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article imageKey facts on suspected chemical attacks in Syria

By AFP     Feb 7, 2018 in World

The latest fighting in Syria has seen an uptick in the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime, including on the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta.

The fresh violence has sparked wide concern and threats of military action from the United States.

It was in the Eastern Ghouta enclave in August 2013 that a chemical attack, the biggest of any conflict in years, killed hundreds of people.

Damascus has since ratified the UN Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons but the investigating body subsequently created saw its mandate expire in November last year.

The Islamic State group has used chlorine and mustard gas in the past, to limited effect, but the jihadist group has now lost the vast majority of the territory it once controlled.

TYPES OF ATTACKS

+ One of the deadliest types of chemical attacks uses sarin, which was detected in an April 2017 attack on Khan Sheikhun that killed more than 80 people. The nerve agent was released after an air strike.

The death toll was the highest in a chemical attack since the 2013 Ghouta attack, which also involved sarin and which the US says killed 1,429 people, including children.

+ Helicopter-dropped chlorine-filled munitions have been increasingly used by the regime as the conflict has dragged on, according to a 2017 report by Human Rights Watch.

+ Government forces or allied militia groups also started using improvised ground-launched rockets, some of which were photographed by AFP, fitted with cylinders that witnesses and medics said contained chlorine.

They are know as IRAMs, Improvised Rocket Assisted Munitions, and tend to be Iranian 107mm rockets modified with stabilising fins and larger warheads that increase firepower but reduce range, according to open source investigation website Bellingcat.

RECENT CASES

The United States spoke of six suspected cases of chemical attacks in Syria over the past month. Below are some of the most significant:

+ January 13: A suspected chlorine attack in an area between Douma and Harasta in Eastern Ghouta, using ground-launched rockets, caused a small number of civilians to be hospitalised for breathing difficulties, according to medics and human rights groups.

+ January 22: A suspected chlorine attack in Douma, also using a ground-launched rocket, led to at least 21 cases of respiratory problems, including children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

+ February 5: A bomb believed to contain chlorine was dropped from a helicopter on Saraqeb, in the largely jihadist-controlled northwestern province of Idlib, leading to cases of breathing difficulties, the Observatory said.

REACTION

+ UNITED STATES

The United States has ramped up the rhetoric in recent days over the suspected use of chemical weapons by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

On February 2, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis alleged that chemical weapons were being used by Damascus and voiced concern that sarin had been used.

A US official said that "using military force is something that is still considered" and that President Donald Trump had not ruled out the kind of cruise missile strikes that followed the Khan Sheikhun attack last year.

+ FRANCE

France has taken the lead on the issue by launching an initiative called "No Impunity" in the aftermath of the January 22 attack.

Last month, it also blacklisted companies and individuals it suspects of links to Syria's alleged chemical programme.

Yet it remained cautious on Tuesday. The foreign ministry said it was very concerned by the latest reports of chemical attacks by the regime but stressed it was too early to confirm them.

+ SYRIA

On January 24, Syria flatly denied using chemical weapons and condemned "the lies and allegations" levelled by the West.

Moscow, which is Damascus's staunchest ally, also fought back against what it described as a "propaganda campaign", arguing during a meeting of the UN Security Council on Monday that "no perpetrators have been identified".

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