The United States, on Wednesday, hailed the conclusions of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in its report, issued earlier that day, finding that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against its population in 2017.
The OPCW is “the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention,” as the organization explains. The Chemical Weapons Convention outlaws the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. Its signatories include Syria.
However, the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) determined that on three occasions in March 2017, the Syrian Air Force dropped bombs containing chemical weapons – sarin gas in two instances and chlorine in a third – in an area of the country held by the Syrian opposition.
The three instances preceded the notorious April 4, 2017, sarin gas attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun. That attack killed over 80 people and precipitated a retaliatory US strike on the Syrian airbase from which the planes that dropped the chemical weapons had flown.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) welcomed the US strike at the time, while it condemned Damascus’ use of chemical weapons, noting that the people of the Kurdistan Region had “greatly suffered at the hands of the former deposed Ba’ath regime,” which had also used chemical weapons against its people.
The OPCW report explained that Syrian military airplanes had dropped sarin gas on the town of Ltamenah on March 24 and 30. The planes had flown out of Shayrat airbase—which the US attacked following the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun.
Additionally, a helicopter, flying out of Hama airbase, dropped chlorine gas on the hospital in Ltamenah on March 25.
The report marked the first time the OPCW attributed responsibility for a chemical attack to the Syrian regime. While it previously could determine if a chemical attack had occurred, it lacked the authority to say which party had been responsible. However, that changed in 2019 when the OPCW was given such a mandate.
As the IIT Co-ordinator, Santiago Onate-Laborde, previously Mexico’s ambassador to the OPCW, affirmed, “Attacks of such a strategic nature would have only taken place on the basis of orders from the higher authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic military command.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement, hailing the OPCW report. “The [Syrian] regime is responsible for innumerable atrocities, some of which rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” he said.
“More than half a million Syrians” have died in that country’s civil war, Pompeo continued, “and 11 million people – half of Syria’s pre-war population – have been displaced.”
In August 2013, a team of UN chemical weapons inspectors concluded that the Syrian regime had used sarin gas in eastern Ghouta. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that the attack constituted the “most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them” in Halabja in 1988.
Following that attack, US President Barack Obama was initially going to launch a retaliatory US strike. However, he backed away from that after discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A new way to approach the problem, through diplomacy, emerged. Russia would use its influence over Syria to get Damascus to abandon all aspects of its chemical weapons program. It was in that context that Syria joined the OPCW.
However, as Pompeo explained on Wednesday, that program was never implemented.
“The Syrian regime retains sufficient chemicals – specifically sarin and chlorine – and expertise from its traditional chemical weapons (CW) program to use sarin, to produce and deploy chlorine munitions, and to develop new CW,” Pompeo said.
“The Syrian military also has a variety of chemical-capable munitions – including grenades, aerial bombs, and improvised munitions – that it can use with little to no warning,” he continued.
Pompeo called on Syria to cease all aspects of its CW program, and he urged other countries to join the US “to promote accountability for the Syrian regime.”
“The unchecked use of chemical weapons,” he concluded, “by any state presents an unacceptable security threat to all states and cannot occur with impunity.