Friday, October 10, 2014

Alleged Chemical Weapons Use in Syria Since August 19, 2014

By Jared Ferris and Theodore Bell with Jennifer Cafarella

The armed forces of the Assad regime have established the use of chemical weapons (CWs) as a tactic to force localized disruptions of rebel operations. Regime forces have on a number of occasions used this tactic in order to set the conditions for success for ground offensives against critical rebel holdout positions. Similar to the use of the Syrian Arab Air Force to project force into areas where the regime cannot deploy ground troops, the utilization of chemical weapons serves to offset the regime’s manpower shortage and enable offensive operations otherwise unlikely to achieve success. Their use is therefore often a crucial indicator of the weakness of regime forces in a given area, or alternatively a positive indicator of the ability of rebel groups to meaningfully challenge the regime in certain sectors. As such, recent allegations of CW use by the Assad regime shed important light on the status of the regime’s military campaign in Syria and highlight the continued importance of the regime’s use of unconventional tactics in achieving and holding terrain.

The Syrian regime agreed to surrender its stock of chemical weapons in order to forestall an international intervention in the aftermath of the August 2013 sarin gas attack on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta. According to the terms of the agreement, the U.S. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) embarked on a multilateral effort to destroy the regime’s CW stockpile. On August 19, 2014 the OPCW announced that all 600 tons of regime “Category 1” CWs, including 581 tons of sarin gas precursor and 19.8 tons of sulfur mustard gas, had been successfully destroyed, and on September 30, the OPCW-UN joint mission announced the completion of its mandate. However, subsequent allegations of the deployment of chlorine gas against rebel-held areas indicated that Assad had not relinquished the tactic itself. Assad was not required to declare his possession of chlorine given its ordinary use as an industrial agent, although the weaponization of chlorine is nonetheless a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which entered into force in Syria in October of 2013.

A fact-finding mission announced by the OPCW in April 2014 to investigate alleged regime use of chlorine gas voiced concern that the Syrian regime may not have handed over all CWs. In May, Human Rights Watch released a report on an alleged chlorine gas attack on three towns in Hama Province, concluding that there was “strong evidence” the chemical agent had been used by regime forces. The deployment of chlorine gas as a CW appears to have been conducted through the use of barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of the gas. Responding to continuing allegations, on September 10 the OPCW reported it had found “compelling confirmation” that the regime deployed chlorine gas “systematically and repeatedly” in northern Syria in early 2014. Since the OPCW declared the complete neutralization of the regime’s surrendered CW stockpile on August 19, 2014, local sources have alleged a minimum of 16 chlorine gas attacks conducted by the regime, largely against rebels entrenched in the Damascus suburbs. In the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, where rebel forces are largely commanded by the Jaysh al-Islam-led Islamic Front, local sources report that the regime has recently deployed chlorine gas prior to successful ground assaults on Adra, Dukhanniya, Jobar, and Irbeen. This tactic has permitted the regime to regain control over territory from the Islamic Front in Eastern Ghouta, most recently over parts of Adra on September 27 and over Dukhaniyya on September 28. In addition, the regime has allegedly deployed chlorine gas against a number of other rebel positions in Dera’a, Hama, and Deir ez-Zour provinces, areas in which regime offensives had been achieving little success.

In most cases, alleged CW strikes in Syria throughout 2014 have occurred in locations inaccessible to OPCW or Human Rights Watch investigators. Therefore, it is impossible to verify the accuracy of the allegations according to the standards utilized by these organizations. However, in the cases detailed here, evidence provided by local activist reporting regarding the occurrence of a strike is assessed with high confidence. In all cases, reports are drawn from sources on the ground assessed to have a high level of fidelity in their reporting, and are further crosschecked across sources. In addition, video evidence serves as a primary method through which to verify the symptomatic indicators of a likely CW strike, often involving the testimony of local physicians.

Where possible, alleged regime CW attacks are also evaluated against previous OPCW findings. Reported CW attacks near Hama, for example, follow a geographical pattern previously established by the OPCW. Reported regime CW usage between August and October furthermore follows a behavior pattern characterized by systematic and repeated CW usage. Given the dovetailing of local reporting with OPCW findings, we can therefore assess CW attacks reported between August and October with reasonable confidence.

Following the UN resolution mandating the destruction of the regime’s CWs, continued use of chlorine gas as a weaponized agent is a serious breach of international law and a violation of international attempts to prevent their use. If the reports listed here are confirmed, then use of CWs by the Assad regime appears to comprise a nearly routine element of regime military tactics to clear entrenched rebel positions. Combined with the utilization of siege-and-starve tactics in order to force the submission of rebel holdouts, the utilization of CWs is further evidence of the extent to which the regime is willing to utilize any means necessary in order to maintain control when faced with a meaningful challenge by rebel forces.

Documentation of CW Strikes 

August 20, Jobar

Sham News Network post, August 20, 2014,

Irbeen Surgical Hospital, [“One of the injured gassed,”], YouTube, August 20, 2014,

August 22, Irbeen
Sham News Network, August 22, 2014,

All4Syria, Said Khabeya, August 22, 2014,

Al-Hadath News, August 22, 2014,

September 13, Jobar

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights post, September 13, 2014,

All4Syria, September 13, 2014,

September 22, Dukhaniyya

Jaysh al-Umma, [“Cases of asphyxia”], YouTube, September 22, 2014,

El-Dorar, September 23, 2014,

September 24, Adra

Sham News Network post, September 24, 2014,

Brown Moses Youtube Playlist, “Alleged chemical attack, Adra, Sept 24th 2014,”

September 26, Dukhaniyya

Sham News Network, September 26, 2014,

Orient News, September 26, 2014,

El-Dorar, September 26, 2014,

Greater Syria

August 19, Atman, Dera’a

Brown Moses YouTube Playlist, “Alleged Chemical Attack in Daraa August 19th 2014,” [Sham News Network, AlAan TV],

RFS Media Office post, August 19, 2014,

August 23, Helfaya, Hama

Zaman al-Wasl, “Rebels kill 10 as they make advances in Hama, Alawites fears rise,” August 24, 2014,

Abu Mohammed al-Hamawi, [“Helfaya, Hama, bombed with chlorine gas on August 23”], YouTube August 23, 2014,

August 28, near Kafr Zita, Hama

Sham News Network post, August 28, 2014,

Idlib Civil Defense post, August 28, 2014,

Abu Mu’ied Qutaini, [“Cases of asphyxiation resulting from the targeting of Siyad with chlorine gas by Assad’s planes on August 28, 2014”] and [“Asphyxiation of a baby as a result of being exposed to chlorine gas on August 28, 2014”]YouTube, August 28, 2014,,

Union of Hama Rebels, [“Interview with chlorine gas treatment administrator and president of Kafr Zita hospital president Dr. Hassan al-Arj”], YouTube, August 31, 2014,

September 13, Morek, Hama

Local Coordination Committees of Syria, September 13, 2014,

Sham News Network, September 13, 2014,

Aksalser News, September 13, 2014,

Mahmoud al-Hamawy, YouTube, September 13, 2014,

September 26, Morek, Hama

Zaman al-Wasl, September 26, 2014,

Syrian Revolution Coordinators, September 26, 2014,

El-Dorar, September 27, 2014,

September 27, Sheikh Yassin, Deir ez-Zour City

Step News Agency, September 27, 2014,

Local Coordination Committee Syria, September 27, 2014,

All4Syria, Safwan Al-Ahmed, September 28, 2014,

October 1, Deir al-Adas, Dera’a

Shaam News Network, October 1, 2014,

Orient News, October 1, 2014,

El-Dorar, October 1, 2014,

October 5, Sheikh Yassin, Deir ez-Zour City

SMART News Agency, October 5, 2014,

El-Dorar, October 6, 2014,

Zaman al-Wasl, October 6, 2014,

October 9, Inkhil, Dera’a

Sham News Network, October 9, 2014,

Step News Agency, October 9, 2014,

SMART News Agency, October 9, 2014,

Inkhil United Media Office, [“Dera’a Inkhil targeted with barrels carrying chlorine gas on October 9, 2014”], YouTube, October 9, 2014,

October 9, Handarat, Aleppo

Sham News Network, October 9, 2014,

Shabha Press Agency, October 9, 2014,