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Intel: US endorses watchdog report blaming Syria for chemical attack

The report from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found "reasonable grounds" to believe that the Syrian air force dropped chlorine on a rebel-held town in northwestern Syria in 2018.
January 2018 Saraqib attack

The United States has endorsed a global chemical weapons watchdog's recent investigation into Syria, which concluded this week that government forces likely used chlorine gas during an attack on a residential area in 2018. 

“This latest finding should come as a surprise to no one,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement Wednesday. “The regime has consistently responded with death and destruction to calls by the Syrian people for reform and change. These well-documented atrocities include the use of chemical weapons.”

report released Monday from the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that a Syrian air force helicopter dropped at least one cylinder containing chlorine on the town of Saraqib in rebel-held Idlib province on Feb. 4, 2018. At least 12 people displayed symptoms consistent with chlorine exposure, the UN-backed investigative team said, including shortness of breath, skin irritation, chest pain and coughing.

“The United States concurs with the OPCW’s conclusions cited in this report and continues to assess that the Assad regime retains sufficient chemicals to use sarin, to produce and deploy chlorine munitions, and to develop new chemical weapons,” Price said. 

Why it matters: The report marks the second time the investigative unit has formally accused the Syria government of using chemical weapons in the decadelong war, which has left more than 500,000 people dead and millions more displaced. In April 2020, the OPCW concluded that the Syrian military had likely used both chlorine and the nerve agent sarin in multiple aerial attacks targeting the opposition-held village of Ltamenah in March 2017. 

The Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute had documented 349 cases of chemical weapons use since the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011, most of which occurred after President Barack Obama issued his infamous “red line” the following year. 

Syria denies using chemicals against rebel forces and says it surrendered its stockpile of banned materials as part of a 2013 disarmament deal. The government of Bashar al-Assad and its main ally Russia regularly accuse the opposition of staging videos to resemble chemical attacks, a possibility the OPCW explored but ultimately ruled out in Saraqib. 

What’s next: The OPCW doesn’t have the authority to punish Damascus for the alleged attacks, but later this month, its 193 member states are expected to vote on whether to strip Syria of its voting rights in the organization. In a recent UN Security Council briefing, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield urged countries to "send a strong message to the Assad regime” by voting in favor of the US-backed measure. 

Know more: Syria’s allies on the UN Security Council, Russia and China, have routinely used their veto powers to block efforts to hold the Assad regime accountable. Elizabeth Hagedorn takes a look at how the two countries are imperiling a UN-sponsored aid operation that delivers much-needed humanitarian assistance to northern Syria.

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