‘Silent killers’ wipe out 1,500 in Syria’s chemical carnage: survey

Friday 18/03/2016
A March 2015 file picture shows a young Syrian man breathing with an oxygen mask at a clinic in the village of Sarmin, south-east of Idlib, the capital of Syria’s north-western province of Idlib.

Beirut - Amid growing fears that the Islamic State (ISIS) is seeking to develop chemical and biological weapons, a new US re­port claims that nearly 1,500 people have been slaughtered in such at­tacks in the Syrian war up to the end of 2015 and that these are continu­ing to further the embattled Damas­cus regime’s strategic objectives.
The Syrian-American Medical So­ciety (SAMS) reported in a survey released on March 14th as the Syr­ian war entered its sixth year that up to the end of December there had been 161 chemical weapons at­tacks, largely by the regime headed by President Bashar Assad, but also by rebel forces.
And these attacks are increasing, the society warned, with at least 69 documented assaults carried out in 2015 amid what SAMS declared was an integral part of the regime’s stra­tegic drive to force civilian popula­tions out of rebel-controlled territo­ry, a massive demographic shift to alter the sectarian map of the coun­try to ensure the regime’s survival.
“Chemical attacks are used stra­tegically to cause civilian displace­ment in Syria,” the report said. “The fear caused by these silent and un­predictable weapons cause civilians to flee in larger numbers than in the aftermath of conventional attacks.”
The report, which the society says is the most comprehensive compilation of chemical attacks during the Syrian war, was issued as peace negotiations brokered be­tween the United States and Russia and Assad’s regime and myriad re­bel forces seeking its downfall reo­pened in Geneva.
It will likely intensify the pres­sure on the US and Russia, along with the United Nations, which is sponsoring the talks, to find a politi­cal settlement to the Middle East’s most cataclysmic and complex war that is hastening the collapse of the old political order imposed on the region after the first world war.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, has put the death toll at about 250,000, but other estimates go as high as 500,000, with half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million driven from their homes in the world’s worst humanitarian dis­aster in decades.
It remains to be seen whether the political process, which hinges to a large degree on the fate of Assad himself, signals an easing of Syria’s agony. The decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to with­draw some of the forces he sent into Syria to prevent Assad’s collapse in September 2015 may simply leave Assad free to unleash further chem­ical weapons attacks on largely ci­vilian targets.
The SAMS report said 1,491 peo­ple were killed in chemical weapons attacks up to the end of December in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and the 1997 Chemi­cal Weapons Convention. At least 14,581 people were injured.
Another 133 reported attacks could not be completely verified by the society, which supports a net­work of about 100 medical centres across Syria with 1,700 personnel.
The report blames Assad’s regime for most of the chemical weapons atrocities. Damascus has been re­peatedly blamed by the US and other Western powers for the in­discriminate use of such weapons against its own people.
Those accusations continued even after UN Security Council in 2013 ordered the eradication of the regime’s chemical and biologi­cal stockpiles, including the nerve agent sarin and vast supplies of mustard gas and chlorine, accrued over the last four decades, mainly from the former Soviet Union.
But despite the dismantling of much of the regime’s stockpile, Western powers allege it has con­tinued to use chemical weapons on largely civilian targets.
The most devastating chemical weapons attack, involving sarin gas, was carried out by Assad’s forc­es against the besieged rebel-held Damascus suburb of East Ghouta on August 12, 2013. It killed hundreds of people. All told, about 1,300 peo­ple were reportedly killed in chemi­cal attacks by the regime that sum­mer.
The carnage caused by the great­est use of chemical weapons since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war prompt­ed Russia, Assad’s main foreign backer, to propose Damascus ac­cept to dismantle or relinquish its entire chemical weapons arsenal.
The last of an estimated 1,300 tons of chemical weapons and bio­logical agents were handed over to the Organisation for the Prohibi­tion of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in June 2014. On January 5th, it declared that all Assad’s chemical weapons armoury had been de­stroyed.
But some Western governments insist that the Assad regime has not declared its entire chemical weap­ons arsenal. In November 2015, the OPCW cited evidence that chlorine has been used in systematic attacks against civilians by the regime.
Damascus has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons, but there have been consistent reports it is employing high concentrations of toxic chemicals such as chlorine gas dropped in the notorious bar­rel bombs to suffocate civilians. But both sides stand accused of continuing to use these prohibited weapons.