International inspectors have reportedly found traces of chemical weapons at a previously undeclared military research site in Syria.
According to a Reuters report citing diplomatic sources, samples taken from the site by inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition and Chemical Weapons (OPCW) tested positive for traces of sarin gas and VX (nerve agent).
“This is a pretty strong indication they have been lying about what they did with sarin,” a diplomatic source told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “They have so far been unable to give a satisfactory explanation about this finding.”
There have been multiple allegations of chemical weapons attacks in recent months, specifically in Idlib province. Syrian President Bashar Assad dismissed the accusations, saying “this is part of the malicious propaganda against Syria,” and suggesting the rebels were behind the attacks.
The OPCW has expressed “serious concerns” about the recent reports of toxic chemicals, as has UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
In September 2013, the US threatened military action in Syria over a chemical weapons attack in several rebel-held areas outside Damascus that killed over 300 people, with some estimates indicating the death toll might have been over 1,000.
Under a US- and Russian-brokered deal sanctioned by the UN Security Council, Assad agreed to relinquish his chemical weapons, and to inspections and UN penalties if the agreement was violated, thus averting threatened American military action.
At the time, the the US and Russia agreed that Syria had roughly 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons agents and precursors, including blister agents, such as sulfur and mustard gas and nerve agents like sarin. US intelligence also believed Syria had about 45 sites associated with chemicals weapons, half of which had “exploitable quantities” of material that could be used in munitions.
Even though the Security Council, badly divided on Syria, came together in 2013 to rid Syria of its chemical weapons program, chlorine was not included in that effort. The chemical does not have to be declared because it is also used for regular purposes in industry. Chlorine is a poisonous chemical element used as a bleaching agent and for water purification, but in more concentrated form can cause victims to suffocate.
On Thursday, Syrian activists and a doctor reported new suspected chemical attacks in Idlib, leaving several dozens of people suffering from asphyxiation.
Mohammed Tennari, a doctor who testified before the UN Security Council last month after treating a number of victims in Idlib from an earlier chemical attack, said there were at least three separate attacks in the province that injured nearly 80 people.
Tennari, who spoke with The Associated Press from near the border with Turkey, shared field reports from doctors in the three villages that were reportedly hit. The reports said government helicopters dropped barrel bombs containing chlorine on the villages of Janoudieh, Kansafrah, and Kafr Batiekh on Thursday.
Tennari was on his way back from the United States where he reported to the council on a suspected chlorine attack in March that killed three children and their grandmother in the same province. He is the coordinator for the Syrian American Medical Society, which has volunteer medical personnel treating victims and reporting on attacks in Syria.
Also, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, another monitoring group which is based outside the country, reported the three different attacks, sharing on Twitter images it said were from field hospitals where victims were taken. The group reported that 69 people were injured in the attacks.
The reports could not be independently verified. There has been an increase in reports of suspected chlorine bombs amid intensified fighting in the province where the rebels have made significant advances against government troops in recent weeks. Rebel fighters seized the provincial capital and weeks later moved in on a strategic town near the border with Turkey. The government has vowed to restore control.
The US and some other council members accuse Syria’s government of using chlorine against its own citizens, saying that no other party in the conflict has the helicopters to deliver such weapons. Russia has insisted that more evidence is needed.