Assad linked to Syrian chemical attacks for first time

UN-led inquiry produces list that links 15 high-ranking figures to be scrutinised on the use of chemical weapons in the war.

Syrian president Bashar Al Assad on January 9, 2017, tells journalists in Damascus, that he is prepared to "negotiate everything" at talks set to take place in Kazakhstan from  January 23. Photo: SANA via AP
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International investigators have said for the first time that they suspect president Bashar Al Assad and his brother are responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syrian conflict.

A joint inquiry for the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had previously identified only military units but did not name any commanders or officials.

Now a list has been produced of individuals whom the investigators have linked to a series of chlorine bomb attacks in 2014-15. It includes Mr Al Assad, his younger brother Maher and other high-ranking figures, according to a source familiar with the inquiry.

The government has repeatedly denied using such weapons during the civil war, which is almost six years old, saying all the attacks highlighted by the inquiry were the work of rebels or ISIL.

The list, which has not been made public, was based on a combination of evidence compiled by the UN-OPCW team in Syria and information from western and regional intelligence agencies, according to the source.

It identifies 15 people “to be scrutinised in relation to use of CW [chemical weapons] by Syrian Arab Republic Armed Forces in 2014 and 2015”. It does not specify what role they are suspected of playing, but lists their titles.

It is split into three sections. The first, titled “Inner Circle President” lists six people including Mr Al Assad, his brother who commands the elite 4th Armoured Division, the defence minister and the head of military intelligence.

The second names the air force chief as well as four commanders of air force divisions. They include the heads of the 22nd Air Force Division and the 63rd Helicopter Brigade, units that the inquiry has previously said dropped chlorine bombs.

The third part of the list — “Other relevant Senior Mil Personnel” — names two colonels and two major generals.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, an independent specialist in biological and chemical weapons who monitors Syria, said the list reflected the military chain of command.

“The decisions would be made at the highest levels initially and then delegated down. Hence the first use would need to be authorised by Assad,” said Mr de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of British and Nato chemical and biological defence divisions who frequently visits Syria for professional consultancy work.

The inquiry — known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism — is led by a panel of three independent experts and supported by a team of technical and administrative staff. It is mandated by the UN Security Council to identify individuals and organisations responsible for chemical attacks in Syria.

Virginia Gamba, the head of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, denied any list of individual suspects had yet been compiled by the inquiry.

“There are no ... identification of individuals being considered at this time,” she told Reuters.

The use of chemical weapons is banned under international law and could constitute a war crime.

While the inquiry has no judicial powers, any naming of suspects could lead to their prosecution. Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court, but alleged war crimes could be referred to the court by the Security Council — although splits among global powers over the war make this a distant prospect at present.

* Reuters