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Two versions of the UN

The Human Rights Council has abstained from publishing numerous facts about the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.

In mid-April, after five years, the siege of Eastern Ghouta ended. It was the longest lasting siege in modern history and one of the most dramatic episodes of the Syrian war (which started in 2011). Since the beginning of the conflict, more than 10,000 people have perished, although exact numbers are hard to find. The government forces did not hesitate to use the most drastic means to occupy the eastern, rebel-controlled Ghouta. They have bombarded the region, including civilian targets such as hospitals, with countless missiles. Inflicting hunger on the inhabitants was a yet another method of waging war – the region was almost completely cut off from the outside world and hardly any humanitarian aid was delivered there. Finally, Eastern Ghouta was also attacked with chemical weapons to an extent unseen in any other place in Syria.

These very topics are covered by the UN Human Rights Council report. On June 20th, the organisation published a document titled “The siege and recapture of eastern Ghouta”. It accuses the Syrian regime of committing crimes against humanity and war crimes. According to the report, the anti-government forces are partly to blame, too, as they have also targeted civilian parts of Damascus, although to a much lesser extent.

End of the siege

On April 7th, the city of Douma, the largest one in the region of eastern Ghouta, was most probably attacked with the use of chemicals. At least 49 people died in the aftermath. The attack was to take place during an offensive of the government forces which broke the siege started in mid-2013. A week later, the government took the full control of the region.

This was achieved thanks to the regime’s agreement with the militias fighting in Ghouta. Some of them left for the province of Idlib, controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a militant group associated with the Al-Qaeda. In turn, the regime allowed about 10,000 members of Jaysh al-Islam, a key militia in Douma, to pass through the controlled areas to “the Euphrates Shield” in northern Syria. Jaysh al-Islam was a part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Agreements for the future

The final version of the UN report differs significantly from the draft version of the document received by the journalists of the New York Times. Out of the seven pages presenting detailed descriptions of the chemical attacks, the final version contains only two paragraphs that summarize the situation in a rather general way.

The original text contained information on six chemical attacks in Ghouta and accused the government forces of committing all of them. The attacks in question occurred between January 13th and April 7th 2018 (when the gravest incident took place). It is believed that chlorine was used during the attacks on January 13th and January 22nd as well as on February 1st. In all cases, bombs were dropped on the inhabited areas of Douma, located several hundred metres behind the front line. The inhabitants reported that they felt the smell of chlorine and soaked their clothes to cover their faces with it.

In the first three attacks, 31 people were poisoned, including 11 children but there were no casualties. On February 25th and March 7th, two children were killed and 18 injured. The Human Rights Council reported that it has evidence proving that rockets produced in Iran were used in the the January 22nd and February 1st attacks. Researchers also stated that such weapons “can only be used by government forces and militias loosely connected with them”.

On April 7th, a gas cylinder was allegedly dropped onto one of the balconies located about 200 meters away from the Rif Damascus Hospital (the last one operating in Douma). The substance escaping from it is supposed to have killed 49 people.

Human Rights Council explained that this information had been removed because it needed further work, investigation and confirmation. It can be included in the next report.

Ongoing investigation

The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), has still not published the results of its investigation into the incident in Douma. The group sent by the organization as late as April 21st, was able to visit one of the two sites which had been attacked with chemical weapons. On May 4th, the OPCW announced in its statement that the preliminary analysis of the data collected in Douma had been completed but it would take additional three to four weeks for it to be analysed further. During the last month, the organisation confirmed that chlorine was probably used in the province of Idlib on February 4th, 2018. It also confirmed that the same substance was used in the province of Hama on March 24th, 2017. The OPCW has investigated 70 uses of toxic gas since 2014.

The opposition and Western states accuse the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of carrying out the chemical attack in Douma. In response, the United States, the UK and France carried out a rocket attack on sites in Syria where chemical weapons were to be manufactured and stored. The Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran, claim that the information about the attack is false.

The use of chemical weapons was banned by an international agreement signed by the government in Damascus after it came under pressure following the 2013 gas attack in eastern Ghouta. The Syrian authorities have been obliged to dispose of their chemical weapons arsenal. According to the OPCW, Damascus has destroyed more than 96% of its declared weapons.

The war in Syria broke out in 2011. As a result, over 400,000 people died and almost 12 million, more than half of the country’s population, had to flee their homes.

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