Syria Still Using Chemical Weapons, Human Rights Group Says

Claims Assad’s forces recently used chlorine gas, despite plan last year to remove it

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There is strong evidence that Syria’s army used chlorine gas on rebel-held neighborhoods last month, dropping the canisters in crude bombs on residential areas, a leading international human rights group said on Tuesday.

The claim by Human Rights Watch (HRW) adds to growing concerns that chemical weapons are still being used in Syria — months after an international deal to remove the country’s chemical weapons was reached following a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians last August

HRW said forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad likely used chlorine gas on three towns in northern Syria in mid-April, according to interviews with 10 witnesses, video footage and photographs.

“Evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas on three towns,” said the group. “These attacks used an industrial chemical as a weapon, an act banned by the international treaty prohibiting chemical weapons that Syria joined in October 2013.”

In late April, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a United Nations watchdog that won the Nobel Peace Prize for taking the lead to remove Syria’s stockpile last year, said it would investigate the new chlorine claims, but it has not commented further on the issue.

In one incident, the Syrian government blamed the Al-Qaeda group, the Nusra Front, for using chlorine gas on civilians in the rebel-held town of Kafrzeita. It has not commented on other attacks. An extensive Associated Press investigation in late April found consistent claims that chlorine gas had been used in Kafrzeita.

HRW said testimony from eye-witnesses indicated that chlorine canisters were embedded into crude explosive-laden barrels, which military helicopters dropped at the time on rebel-held areas.

In Syria, only the pro-government forces have military aircraft, not opposition fighters. And though chlorine gas canisters are widely available, HRW said their use as a weapon is prohibited under international law.

The use of chlorine gas in bombs is not very effective as a weapon to kill people. However, HRW said it appeared the Syrian military was using the chlorine to terrorize residents into believing they had been gassed, even if many of the victims were not killed.

The Syrian government narrowly avoided Western-backed airstrikes after the August attack in areas of rural Damascus that killed hundreds of civilians.

Instead, the U.N.’s security council ordered Syria to dismantle its chemical weapons infrastructure and destroy its arsenal, by June. So far, it has destroyed a large majority of those weapons.

U.N. Syria aid questioned

The fresh chemical weapons claims against Syria come as international aid workers and officials said this week that U.N. aid deliveries that started seven weeks ago into the country for the first time were having questionable effectiveness.

The convoy of 78 trucks taking food, bedding and medicine to Syria’s mainly Kurdish Hasakah province from southern Turkey was seen as a test of the willingness of Syria’s authorities and rebels to abide by a U.N. resolution urging them to let aid across front lines and borders by the most direct routes.

But no distribution lists have been made available for this or any other U.N. delivery since the resolution, aid workers in Gaziantep near the Turkish border say, hampering the efforts of multiple NGOs trying to coordinate a response to the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis.

“We still don’t know where it went and we’re not comfortable with this. The U.N. is constrained by the (Syrian) regime,” said a Turkish official, speaking under condition of anonymity as his government has not taken a public stance on the issue.

Syria’s civil war has killed more than 150,000 people over the course of 3 years, with more than nine million in need of humanitarian assistance. Its complicated patchwork of fighting has made aid provision harder.

The U.N. estimates 3.5 million of the people in need of aid live in areas that are difficult or impossible to reach for humanitarian workers, including more than 240,000 people besieged by government or opposition forces.

The convoy, dispatched over a largely deserted frontier to a region controlled by forces loyal to Assad, was meant to be a test case to show that the issue of access can be dealt with under the U.N. resolution. But there were doubts from the outset over whether assistance would reach those in rebel-held areas in need.

According to stipulations set by the Syrian government, the delivery was passed to Syrian partner agencies including the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

Reuters asked the United Nations in Damascus for information on the final distribution of aid in Hasakah, but was told no one was available to speak. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent could not be reached for comment.

The U.N. resolution, adopted by the Security Council in February in a rare show of unanimity on Syria, sought to boost humanitarian access and threatened to take “further steps” if Syria’s government and the rebels failed to comply.

Reprinted with permission from Al Jazeera and wire services