Syria: Coordinated Chemical Attacks on Aleppo Security Council Should Impose Sanctions

(New York) – Syrian government 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 today.

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.

Syrian government forces conducted coordinated chemical attacks in opposition-controlled parts of Aleppo during the final month of the battle for the city.

The attacks took place in areas where government forces planned to advance, starting in the east and moving westwards as the frontlines moved, Human Rights Watch said.

“The pattern of the chlorine attacks shows that they were coordinated with the overall military strategy for retaking Aleppo, not the work of a few rogue elements,” said Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “The United Nations Security Council shouldn’t let Syrian authorities or anyone else who has used chemical weapons get away without consequences.”

The UN Security Council has yet to take action since a UN-appointed investigation, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism, identified military units responsible for earlier attacks using chlorine in Syria. The Security Council should impose sanctions on senior leaders in the chain of command, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government to immediately stop using chemicals as weapons and fully cooperate with the UN-appointed investigation. The 192 state parties of the Chemical Weapons Convention should take steps to address Syria’s continued violation of the treaty’s most basic prohibitions and ensure compliance in order to bolster the customary international norm against chemical warfare, Human Rights Watch said.

A still from video shows green smoke from a chlorine attack by Syrian government forces in the Daheert Awwad neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on November 22, 2016. © 2016 Aleppo Media Center

Syrian government helicopters have dropped chlorine on opposition-controlled territory at least since April 2014. Chlorine has many civilian uses, but the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria joined in October 2013, bans the use of the toxic properties of any chemical as a weapon. Human Rights Watch has also documented that Syrian government forces used sarin in attacks in August 2013, and that the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has used mustard agent as recently as August 2016.

The most recent chlorine attacks took place during a final push by Syrian government forces and its allies to wrest control of eastern Aleppo from armed opposition groups. After a period of relative calm, Syrian government forces and its allies resumed military operations in Aleppo on November 17, starting with intensive aerial bombardment. The battle continued until December 13, when the parties agreed to a ceasefire and many of the fighters and civilians in eastern Aleppo were evacuated.

The actual number of chemical attacks in Aleppo between November 17 and December 13 could be higher than the eight documented in this 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.

Identifying with certainty the chemical used in the attacks without laboratory testing is difficult, but the odor, signs, and symptoms that victims and medical personnel reported indicate that government forces used chlorine. Local residents who were close to the impact site and medical personnel reported a strong odor of chlorine, similar to that of bleach-based household cleansers, near the impact sites.

“Those affected had trouble breathing, they were coughing hard, they were nauseated, some people fainted, some had foam coming from their mouth,” a first responder for several attacks said. “The chemicals would affect children most severely…they inhale these smells and they end up suffocating.”

Describing the smell as a stronger version of the cleaning detergent, one local resident said:

The smell isn’t something you can handle. The moment you’re exposed to it, your throat burns, it’s like a fire rod going in. It won’t let you swallow or breathe. Your neck starts boiling. You feel nauseated. Your eyes burn and you are not able to control the tears. Eventually, you are not able to breathe. It’s not like having your nose and mouth blocked, rather, your body won’t let the air in anymore.

High level of exposure to chlorine can lead to suffocation, as the chemical injuries produced from the dissolution of chlorine in the mucous membranes of the pulmonary airways result in severe buildup of fluid in the lungs. Children and older people are particularly susceptible to the effects of chlorine gas.

Witnesses also said that they observed a yellow or yellow-green smoke near the impact site of at least four attacks. In two attacks, journalists nearby captured the smoke on video. Chlorine is yellowish-green in its gaseous form.

Since chlorine is heavier than air, it sinks, making basements where people sheltered against attacks with explosive weapons potential death traps. One journalist, who decided to leave his neighborhood after a chlorine attack, said: “We got used to bombing and shelling. But with chlorine there is no way to protect yourself. It will suffocate you.”

For five of the chemical attacks, Human Rights Watch reviewed photographs or video footage of remnants of the chemical-filled improvised munitions posted online or shared directly with Human Rights Watch. Witnesses sometimes referred to the munitions as barrels or bombs. In all five incidents, the footage shows the same type of yellow gas cylinder. A label still visible on the remnant from one attack shows a warning that the cylinder contained gas.

During the final weeks of the battle for Aleppo, Syrian government helicopters repeatedly dropped gas cylinders filled with chlorine, affecting hundreds of civilians.

Opposition-affiliated groups, first responders, activists, and journalists reported that government forces conducted chemical attacks in other locations in Syria in the same period as well.

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. As a military ally of Damascus, it benefitted from the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces.

Furthermore, the UN-appointed Joint Investigative Mechanism found that helicopters that had previously dropped chlorine were operating from the Hmeymim airbase, which is under Russian control. Given this and other reports about past repeated use of chlorine as a weapon, Russian military authorities should have taken steps to ensure that such weapons were not used in their joint military offensive, Human Rights Watch said.