Attacks using chemical weapons have been taking place in Syria since 2012. As of April 2018, official reports from the French Foreign Ministry and the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic put the number of chemical attacks at 163.
The Syrian Archive has documented 212 chemical weapon attacks through documentation efforts of individuals and groups in Syria. This Chemical Weapons Database, released on 24 April 2018, is the first publicly available collection of open source content documenting chemical weapon attacks in Syria between 2012 – 2018.
The collection contains documentation from over 190 sources that can be viewed, analysed and downloaded. This process not only identified an additional 50 attack sites in Syria but brought together 861 verified videos to corroborate these attacks.
The Syrian Archive is a civil society group that has been documenting the Syrian conflict since 2014. To date over 1.4 million videos have been located and preserved. Like many monitoring organisations, the Syrian Archive is unable to go into Syria to investigate these attacks. Relying on a network of journalists and video makers it is essential to monitor, document and report on the crimes in Syria and preserve these pieces of evidence for accountability and justice initiatives.
The use of chemical weapons in Syria
International Humanitarian Law prohibits the use of chemical munitions in both international and non-international conflicts.
In 2013 the Syrian Arab Republic ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, following findings by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that sarin had been used on 21 August 2013. In 2014, after an in-country mission, OPCW reported they destroyed 100% of Category 1 chemicals by the Syrian Arab Republic and 70% of Syria’s Category 2 chemicals. They also reported destroying 94% of it’s declared chemical stockpile.
That chemical weapons were used in attacks attributed to the Syrian government after OPCW destroyed chemical weapons stockpiles indicates that either not all stockpiles were destroyed or that the Syrian government and non-governmental armed groups involved in the Syrian conflict (e.g. Daesh) acquired or manufactured chemical weapons after August 2013.
Syria had previously acceded to the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare on 22 November 1968.
By examining the 212 incidents in which chemical weapons were used in the Syrian conflict since 2012 it becomes clear that their use is not infrequent or random but rather a repeated, deliberate and illegal strategy of war.
The Syrian Archive has identified patterns in the use of chemical weapons its verified dataset. These include patterns include the use of chemical attacks by the Syrian army when trying to advance to control specific areas. Between 2013-2018 Jobar frontlines saw 12 chemical attacks.
Chemical attacks were also used by the Syrian army when forces not able to control specific areas after trying to advance, such as Kafr Zita 2014 and Aleppo 2016. Areas out of the control of the Syrian government also experienced chemical attacks perpetrated by the Syrian government, such as in Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017.
Analysis of the 861 verified videos indicates the types of chemicals used in some of the attacks. In 62 videos documentation of chlorine was observed. The effects of sarin can be observed in 372 videos. Containers and remnants of mustard gas were observed in four videos.
Through comparing a temporal analysis of chemical weapons attacks with territorial maps published by conflict monitoring groups (e.g. liveuamap), as well as information gathered through Syrian Archive’s networks, it becomes apparent that the majority of attacks occured in opposition controlled areas between 2012 and 2018.
Syrian Archive has identified 85 unique locations which were attacked using chemical weapons. The Damascus countryside experienced the majority of chemical weapons attacks with 61 attacks documented. Idlib experienced 49 chemical weapons attacks. Aleppo and Hama experienced 33 and 29 chemical weapons attacks respectively. Homs experienced six chemical weapons attacks. Daraa experienced three chemical weapons attacks, and Deir Ezzor experienced one.
In their research of 130 chemical attacks, the French Foreign Ministry attributed five chemical weapon attacks in which sarin was used to the Syrian government (five proven, two with strong presumption). The Foreign Ministry additionally claimed there was a strong presumption of chlorine used by the Syrian government in 22 incidents. Three chemical weapon attacks using mustard gas were also attributed by the Foreign Ministry to Daesh. The Foreign Ministry did not attribute 98 chemical attacks.
Syrian Archive provides corroborating open source content to findings published by the Organisation for the Prohibition of the Chemical Weapons, the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, the French Foreign Ministry, and many Syrian human rights documentation groups with visual documentation verified by the Syrian Archive team, and does so in an publicly accessible format.
Visual documentation included in the Syrian Archive Chemical Weapons Database finds corroborating open source documentation for 103 of the 130 incidents published by the French Foreign Ministry. For 24 incidents included in French Foreign Ministry findings, the Syrian Archive was either unable to locate visual documentation or concluded that conventional weapons were at play, as of the date of publication. To give one example, the French Foreign Ministry reported a chemical attack on 6 September 2016 in Ein Terma and/or Jobar. After collecting and reviewing video documentation including testimony by medical workers treating those affected, the Syrian Archive concluded that suffocation was the result of conventional weapons rather than chemical weapons.
For ten incidents published by the French Foreign Ministry, the Syrian Archive provided specific locations where none were indicated. For example, Aleppo is noted as the location in 19 incidents, but the specific town and location were not provided.
The French Foreign Ministry additionally identified three reported chemical weapons attacks, claiming they took place on 25 April 2015 and 26 April 2015 (1- Sahl Al Ghab, 2- Hama, 3- Al Hawash). Through open source analysis, the Syrian Archive has concluded that these three incidents were in fact one incident which occurred on 26 April 2015 in Hawash, a village in Hama province. The Syrian Archive has identified two YouTube videos and eight Facebook posts, published from the location of the chemical attack, confirming these three incidents are in fact one.
This Chemical Weapons Database contains 28 GB of documentation of 212 chemical weapon attacks in Syria during the 2012-2018 period. This data comes from 193 sources made up of individual citizen journalists, local and international media groups, as well as NGOs and civil society organisations. It is important to note that many if not all of these sources are partisan, and thus require caution with regards to their claims.
A total of 861 relevant videos documenting chemical weapon attacks were identified, the majority of which were published on YouTube. Additional documentation from Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms will be incorporated into the database in the coming months.
The sheer amount of content being created, and the near constant removals of materials from public channels means that the Syrian Archive is in a race against time to preserve important documentation of crimes committed. Content preserved and verified by the Syrian Archive might offer the only evidence to corroborate witness testimonies of chemical weapons attacks, and to implicate potential perpetrators.
Of the 861 videos included in this dataset, 9% had been removed on YouTube. Due to Syrian Archive’s technical infrastructure and the constant monitoring of the status of videos and channels, the termination of affected content was brought to YouTube’s attention, resulting in 13 channels of media groups documenting chemical weapons attacks being reinstated in cases where users did not remove content willingly. One channel, “شبكة أحرار دوما – ريف دمشق,” by media reporters that had been documenting violations committed in Douma since 2012 has over 1.600 videos and one million views.