Syrian forces used chemical weapons at least 27 times over the course of the civil war, UN investigators have found. The UN report also decries the US for failing to protect civilians in its attacks on Islamist forces.
A panel of United Nations rights investigators announced definitively on Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces were behind April’s sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, which killed more than 80 people.
The findings were part of the latest UN report on the Syrian civil war presented in Geneva by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria. An earlier report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was not authorized to apportion blame or investigate culpability, only to establish whether chemical weapons had been used.
Investigators also revealed that they had documented 33 chemical weapons attacks since the war’s outbreak in 2011. Twenty-seven of those were carried out by Assad’s government forces, including seven between March 1 and July 7 of this year. The perpetrators in six attacks had not yet been identified, investigators said.
The attack this April on Khan Sheikhoun, where sarin was dropped from a military aircraft, was described as the “gravest incident” and declared a war crime.
The UN commission’s chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, told reporters in Geneva Wednesday: “Not having access did not prevent us from establishing facts or reasonable grounds to believe what happened during the attack and establishing who is responsible.”
Pinheiro also ruled out claims by Assad and Russian officials following the sarin attack that military strikes had hit a weapons depot belonging to rebel forces that contained sarin gas. Witnesses reportedly told the commission no such weapons depot had existed, while investigators said that a strike would have destroyed the sarin, rather than release it widely.
The commission said its latest report, which covers findings from March to July of this year, was based on information retrieved by satellite images, video, medical photos and some 300 witness interviews.
Read more: Syria’s chemical weapons, explained
“The commission finds that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Syrian forces attacked Khan Sheikhoun with a sarin bomb at approximately 6.45 a.m. on 4 April, constituting the war crimes of using chemical weapons and indiscriminate attacks in a civilian inhabited area,” the report said.
The strike prompted US President Donald Trump to launch a military airstrike on a Syrian air base.
UN decries US failure to ‘protect citizens’ in Syria strikes
Investigators said they were also “gravely concerned” by US-led operations against the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) jihadi group in Syria.
According to rights group Amnesty International, some 180 civilians were killed over June and July in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) offensive to recapture the Syrian city of Raqqa back from IS insurgents.
“We continue to investigate coalition air strikes carried out to expel ISIS from Raqqa resulting in an increasing number of civilian casualties,” Pinheiro said.
The report also highlighted a June airstrike on Al-Jina, in Aleppo province, where US forces hit a building adjacent to a mosque and fired two Hellfire missiles at fleeing civilians, killing 38 people.
US military investigators said the strike was a legitimate attack on a meeting of al-Qaida insurgents.
However, Pinheiro said the commission had “not found any evidence that such an al-Qaida meeting was taking place,” while the report denounced US forces for failing “to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians and civilian objects when attacking a mosque, in violation of international humanitarian law.”
dm/msh (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)