An international watchdog found “compelling information” that chlorine gas was used “systematically and repeatedly” as a chemical weapon in northern Syrian villages earlier this year.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons dispatched a fact-finding mission to Syria in April after reports emerged that chlorine was being used despite an agreement by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to dismantle its chemical-weapons program.
The fact-finding mission didn’t assign culpability for the chlorine attacks. U.S. officials say the Assad regime is the only force in Syria capable of launching such assaults—as some reportedly came from helicopters which only the regime has—but the Assad government disputes this. The fact-finding mission is continuing its work.
Chlorine, which is widely used in industry, isn’t a forbidden substance under the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international treaty signed last year by Syria under pressure from the U.S. and Russia. But the use of any chemical as a weapon is prohibited by the pact.
The OPCW team traveled to the sites of attacks and interviewed victims, doctors and witnesses. According to the report, victims’ symptoms and the effect of the gas led the mission “to conclude with a high degree of confidence that chlorine, either pure or in mixture, is the toxic chemical in question.”
Secretary of State John Kerry said in reaction to the report that “we do not have detailed information on who issued the order” to use chlorine gas. But he said there is clear circumstantial evidence that some in the Assad regime “have been using chlorine in a form that amounts to a chemical agent.”
The report follows an intensive international effort to rid Syria of its chemical-weapons program, following an attack in a Damascus suburb in August 2013. The U.S. and Russia agreed on the disarmament plan, with Syria’s acquiescence.
On Aug. 19, OPCW reported that all the “Category 1” chemicals, the most lethal group, had been destroyed aboard the MV Cape Ray, a U.S. government vessel. That included roughly 580 metric tons of DF, a precursor for sarin gas, and 20 metric tons of ready-to-use sulfur mustard.