April 6, 2017 – Ole Solvang is Deputy Director, Emergencies
We are still investigating what killed dozens and injured hundreds of people exposed to chemicals in Khan Sheikhoun, in northern Syria, on April 4. Did Syrian government forces use chemical weapons, as local residents are telling us? Or could a bomb have struck chemicals on the ground? Major General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Defense, claimed the latter when he said a Syrian strike hit a warehouse used to store munitions containing toxic gas in a video on the ministry’s Facebook page on Tuesday, but he made some inaccurate claims in doing so.
First, he said that munitions from this warehouse were brought to Iraq and used there. Human Rights Watch has indeed documented the use of chemical weapons in Iraq. But in Iraq, it was the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) that used them. ISIS is not in control of Khan Sheikhoun. Furthermore, the chemical weapons whose use was documented by Human Rights Watch in Iraq caused painful burns that are consistent with a mustard agent, also known as a “vesicant,” or blister agent. Victims in Idlib showed no such symptoms. (ISIS may have also used other chemical weapons in Iraq.)
Second, he said that the same weapons had also been used in Aleppo in late 2016. At the time, Konashenkov said that experts from the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed that “the terrorists” had filled munitions with chlorine. But victims’ symptoms from Idlib included pinpoint pupils, a symptom associated with a nerve agent. A chlorine attack would not cause pinpoint pupils.
It is crucial to find out exactly what happened in Khan Sheikhoun. Russian officials releasing misleading information will not help with that. The Security Council, including Russia and China, should demand that Syria and other parties to the war fully cooperate with investigators and threaten concrete consequences if that cooperation is not forthcoming.