The Assad regime forces conducted coordinated chemical attacks in opposition-controlled parts of Aleppo during the final month of the battle for the city, Human Rights Watch said in a report published on Monday.
Through phone and in-person interviews with witnesses and analysis of video footage, photographs, and posts on social media, Human Rights Watch documented government helicopters dropping chlorine in residential areas on at least eight occasions between November 17 and December 13, 2016.
The attacks, some of which included multiple munitions, killed at least nine civilians, including four children, and injured around 200, the rights group said.
Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said in an interview that the way chemical attacks moved in step with the frontline showed they were an integral part of the offensive.
“This is a strong indication that these chlorine attacks were coordinated with the overall military strategy for retaking Aleppo, not the work of a few rogue elements. And it is a strong indication then that senior military officers, the commanders of this military offensive in Aleppo, knew that chlorine was being used,” Solvang said.
“The United Nations Security Council shouldn’t let Syrian authorities or anyone else who has used chemical weapons get away without consequences,” Solvang added.
The actual number of chemical attacks in Aleppo between November 17 and December 13 could be higher than the eight documented in its report, Human Rights Watch said. On social media, journalists, first responders, medical personnel and others reported at least 12 attacks in the period. Human Rights Watch included in this report only attacks it has corroborated through both real-time reporting on social media and interviews with at least one witness.
The attacks targeted clinics, streets, and civilian homes, resulting in dozens of cases of asphyxiation and fainting among civilians, HRW said.
According to the HRW report, the deadliest attack took place in Alsakhour district of eastern Aleppo on November 20, 2016. The attack killed six members of the same family, including four children, and injured 25 more. Thiqa News Agency, Syria Civil Defense, and Aleppo Media Center posted video footage and photographs of what they said was the site of the chlorine. The video footage and pictures showed the rubble of a house and remnants of a yellow cylinder amid the rubble.
The use of Chlorine as a weapon is banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria joined in 2013.
Regime forces, backed by Russian aerial support, launched a ferocious onslaught to retake eastern Aleppo on late November 2016, bombing the rebel-held parts with internationally banned weapons.
“Almost the entire world has agreed that chemical warfare is so despicable that it should be outlawed entirely,” HRW’s deputy emergencies director said. “Allowing the Syrian government to flaunt this prohibition with impunity runs the risk of implicitly condoning Syrian chemical attacks and undermining one of the most agreed-upon weapon bans in the world, potentially lowering the threshold for other countries to do the same.”
HRW went on to say that while there is no evidence that Russia, the only other party that conducted airstrikes on eastern Aleppo during this period, was directly involved in the chemical attacks, Russian aircraft played a crucial role in the military offensive against opposition fighters in eastern Aleppo.
The Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) between the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded, in a report published on October 21, 2016, that Assad regime forces had used chlorine as a weapon in at least three incidents in 2014-2015.
JIM will publish further findings on the use of chemical weapons in Syria in a new report that is expected to be released later this month.
In December 2016, Britain and France pressed the UN Security Council to ban the sale and supply of helicopters to the Assad regime and to blacklist 11 Syrian military commanders and officials over chemical weapons attacks during the nearly six-year war. (Source: Syrian Coalition’s Media Department + Agencies)