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