A chemical airstrike on the town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017, killed over 80 people and injured hundreds. The attack, which dropped a bomb filled with the deadly nerve agent Sarin onto civilians, went down in history as the deadliest chemical assault in the Syrian civil war since the Ghouta chemical attack in 2013. Harrowing images of dead children and writhing, asphyxiated victims prompted an immediate international outcry. The United Nations, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and the United States government accused the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria of carrying out the charge, citing intelligence sources that monitored the movement of Syrian aircrafts on the day of the attack. The United States responded with a targeted airstrike on a Syrian airbase. But Syria, backed by Russia, has consistently denied responsibility for the strike, and world opinion remains split on the true culprit in the grisly attack.
Against this background, a recent study jointly conducted by the investigative journalism website Bellingcat and the London-based research group Forensic Architecture (FA) claims to have found concrete proof for Syria’s direct hand in the attack. The incriminating evidence, they say, was inadvertently provided by Syria’s ally, the Russian government.
Following the chemical attack and the Trump administration’s response to it, Russia challenged the US to prove Assad’s regime’s role in the attacks. In November 2017, the Russian Foreign Ministry held a briefing in which it claimed that the assault could not have been conducted by Syrian forces. Russian officials claimed that the explosion, which left a large crater behind, was caused by a bomb that detonated at ground level and not by a Syrian airstrike. To make their case, the Russian officials presented drawings of chemical weapons previously held by the Syrian air force, claiming that there was no evidence they were used in Khan Shaykhun. These drawings, Bellingicat and FA say, ended up being the missing piece of evidence they needed to point a clear finger at the Syrian regime.
Bellingcat’s investigation relied on bomb fragments found at the bombing site in Khan Shaykhun, and others found in an earlier Sarin attack on the nearby town of Al Lataminah on March 30. The fragments were matched with the drawings presented by the Russian officials. The investigative website later collaborated with FA, which had previously conducted an analysis of the bombing site in Khan Shaykhun, and asked to use its advanced 3D rendering technologies to determine if the collected bomb debris may have originated from the type of weapons depicted in the drawings.
FA’s renderings confirmed that the pieces found at both sites are parts of M4000 chemical bombs, which the Syrian regime had admitted to using in the past. A certain bomb filler cap found at both sites tipped the scale in the investigation. The filler cap, previously examined by the OPCW, was “uniquely consistent with Syrian chemical aerial bombs,” according to the organization’s investigation. Bellingcat and FA’s work provided visual proof of that assertion based on renderings of the chemical bomb and their debris. “Such precise identification would not have been possible without the intervention of the Russian Foreign Ministry,” says a video made by FA.
Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat’s founder, has been avidly reporting on the chemical attacks in Syria since 2012. “The Khan Shaykhun attack was a very high profile attack, but other attacks got no news coverage,” he said in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic.”There were at least two other attacks in the same week in Al Lataminah — one where they found Sarin, and the other a Chlorine attack.”
A report released by the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI) in February of this year recorded 300 chemical weapons attacks over the course of the Syrian civil war. It’s a significantly higher number than what has commonly been known, the report says. According to GPPI’s report, about 98% of these attacks can be attributed to the Assad regime, while the rest may have been carried out by the Islamic State group.
Skeptics insist that the attack on Khan Shaykhun as a “false-flag operation” that was designed to frame the Assad regime. “What these people don’t understand that this in the context of many more chemical attacks that aren’t reported on,” Higgins argued. “From the perspective of the Syrian government, most of the time they get away with attacks not even being reported,” he added. “On the occasion when they get caught out, there are minimal consequences. They’re using [chemical weapons] as part of their fighting strategy in a random pattern.”
In August 2012 President Barack Obama famously threatened that his administration’s “red line” with the Assad regime would be the use of chemical weapons. Obama never acted on his threat. Instead, the president reached an agreement with Russia and Syria in 2013 in which the Assad regime vowed to destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons within a year. But according to GPPI’s report, roughly 90% of all confirmed attacks occurred after that promise. On September 26, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo deemed Syria responsible for another chlorine attack in May.
“About 95% of [these attacks] are chlorine attacks because they are low-casualty,” Higgins added. “They largely get ignored until some video gets to Fox News and Donald Trump gets upset and sends some missiles over.”