OPCW report identified perpetrator, backers

Douma chemical attack; Will al-Assad escape accountability?

Chemical massacres in Syria as drawn by artificial intelligence (Instagram/Omar al-Masri)

OPCW report identified perpetrator, backers

Douma chemical attack; Will al-Assad escape accountability?

Chemical massacres in Syria as drawn by artificial intelligence (Instagram/Omar al-Masri)

Chemical massacres in Syria as drawn by artificial intelligence (Instagram/Omar al-Masri)

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Enab Baladi – Lujain Mourad

“Uncle, I am alive, I am alive,” the call for help of a child whom people will not forget indefinitely, like hundreds of photos and footage of pale faces trying to escape from the chemical massacre and others of victims who suffocated in the air that turned into poison in moments, and their identities became numbers.

And while the war never left Syrians without bloody memories, April of 2017 and 2018 left memories of another kind, memories of a bloodless death that suffocates even the survivors and leaves them facing a constant fear that the truth will suffocate.

These two dates were only part of a long series of massacres in which the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against civilians, as the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented 222 chemical attacks in Syria from the first documented use of chemical weapons in the network’s database in December 2012 until November 30, 2020.

In Douma, the regime is condemned again

Investigators from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have found the Syrian regime responsible for a poison gas attack that killed 43 people in Douma city, northeast of Damascus, on April 7, 2018, leaving victims choking to death in the basement of a home, according to the Guardian.

In a report nearly five years in the making, the OPCW found the canisters carrying poison gas had been dropped by a Syrian air force helicopter over Douma. The cylinders had carried high concentrations of chlorine, at least one of which dispersed its deadly payload into a ground floor room where civilians had been taking shelter.

The OPCW concluded that the “Tiger Forces” (Division 25 Special Forces) led by Suhail al-Hassan, in the presence of Jamil al-Hassan, and with Russian support, were responsible for the chemical attack in Douma.

The OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) assessed physical evidence collected and provided by OPCW experts, States Parties, and other entities. This includes 70 environmental and biomedical samples, 66 witness statements, and other verified data, such as forensic analysis, satellite images, gas dispersion modeling, and trajectory simulations.

The evidence was scrutinized by IIT investigators, analysts, and several external independent experts.  

The IIT considered a range of possible scenarios and tested their validity against the evidence they gathered and analyzed to reach their conclusion: that the Syrian Arab Air Forces are the perpetrators of this attack.

A child poisoned with chlorine gas in a hospital in Douma city, east of Damascus - April 7, 2018 (Reuters)

A child poisoned with chlorine gas in a hospital in Douma city, east of Damascus – April 7, 2018 (Reuters)

Long waiting

Despite the existence of several indications mentioned by the fact-finding mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in previous reports proving the Syrian regime’s involvement in the attack, hundreds of survivors and victims’ families have been waiting for an explicit condemnation for many years.

Among the most prominent indications of the regime’s involvement in this massacre is a report issued by the organization in March 2019, confirming the dropping of two cylinders of molecular chlorine from the air on the city of Douma, followed by another report documenting the regime’s tampering with evidence by moving the two gas cylinders that were found at the site of the massacre, ignoring the organization’s warnings from approaching evidence without written permission.

Enab Baladi contacted the OPCW to inquire about the obstacles faced by the investigation committees and the reasons for the delay in issuing the condemnation report, but it did not receive a response until the moment this report was published.

The Syrian doctor, humanitarian activist, and former aid and advocacy worker, Mohamad Katoub, attributed in an interview with Enab Baladi the delay in issuing the condemnation report to the obstacles placed by the Syrian regime in the face of the organization, primarily the destruction of gas cylinders and intimidation of witnesses, in addition to falsifying information.

This prompted the organization to stress the verification of all information about the attack by submitting a report capable of responding to any doubts about the information contained therein, according to Katoub.

Thaer Hijazi, Vice-President of the Association of Victims of Chemical Weapons, agreed with Katoub, as he considered that the Syrian regime and its Russian ally made great efforts to obstruct the issuance of the OPCW report, which further complicated the work of the committee.

We must take into account the systematic obfuscation and forgery of witnesses carried out by the regime and its Russian ally, in addition to preventing the OPCW from visiting the site of the incident and the blurring of evidence that forced the organization to deal with a huge amount of information, in order to understand the rationale for the delay in issuing the report.

Tariq Hokan, Director of the Strategic Litigation Program at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression

Convicted still without accountability

The latest OPCW report on Douma’s chemical weapons is not the first of its kind, as many previous reports held the Syrian regime responsible for other attacks. However, these condemnations were not sufficient to prompt the international community to take serious steps in the path of justice and accountability for the use of an internationally prohibited weapon.

Violations of the OPCW’s agreement have made holding the Syrian regime accountable a demand to thousands of victims and dozens of international organizations.

Each state party in the OPCW undertakes to “not develop or produce chemical weapons or acquire them in one way or another, or store or keep them, or transfer chemical weapons directly or indirectly to anyone, in addition to not using them.”

In April 2021, the OPCW identified the Syrian regime as the perpetrator of the chemical weapons attack on the town of Saraqib in rural Idlib on February 4, 2018.

In the OPCW report issued in April 2021, the organization held the Syrian regime responsible for firing toxic chlorine on the city of Saraqib in rural Idlib on February 4, 2018, using a military helicopter of the Syrian regime’s air force, which resulted in the injury of 12 people.

Under the joint investigative mechanism (JIM) between the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which aims to identify the “criminal” responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, a report was issued in 2017, blaming the Syrian regime for the use of sarin gas in the city of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib countryside, on April 4, 2017, in addition to three chlorine gas attacks that occurred between 2014 and 2015, which the OPCW documented in six previous reports.

The Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) between the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)

The JIM was established on August 7, 2015, after the member states of the Security Council unanimously agreed to form a mechanism with the task of investigating chemical attacks in Syria and determining the identity of those responsible.

The JIM worked to investigate nine attacks that took place in various regions of Syria and concluded that the Syrian regime was responsible for four attacks, while it held the Islamic State group responsible for one attack, and it was unable to determine the identity of the party responsible for the rest of the attacks.

In a move to “stifle the truth,” the Security Council suspended the JIM’s mandate in November 2017, after Russia used its veto twice within 24 hours in sessions held by the Security Council in late 2017 to renew the work of the investigation committee in response to a report that held the Syrian regime responsible for the chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun town.

This was followed by an OPCW report released on April 8, 2020, which concluded that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in the town of al-Lataminah in the northern Hama countryside on March 24, 25, and 30, 2017.

The report states that a military plane of the 50th Brigade of the 22nd Air Division took off at 6:00 am on March 24, 2017, from the al-Shayrat airbase, south of the city of Homs, to bomb al-Lataminah with a bomb containing sarin gas, leaving 16 people affected.

Director of the Strategic Litigation Program at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, Tariq Hokan, told Enab Baladi that the latest report on the chemical attack in Douma differs from previous reports.

The report relied on the results of the visit of the fact-finding mission team of the OPCW, which visited the site of the accident a few days after the strike, and it is one of the few incidents of chemical use in which there was direct access to the site of the accident, according to Hokan.

In contrast, most of the previous investigations and reports relied entirely on the samples reported by the local teams.

The report also provides many details that support its credibility, as it mentions discussions that took place between the officers of al-Dumayr Military Airport, east of Damascus, about the use of chemical munitions, the details of the implementation and coordination of the strike, and names the officer who requested the chemical munitions and issued the direct order to carry out the strike, according to Hokan.

A White Helmets volunteer sprays water on the body of a boy who was said to have been killed after being exposed to chlorine gas - February 3, 2018 (EPA/Mohamed Badra)

A White Helmets volunteer sprays water on the body of a boy who was said to have been killed after being exposed to chlorine gas – February 3, 2018 (EPA/Mohamed Badra)

​​Accountability is trapped in data, what is the point?

After every attack or the issuance of the results of an investigation into the chemical massacres in Syria, the voices of those condemning this violation are louder.

Statements continue to come that promise to hold those responsible for the attacks accountable, while real steps on the path to justice and accountability are absent, and accountability remains imprisoned in statements that have become routine.

In response to holding the Syrian regime responsible for the chemical massacre in the city of Douma, many Western countries, along with Turkey and Qatar, issued statements showing their support for holding the Syrian regime accountable and rejecting its “violation of international law.”

International reactions were limited to these statements, and the report was not sufficient to stop the paths of normalization, despite claims and expectations that the report would be a step to reduce the impunity of the perpetrators of violations and to search for ways to hold the Syrian regime accountable.

While the Security Council did not issue a resolution leading to accountability, some countries over the past years imposed sanctions on individuals and entities linked to the chemical weapons program in Syria over the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.

Thaer Hijazi, Vice President of the Association of Victims of Chemical Weapons, believes that the lack of an immediate and tangible impact of the report on accountability does not mean its absolute absence, as the report is evidence in the hands of the Syrians and is sufficient to refute the regime’s narrative about that massacre and others.

Hijazi said that the latest report and previous reports condemning the Syrian regime are a tool that the Syrians must raise against the steps of normalization with Damascus.

Through this report, the survivors can tell the world that they have been subjected to the most severe types of torture and violations by the same regime with which countries are rushing to normalize relations without the Syrian regime being able to silence them.

Thaer Hijazi, Vice President of the Association of Victims of Chemical Weapons

For his part, Owais al-Dabash, a lawyer and advisor on law and human rights, told Enab Baladi that the impact of the OPCW report on Douma is linked to keeping the justice file on the table of the international community and is not linked to accountability at the present time.

On the other hand, Tariq Hokan, the director of the Strategic Litigation Program at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, believes that as a result of the OPCW’s credibility as an organization approved by the international community and given the first role in investigating cases of the use of chemical weapons, all investigative bodies of the judicial bodies will rely on the OPCW’s reports.

The reports are considered key evidence in investigations and trials, according to what Hokan said, pointing out that this report will be an important part of any judicial file that will be worked on regarding the chemical attack on Douma in 2018.

He added that the report constitutes a real victory for the victims and witnesses who were subjected to intimidation by the regime and Russia.

The White Helmets rescue organization commemorates the sixth anniversary of the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack in northwestern Idlib region - April 4, 2023 (Enab Baladi/Anas al-Khouli)

The White Helmets rescue organization commemorates the sixth anniversary of the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack in northwestern Idlib region – April 4, 2023 (Enab Baladi/Anas al-Khouli)

Evidence and testimonies in the corridors of European courts

In an attempt to reach the expected justice, a group of Syrian organizations brought the crime file to European courts so that the case began its first steps towards holding accountable those responsible for the death of hundreds of Syrians by suffocation using internationally prohibited weapons.

On October 7, 2020, the “Justice Initiative,” the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, and the Syrian Archive Initiative, within the Mnemonic project to document human rights violations, filed a criminal complaint with the German Federal Public Prosecutor against Syrian officials, regarding the use of sarin gas in several Syrian towns.

In March 2012, the three organizations filed a similar complaint before investigative judges in France, which included extensive testimonies of several survivors of the chemical attacks launched by the Syrian regime on Douma and Eastern Ghouta suburbs in August 2013, to be the first criminal complaint filed against Bashar al-Assad in the past in France on the issue of chemical weapons.

A month later, another complaint was filed in Sweden to hold the Syrian regime accountable for its use of sarin gas in two attacks, the first on Eastern Ghouta in 2013 and the second on Khan Shaykhun in 2017.

Hokan said that the criminal complaints filed in Sweden and Germany are based on “universal jurisdiction,” pointing out that the public prosecutors in the two countries have begun investigations into these files, which are related to the two strikes in Ghouta in 2013 and Khan Shaykhun in 2017.

Universal Jurisdiction is one of the essential tools for ensuring that violations of international humanitarian law are prevented and, if committed, punished through the imposition of criminal sanctions.

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 stipulate that state parties are obligated to track down suspected perpetrators of grave breaches (war crimes), regardless of their nationalities and place of the alleged commission of the crime, and bring them to their courts or hand them over to another state party to the conventions for trial.

The French investigative judge specialized in war crimes and crimes against humanity is completing the procedures of the structural investigation related to the chemical attack on Eastern Ghouta suburbs in 2013, based on extraterritorial jurisdiction, based on a complaint filed by the center as a legal person registered in France affected by the strike and a dual-national victim.

Limited effect

Universal jurisdiction does not provide the option of prosecuting persons with diplomatic immunity, as these trials take place in domestic European courts.

States exercise their jurisdiction on the basis of the principle of nationality (for the perpetrator or the victim) or on the principle of “universal extraterritorial jurisdiction.”

This principle makes it possible to prosecute the offender, regardless of his nationality or the nationality of his victims, on certain conditions, such as presence or residence in the prosecuting country.

Owais al-Dabash, legal advisor and human rights activist, attributed the inability of the European courts to hold the Syrian regime accountable to the fact that they are national courts and their capacity is limited, as bringing to account persons who have diplomatic immunity is considered an infringement on the national sovereignty of states.

Regarding the possibility of holding some of those responsible for the chemical attacks accountable, al-Dabash said that if those responsible were officers present on French soil, the French judiciary could prosecute them.

On the other hand, if the accused are outside French territory, then their accountability requires that they surrender themselves to the judiciary or that the Syrian regime hand them over, and the two options are not logical at the present time.

Syrian organizations must be precise about the extent of their efforts to hold perpetrators of violations accountable in order to maintain the Syrian society’s confidence in the organizations’ work.

Owais al-Dabash, Lawyer and advisor on law and human rights

Thaer Hijazi, Vice President of the Association of Victims of Chemical Weapons, believes that the complaints contribute to the case file being complete until an indictment is issued against some people.

But the fact that the suspects are outside European territory means that the time for reaching justice is long.

The complaints play an important role in advocacy and proving that the Syrian regime used an internationally prohibited weapon against civilians, according to Hijazi.

White Helmets elements receive treatment after a chemical attack on Douma city - February 3, 2018 (EPA/Mohamed Badra)

White Helmets elements receive treatment after a chemical attack on Douma city – February 3, 2018 (EPA/Mohamed Badra)

Blurring, tampering with evidence, denial continues

A “fabricated charade” is one of the dozens of adjectives used by the Syrian regime and its Russian ally to attack reports and video clips regarding chemical attacks to deny its responsibility for what happened.

One of the most prominent attempts at denial, which the West considered a “blatant farce,” was to bring survivors of the massacre to present the regime’s narrative at a press conference held in The Hague in April 2018, prior to the release of the forthcoming OPCW’s report at the time.

Testimonies in which the Syrian regime and its Russian ally took advantage of civilians who were forced to carry out a “settlement” to show the “behind-the-scenes of the chemical attack” that the official media claimed was documenting the truth about what happened in the city of Douma and revealing the secrets of the case.

In a repeated scenario, the regime held a press conference following the OPCW’s report issued last January, in which it re-brought witnesses who reported its version of the “fabricated attack.”

Syria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Bassam Sabbagh, also reiterated, during a Security Council session, the denial of the attack and rejected the organization’s report.

Sabbagh considered that the establishment of the “Investigation and Identification Team” “constituted a dangerous turning point in the organization’s history, reversing the state of politicization and immersing the organization in a political labyrinth that undermined its credibility.”

On the other hand, the report refuted the narratives of the regime and its Russian ally about what happened in Douma, relying on evidence and arguments that prove the regime’s narrative is unrealistic.

The OPCW’s report is distinguished by the fact that it directly referred to Russia’s responsibility for participating in and supporting the chemical attack in Douma, which prompted Moscow to participate in denying its responsibility and describing the report as “politicized,” accusing the OPCW of covering up the truth about what happened in Douma through accusing the Syrian regime of the attack.

Human or political condemnation?

The Syrian regime and its Russian ally attacked the OPCW and its report, considering the report politicized and lacking logical evidence.

Damascus and Moscow linked the report to a Western approach to condemn the Syrian regime and put pressure on its Russian ally at the present time, especially in light of what the Russian war on Ukraine is witnessing.

The former advisor at the US State Department, Hazem al-Ghabra, told Enab Baladi that the OPCW operates independently, and there is no Western control over its work.

Al-Ghabra added that the West has condemned the regime since the attack took place and confirmed that it is the only party capable of committing the chemical massacre, while the OPCW’s report came to prove with evidence that the Syrian regime is responsible for that attack.

In contrast to the news circulating about the issuance of the report with a Western push to put pressure on the regime, al-Ghabra believes that the report came at a time when the West is not focusing on the Syrian file, which makes condemning the regime a gateway to reviving this file and focusing on it more.

Commemorating the sixth anniversary of Khan Shaykhun chemical massacre in northwestern Idlib region - April 4, 2023 (Enab Baladi/Anas al-Khouli)

Commemorating the sixth anniversary of Khan Shaykhun chemical massacre in northwestern Idlib region – April 4, 2023 (Enab Baladi/Anas al-Khouli)

Survivors, the voice of truth

The survivors of the chemical attacks bear the responsibility of documenting the truth of what happened and conveying the voices of the victims to the world by documenting their testimonies with the OPCW and various Syrian human rights organizations so that they can respond to the regime’s narrative and provide irrefutable evidence.

Thaer Hijazi, vice president of the Association of Victims of Chemical Weapons, said that many survivors of the massacre were intimidated and threatened with arrest to prevent them from conveying the truth to the world.

In addition, some activists outside Syria were threatened with their families residing in Syria, Hijazi added.

The survivors are still able to provide important information that serves the course of justice, says Hijazi, pointing out that the association is ready to help people who wish to submit their testimonies or who have tangible evidence to reach European courts.

The role in revealing the truth was played by the brave witnesses who endured all intimidation and pressure, presented their testimonies, and cooperated with the investigation committees, and some of them spoke to the media conveying the truth about the chemical attacks.

Mohamed Katoub, Syrian doctor and humanitarian activist

 

 

 

 

 

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