ALEPPO — There's confusion, but no conclusion, so far about whether the Syrian regime on May 19 used chlorine gas yet again against opposition forces.
The Syrian government denies it used chemical weapons near Kabana in northern Latakia province. The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement May 19 saying the allegation was made by terrorist groups and was completely false, though the Idlib provincial health directorate leveled the same allegation against the regime.
But the Syrian government “has cooperated fully [in the past] with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which considered Syria free of these weapons," the Syrian Arab News Agency quoted a high-ranking Foreign Ministry source as saying on May 19.
The US State Department said in a May 21 statement that it was "gathering information" about the accusation and cautioned Syria: “We repeat our warning that if the [regime of President Bashar al-Assad] uses chemical weapons, the United States and our allies will respond quickly and appropriately.”
On May 22, however, The New York Times reported that US military officials said they were "looking into initial reports that Syrian forces had used chemical agents but expressed surprise over the State Department’s strong statement."
Also, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported days after the attack it had found no evidence that chlorine was used.
Perhaps predictably, Moscow challenged the charge. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on May 23, "The United States relies on making its allegations … on unverified sources, including terrorist group sources.”
Given the regime's history, however, the accusations aren't surprising.
A study released in February by the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI) in Berlin concluded that, as of Jan. 18, at least 336 chemical attacks had occurred during the Syrian civil war since December 2012, and "we suspect that the real number may still be significantly higher." The GPPI dismissed the 162 other reports it studied.
In the May incident, Damascus allegedly dropped chlorine gas barrels on Kabana, which “caused several of our frontline fighters to suffocate,” Naji Abu Hudeifa, spokesman for the opposition’s National Liberation Front (NLF), told Al-Monitor.
“This came after the regime's multiple failed attempts to storm the area since May 6,” he said, adding that the government also launched heavy air and artillery raids on opposition sites and villages there. "This, however, failed to undermine our strong counterattack against the government forces,” Abu Hudeifa said.
Kabana is west of Idlib province and in the middle of a rugged, mountainous area. The high hills on both sides protect opposition forces from government bombing and attacks. The opposition is dug in with hideouts and good military fortifications such as trenches and tunnels, mainly in the highlands — meaning government forces are squarely in the line of fire. Also, opposition fighters are well-versed in battle tactics for mountainous areas, such as ambush and guerrilla warfare, which often inflict heavy casualties on government forces.
A number of opposition factions from the NLF, which is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, are stationed in the Kabana area, as well as fighters from the Islamist faction Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). On May 13, HTS reportedly killed 30 members of the government's forces as they tried to advance to control the area, which provides access toward the city of Jisr al-Shughour. Taking this area could allow Assad’s forces to wrest control of the vast surrounding areas in northern Latakia province from opposition forces.
Al-Monitor met media activist Mohammad al-Ashkar, who is covering the battlefront in Kabana. Ashkar said, “The government forces are trying almost daily to advance toward Kabana. They are bombarding the area with rockets and artillery and relying on explosive barrels dropped by helicopters. The government warplanes are also launching raids on the opposition positions in Kabana almost daily. … But since May 8, the fierce resistance shown by the opposition has hindered any advance.”
Ashkar noted that the mountains overlook areas in three provinces: al-Ghab plain in Hama, most of the villages of the Kurdish mountains in Latakia, and the city of Jisr al-Shughur in Idlib.
Capt. Abdul Salam Abdul Razzaq, an opposition officer and a defected member of the Syrian army's chemical warfare department, told Al-Monitor that the government’s use of chlorine gas is evidence of its failing military operation despite its repeated ground attacks and air fire.
“The area was bombarded with chlorine-fired missiles. However, climatic conditions and wind speed in the area reduced the risk [to] opposition fighters, whose defenses were not undermined and who managed to counter the attack," he said, adding, “Assad's forces can't make progress in the opposition areas of Latakia without dominating the hills of Kabana. … I don't rule out another gas attack in the coming period.”