OPCW tests link Assad stockpile to largest sarin attack
2018-01-30 17:59 Damascuss
The Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpile has been linked for the first time by laboratory tests to the largest sarin nerve agent attack of the civil war, diplomats and scientists told Reuters, supporting Western claims that forces under Bashar al-Assad were behind the atrocity.
Laboratories working for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) compared samples taken by a UN mission in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta after the Aug. 21, 2013 attack, when hundreds of civilians died of sarin gas poisoning, to chemicals handed over by Damascus for destruction in 2014.
The tests found “markers” in samples taken at Ghouta and at the sites of two other nerve agent attacks, in the towns of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province on April 4, 2017 and Khan al-Assal, Aleppo, in March 2013, two people involved in the process said.
“We compared Khan Sheikhoun, Khan al-Assal, Ghouta,” said one source who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the findings. “There were signatures in all three of them that matched.”
The same test results were the basis for a report by the OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism in October which said the Assad regime was responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun attack, which killed dozens.
The findings on Ghouta, whose details were confirmed to Reuters by two separate diplomatic sources, were not released in the October report to the UN Security Council because they were not part of the team’s mandate.
They will nonetheless bolster claims by the United States, Britain and other Western powers that the Assad regime still possesses and uses banned munitions in violation of several Security Council resolutions and the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Inspectors have found proof of an ongoing chemical weapons program in Syria, including the systematic use of chlorine barrel bombs and sarin, which they say was ordered at the highest levels of Assad regime.
Independent experts also said the findings are the strongest scientific evidence to date that the Assad regime was behind Ghouta, the deadliest chemical weapons attack since the Halabja massacres of 1988 during the Iran-Iraq war.
“A match of samples from the 2013 Ghouta attacks to tests of chemicals in the Syrian stockpile is the equivalent of DNA evidence: definitive proof,” said Amy Smithson, a U.S. nonproliferation expert.
The hexamine finding “is a particularly significant match,” Smithson said, because it is a chemical identified as a unique hallmark of the Assad military’s process to make sarin.
NO CHANCE REBELS BEHIND GHOUTA
Smithson and other sources familiar with the matter said it would have been virtually impossible for the rebels to carry out a coordinated, large-scale strike with poisonous munitions, even if they had been able to steal the chemicals from the regime’s stockpile.
“I don’t think there is a cat in hell’s chance that rebels or Islamic State were responsible for the Aug. 21 Ghouta attack,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, an independent specialist in biological and chemical weapons.
The UN-OPCW inquiry, which was disbanded in November after being blocked by Syria’s ally Russia at the UN Security Council, also found that Islamic State had used the less toxic blistering agent sulfur mustard gas on a small scale in Syria.
The Ghouta attack, by comparison, was textbook chemical warfare, Smithson and de Bretton-Gordon said, perfectly executed by forces trained to handle sarin, a toxin which is more difficult to use because it must be mixed just before delivery.
Surface-to-surface rockets delivered hundreds of liters of sarin in perfect weather conditions that made them as lethal as possible: low temperatures and wind in the early hours of the morning, when the gas would remain concentrated and kill sleeping victims, many of them children.
Pre-attack air raids with conventional bombs shattered windows and doors and drove people into shelters where the heavy poison seeped down into underground hiding places. Aerial bombing afterwards sought to destroy the evidence.
The large quantity of chemicals used, along with radar images of rocket traces showing they originated from regime’s Brigade positions, are further proof that the rebels could not have carried out the Ghouta attack, the experts said.