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Watchdog blames Syria for chemical-weapons attacks

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis (not pictured) attend a joint news conference at the medieval Castelgrande castle in Bellinzona, Switzerland June 2, 2019. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The global chemical-weapons watchdog has for the first time directly blamed the Syrian government for three chlorine and sarin nerve-gas bomb attacks in late March 2017 on the central town of Lataminah.

An investigative team set up by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on April 8 issued its first report assigning blame for chemical attacks in the country. Previously, it had only been able to say whether chemical attacks had occurred but without naming the perpetrators.

“There are reasonable grounds to believe that the perpetrators of the use of sarin as a chemical weapon in Lataminah in 2017…and the use of chlorine…were individuals belonging to the Syrian Arab Air Force,” the OPCW’s new Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) said.

Western states have long accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons against rebel groups and civilians in the country’s nine-year civil war.

Russia and Iran, the chief backers of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, have dismissed the accusations, accusing rebels of staging the attacks to trigger international outrage and Western military intervention. Russia and Syria have repeatedly tried to block investigations into a series of chemical-weapons attacks in the country.

Responding to the release of the report, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “no amount of disinformation from Assad’s enablers in Russia and Iran can hide the fact that the Assad regime is responsible for numerous chemical-weapons attacks.”

“The unchecked use of chemical weapons by any state presents an unacceptable security threat to all states and cannot occur with impunity,” Pompeo said.

He added that Washington believed that the Syrian government retains enough sarin and chlorine as well as expertise to use and produce chemical weapons.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose country holds a rotating seat on the 15-member UN Security Council, said, “Such a blatant violation of international law must not go unpunished.”

It is now up to the United Nations and OPCW members to determine what, if any further action, should be taken against the Syrian government.

There was no immediate response from Damascus, but Russia’s permanent mission to the OPCW said the report was “not trustworthy.”

The OPCW report said Syrian Arab Air Force pilots flying Sukhoi Su-22 military planes dropped two bombs containing sarin on Lataminah in Hama Province on March 24 and 30, 2017. A Syrian military helicopter dropped a chlorine cylinder on a hospital in the same village on March 25 that year, the report said. More than 100 people were affected by the attacks.

“Military operations of such a strategic nature as these three attacks only occur pursuant to orders from the highest levels of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces,” the ITT report said.

Another deadly sarin assault in nearby Khan Sheikhun on April 4, 2017, killed more than 80 people.

The United States led Western countries in launching air strikes on Syrian military targets in response to the Khan Sheikhun attack.

The OPCW team is expected to later release another report into a 2018 chlorine attack in the Syrian town of Douma.

Damascus was supposed to relinquish its chemical-weapons stockpiles under a 2013 agreement reached between the United States and Russia following a suspected sarin-gas attack that killed 1,400 people in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.