Assad Targets Civilians, Hospitals Amid Defeats In Syrian War
The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is systematically targeting civilians and hospitals, often with chemical weapons, to reverse recent setbacks in the country’s civil war, witnesses told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
Assad’s forces have suffered a number of battlefield defeats in recent months, with the Islamic State and the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra gaining ground north of the capital Damascus and more moderate rebel groups achieving victories in the south. The Syrian army has also lost about half of its soldiers throughout the course of the four-year civil war and has increasingly relied on outside militant groups such as Hezbollah.
Amid the defeats for the Assad regime, reports have surfaced of dozens of chemical weapons attacks from barrel bombs filled with toxic chlorine gas. Western officials accuse Assad’s forces of dropping the chlorine bombs from helicopters, noting that his regime is the only side in the conflict that has been known to use such aircraft.
Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria in the Obama administration, said at the committee hearing that Assad has used chlorine weapons to displace civilians from opposition areas while his forces suffer from attrition.
“As that dynamic goes forward, the Syrian regime will more and more want to use chemical weapons to make up for manpower shortages,” he said. “They are not deterred from using them.”
Although Syria agreed to relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile as part of a deal brokered by the United States and Russia in 2013, chlorine was not included as a part of that deal. Chlorine also has several civilian uses for water purification and other sanitation projects. However, manipulating any chemical as a weapon violates the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that Syria joined in 2013.
Ford said “an international consensus forged after World War I”—when chlorine was first used as a chemical weapon—is “steadily eroding” due to the international community’s failure to prevent Assad’s chemical attacks.
Dr. Mohamed Tennari, a coordinator for the Syrian-American Medical Society in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, related his experience on March 16 when chlorine bombs were dropped near his hometown of Sarmin in Idlib.
Tennari heard helicopters from his home that night and received an alert that chemical weapons had been launched in the area. On the way to his field hospital, Tennari smelled a bleach-like odor in the air. Dozens of victims had already flooded his hospital when he arrived; several complained of a burning sensation on their eyes and throats and had difficulty breathing. Chlorine gas causes the victims’ lungs to fill with fluid, which can then lead to suffocation.
Among the victims were his friend Waref Taleb and Taleb’s mother, wife, and three young children. All of them perished. The committee was shown a video of the dying children, including one who foamed at the mouth.
“Everything that we did for them was not enough to save their lives,” said Tennari, who also testified at the United Nations Security Council earlier this year. More