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'Strong evidence' Syrian regime used chemical weapons in Idlib

Rebel-held areas in Idlib are being targeted by regime barrel bombs. (AFP)

Date of publication: 14 April, 2015

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As Syrian rebels continued to battle regime forces in Aleppo, Human Rights Watch says 'strong evidence' suggests Syrian regime used chemical weapons during several attacks on Idlib.
After conducting inquiries into six attacks, Human Rights Watch (HRW) have concluded that there was a “strong evidence” of chemical weapon use by the Syrian regime in Idlib during March 16-31, 2015.

The attacks were carried out on villages and towns captured by rebels in the battle to take the city of Idlib.

One attack killed 6 civilians, including 3 children, and it is estimated that at least 200 people were affected.

“Syrian authorities appear once again to have shown complete disregard for human suffering by violating the global prohibition against chemical warfare”, said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director.

HRW collected evidence including photos, videos and eye witness statements which they said points to use of chemical weapons in at least three attacks, and three others warrant follow up enquires.

A doctor described his attempt to treat three children from the Talib family during an attack in Sarmin, saying they “were foaming at the mouth, they were suffocating, then their hearts stopped. The parents had trouble breathing. We tried to treat them, but they died as well.”

After reviewing videos and eye witness testimony of the disturbing incident, HRW concluded that the children appeared to have “no signs physical wounds”.

Syrian Civil Defence volunteers documented remnants of barrel bombs at the scene, which are thought to be solely used by the regime in Syrian.

Witnesses described a strong chlorine smell, and doctors described victims' symptoms as being consistent with a chemical attack.  HRW has previously recorded probable use of chlorine as a weapon in northern Syria April 2014. 

A UN fact-finding mission and UNHC Commission of enquiry concluded likely use of the nerve agent Sarin in 2013, leading to Syria giving up chemical weapons for destruction under international pressure, although it is unsure whether this was complete.

As a common industrial chemical, this agreement did not include chlorine, although its use as a weapon would violate the Chemical Weapons Convention.

HRW encouraged the UN Security Council and members of the Chemical Weapons Convention to “respond strongly”.

“The Security Council shouldn't delay getting to the bottom of this recurring use of chemical weapons and press the government to stop” Houry said. 

Yet, what seems to be pressing the government are the major political and military developments in the region. 

As regime pound rebel-held towns, rebels are reorganising and preparing to take the initiative on several fronts from the north of the country, Aleppo, to the south, Dara'a. 

The southern front 

Earlier this year, regime forces supported by Hezballah and Iranian generals launched an offensive to take back rebel-held areas in the southern suburbs of Damascus, in an attempt to reach deeper into the south to Quneitra and Dara'a.

In doing so, the Syrian regime and its allies would secure the southern borders of the Golan Heights and Jordan, and consequently narrow down military confrontation to the northern and eastern fronts.

But the southern offensive was halted early on after the rebels captured Idlib in the north and IS advanced closer to Damascus.

IS advancement in Yarmouk camp was used by the regime as an excuse to take over the camp and thus secure a strategic position in the southern suburbs of the capital.

This chance was lost as IS agreed to withdraw from Yarmouk after fierce fighting with rebel groups present inside the camp.

Now that the regime's offensive was pulled back and chances of controlling the southern front were diminished, opposition groups in the south are reorganising and fortifying their towns.

In that direction, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), represented by the Southern Front Brigades, have announced a purported disassociation from al-Nusra Front in the South.

The announcement reaffirms that the FSA rejects "any form of cooperation [ideological or military] with Takfiris". 

The Southern Front Brigades announcement claims that the FSA, with all the factions and brigades that it encompasses, is the only representative of the Syrian Revolution in the south. 

The tensions between rebel groups and al-Nusra are not new.

Back in November 2014, an Ahrar al-Sham leader, one of the prominent rebel forces on the ground, pleaded against al-Nusra in an interview with Charles Lister, author of the book The Syrian Jihad, as it has been leading the revolution "down the wrong path".

Lister documents in his book on Syria that numerous leaders of Syrian rebel groups have been expressing private concerns to him since October 2014 regarding the worrying evolution of their long-time ally, al-Nusra Front.

Opposition offensive in Aleppo

On Monday, Rebels launched a successful pre-emptive attack on regime positions in Aleppo.

Despite tensions between al-Nusra and other rebel groups, the northern front is fought against the regime through effective ground collaboration between them.

By dawn, rebels managed to capture the Air Force Intelligence building and Bashir Mosque nearby. Regime forces were forced to retreat to the neighbouring area of al-Zahraa.

The attack was led by al-Nusra, which said to have co-ordinated with allies including the Levantine Front, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Supporters), and the Dawn of the Caliphate.

Such small but significant victories triggered an offensive rather than the usual defensive strategy in Aleppo as rebel-held areas endure indiscriminate bombardment by regime helicopters. 

A relatively strong revolutionary civil society in Aleppo has played a pivotal role in mobilising residents and pressuring rebel groups to overcome their rifts as IS and Syrian regime seem to be exploiting their divisions.

Regional initiatives to turn the tide in Syria

News have emerged of a potential alliance between usual rivals, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to topple Assad.

High-level talks are said to be ongoing between the two regional powers in the pursuit of forming a military alliance that turn the tides against Bashar al-Assad.

The talks seem to have been catalysed by recent developments in Yemen. Regional powers are taking action to support rebels in Syria and resist Iranian expansion.

In Iraq, American-led airstrikes and Iranian forces have supported Iraqi army and militas to push IS back.

The fleeing militants have been heading Syria to compensate the losses in Iraq. 

IS has been preparing for a battle in Deir al-Zour in the east and the militants crossing the eastern borders to Syria can prove to be useful to the upcoming battle which the regime is speculating as well.  

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