miles) wide through the Syrian desert from Raqqa to the Iraqi border at al- Bukamal. The area has been Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria but came under attack this year when an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by a US-led coalition besieged and assaulted Raqqa.
Rapidly losing territory in both Syria and Iraq, Islamic State is falling back on the Euphrates towns downstream of Deir al-Zor, including al-Mayadin and al-Bukamal, where many expect it to make a last stand. However, the jihadist group specialises in urban combat, using car bombs, mines, tunnels and drones, and has held out against full-scale attack for months in some towns and cities. It still has 6,000-8,000 fighters left in Syria, despite losing 45 percent of its territory in the country since September 2014, the US-led coalition said on Wednesday. Parallel with their thrust towards Deir al-Zor, the Syrian army and its allies have been fighting Islamic State in its last pocket of ground in central Syria, near the town of al-Salamiya on the Homs-Aleppo highway. On Wednesday, army advances gained control of four villages in that area, further tightening the pocket, a military media unit run by Assad’s ally Hezbollah reported.
In Raqqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance, backed by the US-led coalition, has taken about 65 percent of the jihadists’ former de facto capital in Syria, it has said. Deir al-Zor lies along the southwest bank of the Euphrates. The government enclave includes the northern half of the city and the Brigade 137 military base to the west. The government also holds an air base and nearby streets, separated from the rest of the enclave by hundreds of metres of IS-held ground and still cut off from the advancing army.