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Nine Years Since Ghouta: Reflecting on the Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria

Air strikes pound Syria's last rebel strongholds, gas chokes civilians. BipHoo Company (Flickr)

By Sareta Ashraph

Nine years ago, on August 21, 2013, the Syrian government launched an attack on Ghouta, a besieged opposition-held area in Damascus governorate. Thousands of people were rushed to hospital with symptoms such as convulsions, suffocation, coughing up blood, and foaming at the mouth. The US Government estimated that 1429 Syrians, including 426 children, were killed, and based its assessment on “human, signals, and geospatial intelligence as well as a significant body of open-source reporting.” The Security Council held an emergency meeting and produced a statement demanding clarity as to what had occurred.

It would later be determined that the weapon used was sarin, a nerve agent. The August 2013 attack on Ghouta was not the first time that chemical weapons had been used on the Syrian battlefield, but the number of casualties and the videos and photographs of the bodies of dozens of children—seemingly untouched, save for foam clinging to their lips—carved themselves onto the international consciousness. 

In the course of the violence that has engulfed Syria since March 2011, the Syrian government has committed multiple and ongoing atrocities against its own people, including killings, torture, enforced disappearance, and sexual violence. It has committed violations in its conduct of the war, including through indiscriminate attacks on civilian-inhabited areas, targeted attacks on hospitals, and starvation of civilians as a result of prolonged besiegement. The Ghouta attack marked a new nadir in an increasingly brutal war as the world awakened to the shocking realization that among the Syrian Government’s long list of crimes was now the use of chemical weapons. To date, no one has been held accountable.

Use of chemical weapons on the Syria battlefield

The first allegation of chemical weapons use on the Syrian battlefield was made in December 2012 when seven people in Khaldiyah neighborhood, Homs city, were reported to have been killed by a “poisonous gas.” A US State Department cable, dated January 15, 2013, stated that there was “compelling evidence” the Syrian government had used a chemical weapon, Agent 15, also known as BZ, in the attack.

On March 19, 2013, another chemical weapons attack was reported in the opposition-held Khan al-Assal neighborhood of Aleppo city. The Government and the armed opposition blamed each other. On the same day, the Syrian Government contacted the UN Secretary General to request “a specialized, impartial and independent mission” to investigate Khan al-Assal, with other Member States requesting an investigation of all chemical incidents reported in Syria. By March 26, the UN Secretary General had appointed Professor Åke Sellström to head the UN Fact-Finding Mission, which would include experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Allegations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian Government mounted. Chemical weapons attacks were reported in Adra on March 24, 2013; Jobar on April 11, 13, and 14; the Kurdish Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood of Aleppo city on April 13; and Saraqib on April 29, 2013. On June 4, 2013, the French government stated that it had “no doubt” the Syrian Government had used sarin, a nerve agent, in multiple incidents in Jobar. It was not until April 2017, after the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, that the French Government released its “national evaluation,” which included findings that sarin had also been used by the Syrian Government in the April 2013 Saraqib attack.

In August 2013, wrangling with the Syrian Government over the scope of the UN Fact-Finding Mission, more widely known as the Sellström team, was resolved. It was mandated to establish whether chemical weapons were used, but not who used them. The separate mandate of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria (Syria Commission) did allow for the identification of alleged perpetrators, where possible, but—unlike the Sellström team—the Syria Commission was not permitted to enter Syria.

On September 15, 2013, the UN Secretary-General delivered a report on the work of the Sellström team, which concluded that "the environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent Sarin were used” in the August 2013 attack on Ghouta. It noted that the chemical weapon had been used “also against civilians, including many children, on a relatively large scale.” In its final report, released in December 2013, the Sellström team confirmed its finding as to the use of sarin in Ghouta. As per its mandate, it did not broach the issue of responsibility.

The Syria Commission, however, in its seventh report released in February 2014, determined that in Ghouta,

“significant quantities of sarin were used in a well-planned indiscriminate attack targeting civilian-inhabited areas, causing mass casualties. The evidence available concerning the nature, quality, and quantity of the agents used on 21 August indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to safely manipulate large amounts of chemical agents.”

Since the August 2013 attack on Ghouta, there have been scores of alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria, with the OPCW confirming in 2016 that there had been 23 uses of chemicals as weapons in Syria between April 2014 and August 2015 alone.

Alongside the Syria Commission, two other investigative bodies were established: the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in 2014 with a mandate to determine if chemical weapons had been used; and the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) established by the Security Council in August 2015, with a mandate to determine the parties responsible for the chemical attacks in Syria.

On April 4, 2017, an alleged chemical weapons attack took place on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, resulting in scores killed and hundreds injured. Photographs and videos on social media suggested a nerve agent attack, similar to the 2013 attack on Ghouta. In its June 2017 report, the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission concluded that sarin was used and that fatalities had resulted. In October 2017, the JIM released its findings that the Syrian Government was responsible for the release of sarin in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun. Russia and Syria accused JIM of making political judgments, criticized the team for its use of remote investigations, and singled out its head, Edmond Mulet, as “an instrument of the West.” Following this, Russia vetoed the extension of the JIM’s mandate on three separate occasions, causing the mandate to expire in November 2017. 

Allegations of chemical weapons attacks have continued, including a chemical attack on Douma, in eastern Ghouta on April 7, 2018, said to have killed dozens of civilians. The United States introduced a Security Council resolution to create an investigative body with a one-year mandate to determine responsibility for chemical weapons use in Syria. The resolution received 13 votes but was vetoed by Russia. In its 2019 report, the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission stated that there were reasonable grounds that a toxic chemical, notably chlorine, had been used as a weapon in the Douma attack. 

The prohibition of the use of chemical weapons contained in the Chemical Weapons Convention is absolute and applies in all circumstances. Use of chemical weapons is also prohibited by customary international humanitarian law, which is binding on all parties to all armed conflicts. This has not made one iota of difference in Syria, where the Government’s conduct has repeatedly proved unrestrained by international law. 

Today, we remember the horror of the 2013 chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime on Ghouta and the many lives lost, some of them having barely started. We reflect upon the numerous other attacks, using chemical and conventional weapons, launched on its own people by a regime, still in power and rooted in impunity.

Sareta Ashraph is the Senior Legal Consultant for the Simon-Skjodt Center.