The actions of Syrian government forces in Aleppo have been called ‘war crimes’ by U.N. investigators and human rights leaders.
A confidential report issued to the U.N. Security Council after an international inquiry has concluded that Syrian government forces were responsible for a chemical weapons attack in March 2015.
The report, drafted by a joint committee created by the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and submitted on Friday after 13 months of preparation, said that Syrian forces were behind a toxic gas attack in the village of Qmenas, Idlib province.
Findings about two other gas attacks against Syrian village in March, 2015 and April, 2014 did not provide conclusive evidence of who was responsible. The OPCW has previously blamed the Syrian government for 2 chlorine attacks, however.
The international prohibition of chemical and biological weapons means that a new showdown between Russia, who backs Bashar Al-Assad’s government forces, and Western allies will likely take place. Russia immediately said that the report’s conclusions could not be used to justify new U.S. sanctions.
The report stated that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs containing chlorine gas on Qmenas, with the flights originating from two Syrian aerial bases. The report did not suggest who was in charge of the helicopter squadrons at the time. It urged that those responsible for the squadrons be held accountable for the attack.
The OPCW investigated eight cases of the use of chemical weapons suspected to have been conducted by Syrian forces, but only obtained conclusive evidence of three attacks.
Chlorine as a weapon of war is prohibited under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, of which Syria became a signatory in 2013. When inhaled, chlorine gas can kill victims by drowning them in body fluids that invade the lungs. Syria agreed to destroy its cache of chemical weapons in 2013 under a U.S. and Russia-lead deal; in the event of any form of non-compliance with the deal, the U.N. would impose military measures or economic sanctions under Chapter 7 of its Charter.
France, the U.K., and the U.S. have already called for sanctions against President Assad and others in Syria, but their proposals have been vetoed by Russia, a veto-wielding Security Council member state, who have also questioned the joint committee’s findings and cast doubt on its conclusions.
At the same times as the report was revealed, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N.’s top human rights official, said that the siege and bombing of eastern Aleppo constituted “war crimes of historic proportions” due to the extensive civilian casualties in the city.
Although Al Hussein did not explicitly name Russia, the country responsible for the bulk of the aerial bombardment of Aleppo, in his statement, there was little doubt as to who he was referencing.
At a special sessions of the U.N. Human Rights Council, Mr. Zeid said that “indiscriminate air strikes across the eastern part of the city by government forces and their allies are responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties”.
“Such violations constitute war crimes and if there was intent to commit them as part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilians, they would amount to crimes against humanity”, he added. He urged the major U.N. powers to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The suggestion that Russia and the Syrian government’s actions in Aleppo may constitute war crimes was also echoed earlier this week by the European Union.
“The deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel, schools and essential infrastructure, as well as the use of barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and chemical weapons, constitute a catastrophic escalation of the conflict … and may amount to war crimes,” said E.U. foreign ministers in a joint statement issued this week.
Washington has also suggested that the bombardment of Aleppo may constitute a war crime. While all the major Western powers show a united front against the situation in Aleppo, a resolution is unlikely without the acquiescence of Russia and China, the two veto-wielding powers who are obliquely opposed to a deal on Syria.