(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.
The UN Security Council, including Russia, has condemned the use of any toxic chemical, such as chlorine, as a weapon in Syria and stressed that those who use such weapons must be held accountable. On August 7, 2015, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2235, establishing the investigation to “identify to the greatest extent feasible individuals, entities, groups, or governments who were perpetrators, organizers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons.” At the time, Russia said the investigation would close the gap in identifying those responsible for the use of chlorine as a weapon in Syria. The United States emphasized that “[p]ointing the finger matters.”
On December 21, 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution establishing a mechanism to assist in the investigation of serious crimes committed in Syria since 2011. The General Assembly requested the UN system as a whole to fully cooperate and to promptly respond to any request for information.
Peace talks between Syria’s warring parties are scheduled to resume in Geneva on February 20.
“History shows that peace deals without any form of accountability for past abuses are often fragile,” Solvang said. “Accountability for the chemical attacks in Syria would be a good place to start.”
The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the use of the toxic properties of common chemicals such as chlorine to kill or injure. Among other obligations, each member state agrees never to “assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention.” The laws of war applicable in Syria prohibit the use of chemical weapons. The use of prohibited weapons with criminal intent, deliberately or recklessly, is a war crime. With 192 members, the Chemical Weapons Convention is one of the most universal international treaties on weapons. Only four UN member states are not party to the convention: Egypt; Israel, which has signed by not ratified the convention; North Korea; and South Sudan.
“Almost the entire world has agreed that chemical warfare is so despicable that it should be outlawed entirely,” Solvang 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.”
Chlorine Attacks in Syria
Human Rights Watch published reports on the Syrian government’s use of chlorine in May 2014, April 2015, June 2015, and September 2016.
The Joint Investigative Mechanism between the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded, in a report published on October 21, 2016, that Syrian government forces had used chlorine as a weapon in three incidents in 2014-2015. The investigation determined that helicopters from Syria’s 63rd helicopter brigade, operating from Hama and Hmeymim airbases, carried out the attacks. The investigation also found the Islamic State (ISIS) responsible for using sulfur mustard, a type of blister agent.
November-December Chemical Attacks on Aleppo Human Rights Watch interviewed in person or by phone 22 people with direct knowledge of chemical attacks in eastern Aleppo between November 17 and December 13, 2016. The witnesses were first responders, medical personnel, or people who lived in the affected neighborhoods. Human Rights Watch compared these witness accounts with photographs, video footage, and real-time information posted on social media. Several organizations such as the Syria Civil Defense, the Syrian Institute for Justice and Accountability, and the Syrian American Medical Society helped identify key witnesses. The open source investigative group Bellingcat first compiled and analyzed many of the videos and photographs from chemical attacks and their immediate aftermath.
The intensive bombardment toward the end of the battle for Aleppo made thorough documentation of these attacks difficult. Some witnesses struggled to remember the dates and distinguish between the various attacks. First responders and medical personnel told Human Rights Watch that Syrian government forces confiscated phones and laptops with key information during the evacuation and that hospital staff had to leave records behind when they evacuated hospitals. The table below is a summary of the information currently available. The evidence for each attack is presented and analyzed in the subsequent sections of this report.
In the morning on November 18, the Aleppo Media Center, a network of local journalists who documented the conflict in opposition-held Aleppo, and Thiqa Agency reported that a chlorine attack had struck Masaken Hanano and Ard al-Hamra.
Abu Taim al-Halabi, a cameraman for the Aleppo Media Center, told Human Rights Watch by phone that three helicopters were flying in the air above Masaken Hanano, where he lived, at about 8 or 9 a.m. on November 18. Al-Halabi saw in the distance two of the helicopters dropping four objects, but there was no explosion, leading al-Halabi to believe that they were munitions filled with chlorine.
About five minutes later, the third helicopter dropped an object that landed much closer to al-Halabi, on the border between Masaken Hanano and Ard al-Hamra. “After a few minutes I noticed the smell of chlorine so I ran home to warn my family to stay inside and breathe through a wet cloth,” he said.
About one hour after the attack, al-Halabi said, he went to the impact site with his camera:
The barrel had fallen in the middle of the street. There was still a very strong smell so it was difficult to stand close to it. It became difficult to breathe, my eyes started tearing up and nose started running. The effects were even worse for the children.
Alaa Abu Ali, a staff member at Syria Charity, a Paris-based aid organization, gave a similar account by phone. He said that from his home on the morning of November 18 he saw helicopters drop five objects, none of which exploded. He believed four landed in Masaken Hanano and one in neighboring Sheikh Najar, which was on the front line. He said he went to the impact site of the one that landed on the border between Masaken Hanano and Ard al-Hamra.
Abu Ali gave video interviews at the site to Al-Jisr News, Smart News Agency, and the Aleppo Media Center. Syria Charity later posted a photograph of Abu Ali with an oxygen mask.
Abu Ali and a Syria Civil Defense staff member cited by Smart News Agency said that 12 people were injured in the attack. They did not report any fatalities. Al-Halabi said that about 20 people were injured, including an old woman and five children.
Al-Halabi and Abu Ali said that some of the injured were taken to hospitals in the nearby Sha’ar neighborhood. Al-Halabi said he transported three civilians to the Daqaq hospital in Sha’ar. Abu Ali said that he took a woman and a child to the same hospital.
Syria Charity posted on its Facebook page a video from the Children’s Hospital, also in Sha’ar, showing a boy wearing an oxygen mask. The boy, between coughs, says that an aircraft dropped a bomb near him in Ard al-Hamra, that there was yellow smoke, and that somebody took him to the hospital. Orient News posted a video of what appears to be the same boy. The same video also shows medical staff examining and giving oxygen to another child and a man.
Mojahed Abu Joud, a staff member of the Aleppo Media Center, said that he saw about 30 civilians in al-Sakhour hospital who had been injured in the attack on Masaken Hanano. He said that the people were pale, coughed, and at least one person had foam coming from their mouth.
Al-Halabi filmed and took photographs of the remnants of the munition at the site between Masaken Hanano and Ard al-Hamra. The video shows a piece of a yellow cylinder standing on end next to crater in the street. One end of the cylinder has been spilt open and strips of the cylinder have been bent outward, indicating that an explosive inside of it detonated and burst cylinder outwards, releasing its content.
November 20: al-Sakhour In the early morning on November 20, the Aleppo Media Center, Shahba News Agency, and Halab Today TV reported that a chlorine attack had struck al-Sakhour.
Abu Mohammed, an employee at the Ikhlas Medical Center, told Human Rights Watch that at least two munitions fell in al-Sakhour shortly after midnight on November 20. One fell 75 meters from his house, he said, and another about 200-300 meters away. He put a wet cloth over his mouth and went out to
check the neighborhood.
In one house, he saw five dead civilians, a mother, father and three children. Their faces were blue. Another 25 people were injured, Abu Mohammed said. One 22-year-old girl started vomiting. Abu Mohammed took them to a nearby house and gave them oxygen, he said.
Mahmoud, a perfume seller who lived in al-Sakhour, said that he heard a bomb fall on the night of November 19-20. He went to the impact site the next morning because he had friends in the area. He said: “When I got close it became difficult to breathe, it felt like I had fire in my nose and throat. The bomb had hit a house near a vegetable market. The smell was like the liquid we use when we clean the house.”
Friends in the area told him that the attack had killed six members of the same family. Reuters, citing two medics in Aleppo, identified them as members of the Baytounji family. Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently verify the names.
A graphic video posted on Facebook by a member of Shahba Press Agency on November 20 shows four lifeless children lying next to each other. They do not appear to have any external wounds. The description says that an aerial attack with chlorine gas killed six people in al-Sakhour. Another graphic video posted by the Aleppo Media Center and archived by the Syrian Archive shows the bodies of the four children on the back of a pick-up truck together with the body of a man.
The Local Coordination Committees in Syria reported on November 20 that helicopters had dropped two bombs with chlorine gas on al-Sakhour, leading to the death of six civilians from one family.
Thiqa News Agency, Syria Civil Defense, and Aleppo Media Center posted video footage and photographs from what they said was the site of a chlorine attack in al-Sakhour on November 20. The video footage and photographs show the same rubble of a house and remnants of a yellow cylinder amid the rubble.
November 20: Tariq al-Bab
In the afternoon on November 20, the Aleppo Media Center and Shahba News Agency reported that a chlorine attack had struck Tariq al-Bab.
Ismail Abdallah, a member of the Syria Civil Defense, told Human Rights Watch that he was sheltering in a basement in Tariq al-Bab because of ongoing airstrikes when he heard a loud noise. He rushed out and saw that a yellow gas cylinder had hit the street nearby. Abdallah described a very strong odor near the impact site and yellowish smoke. “Close to the site I started getting a headache, my eyes teared up, it became difficult to breathe,” he said.
Mahmoud was with a friend who lived near the impact site, about 500 meters away. He said: “About an hour after the attack we tried to go there to pick up some of my friend’s belongings, but couldn’t get closer than 100 meters. It smelled like the same gas as in al-Sakhour [earlier in the day]. We had to turn back.” Mahmoud said that by the time of the attack there were very few civilians left in the district. Abdallah said that the Syria Civil Defense took at least one old woman to the hospital.
Othman Khodr, a lawyer for the Syrian Institute for Justice and Accountability gave Human Rights Watch a similar account and said that the attack happened about 3:30 p.m.
The Aleppo Media Center published a video on its YouTube channel showing a yellow cylinder that had split open. The Syrian Institute for Justice and Accountability published photographs and a video showing the same remnant. A partly visible label on the cylinder includes some letters, which the Syrian Institute for Justice identified as standing for a producer of chlorine gas.
Based on the Syrian Institute for Justice video, Bellingcat concluded that the video had been filmed in the street separating the districts of Daheert Awwad and Tariq al-Bab.
November 22: Karm al-Qaterji, Daheert Awwad, Karm al-Jazmati
In the afternoon on November 22, the Aleppo Media Center and Shahba News Agency reported that a chlorine attack had struck Karm al-Qaterji. Thiqa News reported that an attack had also struck Daheert Awwad.
Mojahed Abu Joud, a staff member of Aleppo Media Center, said that he and a colleague saw a helicopter drop three objects on Daheert Awwad and one on Karm al-Jazmati between 4:30 and 5 p.m. on November 22. There was no explosion, but they filmed yellow-green smoke rising from the place where the object landed. Abu Joud said that they tried to reach the impact site, but the odor was too strong.
Abu Ali, the Syria Charity worker, said that several days after the Hanano attack, just before the sunset prayer at 4:32 p.m., he and Abu Taim al-Halabi from the Aleppo Media Center saw helicopters drop two objects on the al-Qaterji district, two on the Karm al-Myasser district, and two more, though he did not remember where they landed. They went to al-Qaterji, but couldn’t get close to the impact site because the smell was so strong. “It was the same smell as in Hanano,” he said. Al-Halabi confirmed the account. The time and location of Abu Ali’s and al-Halabi’s observations indicate that they witnessed the same attacks as Abu Joud and his colleague.
Othman Khodr, the Syrian Institute for Justice lawyer, also said that he saw three helicopters drop two munitions each in the course of one hour in late November, in the area where Karm al-Myasser, Karm al-Qaterji, Karm al-Jazmati and Daheert Awwad meet.
In a daily report, Syria Civil Defense reported that chlorine attacks in Karm al-Qaterji and Daheert Awwad about 8 a.m. on November 22 injured 15 civilians. There are no other reports of chemical attacks in the morning on November 22, so the report might refer to the afternoon attacks.
November 23: Karm al-Jazmati
In the evening on November 23, Shahba News Agency and Halab Today TV reported that a chlorine attack had struck Karm al-Jazmati.
Mojahed Abu Joud, a member of the Aleppo Media Center, said that he went to the site of the attack in Karm al-Jazmati the following day. There was still a very strong odor of chlorine in the area, he said. The munition had penetrated the roof of a house. Neighbors said that a woman had been in the house during the attack, but that nobody had been able to enter because of the gas. “The smell was still so strong that it felt like a fire in my throat when I got close,” Abu Joud said. “It felt like I would cough up my lungs. At one point, somebody opened the door to the house while I was interviewing a girl out in the street. The smell was so strong that we had to stop the interview to move further away.”
Othman Khodr, the Syrian Institute for Justice lawyer, said that he also went to the site. The cylinder was stuck in the roof, he said, but still leaking gas. He saw four or five dead pigeons in a nest nearby. When he came down from the roof, he said, he inhaled some of the gas. “It had a terrible, suffocating small. It doesn’t let you breathe. It was painful. I was coughing and breathing nonstop.” Khodr said he and a journalist went to a nearby hospital where they were treated with oxygen.
Syria Civil Defense reported that an attack with poisonous gas at about 10 p.m. on November 23 injured 10 people in Karm al-Jazmati and neighboring Ard al-Hamra. Orient News reported that 13 people were injured in the two districts and posted two photos, each of two young children receiving oxygen in what looks like a medical facility.
In a video interview, a local resident said that the attack had killed their 55-year-old neighbor, a woman. The Violations Documentation Center also recorded that toxic gas had killed an unidentified woman in Aleppo on November 23. Syria Civil Defense reported the following day that toxic gases had killed one woman in Aleppo. The woman may have been killed in the November 23 attack, since there were no reported chemical attacks on November 24.
November 28: Karm al-Qaterji, Qadi Askar
In the early afternoon on November 28, the Aleppo Media Center and Shahba News Agency reported that chlorine attacks had struck Karm al-Qaterji and Qadi Askar. Thiqa Agency and Halab Today TV reported the attack on Karm al-Qaterji. The Local Coordination Committees in Syria reported the attack on Qadi Askar.
Firas Badawi, a photographer with the Aleppo Media Center who used to live in Karm al-Qaterji, said that they ran to seek shelter when they saw a helicopter in the afternoon on November 28. There was a sound of something crashing into the ground, he said, but no explosion. When they emerged from their shelter they saw that the munition had hit a playground in a public park. Badawi said:
There was smoke all over the place. It was yellowish, slightly greenish, moving around with the wind. The smell was incredibly strong. We rescued 11 or 12 people who had sought shelter in surrounding buildings, fearing an explosive barrel attack. Most had lost consciousness and there was foam coming from their mouths. We thought they had died. Others couldn’t breathe and were screaming from pain in the chest, coughing and burning in the eyes.