United Nations war crimes investigators on Wednesday said they had evidence that Syrian government forces were behind a chemical attack that killed dozens of people in Khan Sheikhoun in April. It came after 20 such attacks by the regime over a four-year period, they said.
In the first UN report to officially lay blame for the attack on President Bashar Assad’s military, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said it had gathered an “extensive body of information” showing that Damascus was behind the horrific sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4 that killed at least 83 people.
“Government forces continued to deliberately target civilians, including through the use of chemical weapons against civilians in opposition-held areas,” the inquiry said in a statement. “As part of an aerial campaign in northern Hama and southern Idlib, on 4 April, the Syrian air force used sarin in Khan Shaykhun, killing over 80 people, most of whom were women and children.”
The attack sparked outrage around the world, as photos and video of the aftermath, including quivering children dying on camera, were widely broadcast.
The report found that four bombs were dropped from a jet in service of the Syrian regime.
“Eyewitnesses and early warning reports identified the aircraft as a Su-22, which only the Syrian air force operates,” the report said.
Assad has denied using chemical weapons. His staunch ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in June that he believed the attack was “a provocation” staged “by people who wanted to blame him (Assad) for that.”
The UN report noted that “in its investigation, the Commission considered and investigated all potential scenarios, including claims put forward by Russian and Syrian officials,” but had found “no evidence to support the claim” that rebel groups were behind the attack.
In its statement, the commission said that it is also investigating “allegations that international coalition airstrikes, carried out as part of the on-going offensive to repel” the Islamic State, “have resulted — and continue to result — in increasingly alarming numbers of civilians casualties.”
US President Donald Trump cited images of the aftermath of the Khan Sheikhoun attack when he launched a punitive strike days later, firing cruise missiles on a Syrian government-controlled air base, from where US officials said the Syrian military had launched the chemical attack.
It was the first direct American assault on the Syrian government and Trump’s most dramatic military order since becoming president months before.
Wednesday’s report, the 14th by the commission since it was set up by the UN’s Human Rights Council in 2011, covers little more than four months, from March to early July. The report is based on information retrieved from satellite images, video, photos, medical records, and more than 300 interviews.
The Syrian government has denied the team access to the territory it controls.
The report said that, between March 2013 and March 2017, “the Commission documented 25 incidents of chemical weapons use in the Syrian Arab Republic, of which 20 were perpetrated by government forces and used primarily against civilians.”
It also voiced “grave concern” over the impact of coalition airstrikes on civilians. “In Al-Jinah, Aleppo, forces of the United States of America failed to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians and civilian objects when attacking a mosque, in violation of international humanitarian law,” it noted.
The report, which also documents violations by al-Qaida’s branch and other militant groups in Syria, comes at a time of considerable change in the political and diplomatic landscape and the emergence of de-escalation zones that have sharply reduced fighting in some areas.
Syrian government forces, backed by Russian and Iranian firepower and troops, on Tuesday broke a nearly three-year Islamic State siege of parts of the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. A US-led coalition is also battling the extremist group in Syria.
Syrian activists on Wednesday said fierce fighting is underway between pro-government forces and IS militants around a garrison in Deir Ezzor, after an IS counterattack late Tuesday involving multiple suicide bombings. The fighting was centered around the military base of the 137th Brigade on the outskirts of Deir Ezzor, where the siege had been breached the day before.
The advance of government forces in Deir Ezzor was a victory for Assad, and could soon provide relief for tens of thousands of civilians besieged by the militants since early 2015.