Mutual recriminations are still being traded between the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran on one side, and the rest of the international community on the other, over the regime attack on Khan Sheikhun on April 4. The first victim of war is usually the truth, and this crisis is no exception. There are several unclear points in the incident, but most of them are verifiable. A transparent investigation will end speculation, and both sides have already suggested this.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on April 13, during a joint press conference with his US counterpart Rex Tillerson, that they plan to seek a thorough investigation by the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani proposed the formation of an international independent committee to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhun. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces called for an immediate investigation by the UN Security Council. So there is hope that a clearer picture will emerge soon if action is taken.
Certain controversies must be looked into. First, the international community claims the bombs dropped by the regime were carrying poison gas. Russia claims the attack was carried out with conventional bombs against a facility believed to contain weapons belonging to opposition fighters, and there was poison gas stored there, so when containers were damaged the gas spread and caused casualties.
Jerry Smith, who led the UN-backed operation to remove Syria’s chemical weapons in 2013-14, said: “The Russian version of events could not be discounted. If it is sarin that was stored there and conventional munitions were used, there is every possibility that some of those (chemical) munitions were not consumed and that the sarin liquid was ejected and could well have affected the population.”
There must be evidence at the site of the incident, such as damaged and undamaged sarin gas containers. If they were not hastily removed, they must still be there. If they were removed, traces could be detected by experts.
The second controversy is about the time of the bombing. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said it was carried out at 6.30 a.m., while Russia’s Defense Ministry said it took place between 11.30 a.m. and 12.30 p.m.
Clarifying this is important because it will determine if there were two attacks or one, and if there were two attacks, whether the poison gas spread after the second. This could be verified by examining the radar records of various air bases in the region and by interviewing locals.
Third, the pro-regime Al-Masdar news agency claims the bombs carried by the Sukhoi Su-22 jet fighters cannot be filled with chemical substances. The SOHR acknowledges that the attack was carried out by Sukhoi Su-22s. Experts would know whether they can carry chemical substances.
There are three potential scenarios. One is that the regime carried out the attack with poison gas that it did not declare to the OPCW when it joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013. After it joined, vast stores of poison gas were removed and destroyed. In June 2014, the OPCW certified, after nine months of hard work, that “all of Syria’s declared weapons had been removed.” If Syria did not declare part of its stocks, it will be violating the convention.
The second scenario is that the regime destroyed all its stocks but produced more later since it still had the know-how. This would also violate the convention, which says: “Each State Party undertakes never under any circumstances to develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons.”
The third scenario is that the regime did not use chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhun. In this case, the US will have to justify its attack on Shayrat air base, which it said was a response to the Khan Sheikhun attack.