Summary

All available evidence strongly suggests that on April 4, 2017, a Syrian government warplane attacked Khan Sheikhoun, a town in the northwestern governorate of Idlib, with a nerve agent, killing at least 92 people, 30 of them children. The death toll likely makes this the deadliest chemical attack since an attack killed hundreds in Ghouta, near Damascus, in August 2013.

The Khan Sheikhoun attack sparked international outrage, but the attack on Khan Sheikhoun was not the only recent chemical attack by the Syrian government. Three developments since late 2016 show that the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons has become widespread and systematic:

  • Government warplanes appear to have dropped bombs with nerve agents on at least four occasions since December 12, including in Khan Sheikhoun;
  • The government’s use of helicopter-dropped chlorine-filled munitions has become more systematic;
  • Government or pro-government ground-forces have started using improvised ground-launched munitions containing chlorine.

In at least some of the attacks, the intention appears to have been to inflict severe suffering on the civilian population, which would amount to crimes against humanity.

New evidence supports the conclusion that Syrian government forces have used nerve agents on at least four occasions in recent months: on April 4, 2017, in a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed at least 92 people, and on three other occasions in December 2016 and March 2017. 

After the chemical attacks in Ghouta, the United Nations Security Council demanded that the Syrian government destroy its chemical stockpiles, weapons, and production capacity. In response, Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013. In June 2014, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced that it had shipped Syria’s declared chemical weapons out of the country for destruction, though it continued attempting to verify the accuracy and completeness of the Syrian declaration.

But in fact, the Syrian government had already been using helicopters to drop improvised munitions filled with chlorine at least since April of that year. While the Chemical Weapons Convention does not ban chlorine because it has many civilian uses, the convention bans its use as a weapon. Yet, between April 2014 and late 2016, Human Rights Watch documented 16 Syrian government attacks with chlorine contained in improvised air-dropped munitions. The number of attacks reported in the media and on social media is much higher. A UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism found enough evidence in three attacks with chlorine in 2014 and 2015 to conclude that the government was responsible.

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Human Rights Watch interviewed 60 people with first-hand knowledge of the chemical attacks and their immediate aftermath, and reviewed dozens of photos and videos of impact sites and victims that were posted online and provided directly by local residents, but was unable to conduct ground investigations of the attack sites.

Information from local residents in Khan Sheikhoun indicates that a warplane flew over the town twice around 6:45 a.m. on April 4, 2017. One resident said he saw the plane drop a bomb near the town’s central bakery in the northern neighborhood during the first fly-over. Several people, including the person who saw the bomb falling, said they heard no explosion but saw smoke and dust rising from the area, consistent with the relatively small explosive charge in a chemical bomb. Several people also confirmed that they saw people injured or heard reports of injuries immediately after the first fly-over. A few minutes later, they said, a warplane dropped three or four high-explosive bombs on the town.

Human Rights Watch identified 92 people, including 30 children, whom local residents and activists said died due to chemical exposure from this attack. Medical personnel said the attack injured hundreds more.

Human Rights Watch reviewed dozens of photos and videos provided by residents of a crater from the impact of the first bomb. Local residents believed this site was the source of the chemical exposure because those who died lived nearby and people who came near it, including first responders, exhibited the strongest symptoms of chemical exposure. One of the first photos of the crater, taken by first responders, shows what appears to be liquid on the asphalt. That would be consistent with the use of a bomb containing sarin, which is in liquid form at room temperature.

The photos and videos of the crater show two remnants from the chemical weapon used: a twisted thin metal fragment with green paint and a smaller circular metal object. Green coloring is widely used on factory-produced weapons to signify that they are chemical weapons. The KhAB-250, for example, one of two Soviet-produced bombs specifically designed to deploy sarin from a warplane, has two green bands. The circular object seen in photos of the crater appears similar to the cap covering the filling hole on the KhAB-250.

These remnants, combined with witness observations, the victims’ symptoms, and the identification of sarin as the chemical used in the attack by the French[1] and Turkish[2] governments and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,[3] suggest that the Syrian warplane dropped a factory-made sarin bomb. According to open source material, the only Soviet-produced bombs designed specifically to deliver sarin are the KhAB-250 bomb, and its bigger version, the KhAB-500.

Evidence suggests that the Khan Sheikhoun attack is not the first time government warplanes have dropped nerve agents in recent months. Witnesses described to Human Rights Watch symptoms consistent with exposure to nerve agents that they and other local residents experienced after warplanes attacked eastern Hama on December 11 and 12 and northern Hama, near Khan Sheikhoun, on March 30, 2017.

The December attacks were in territory controlled by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which closely monitors communication, so it has been difficult to reach witnesses. But four witnesses interviewed by phone and two medical personnel interviewed via text message through intermediaries gave consistent accounts of the attacks. An opposition-affiliated activist and local residents provided the names of 64 people who died from chemical exposure in the December attacks.

The suspected nerve agent attack in northern Hama on March 30 caused no deaths, but injured dozens of people, both civilians and combatants, according to local residents, medical personnel, and first responders.

All four suspected nerve agent attacks were in areas where offensives by armed forces fighting the government threatened government military air bases.

Government forces’ use of chlorine-filled weapons has become more widespread and systematic. During the last month of the battle for Aleppo city, which ended on December 15, 2016, helicopters dropped multiple improvised chlorine-filled munitions in a pattern showing that the attacks were part of the overall military strategy to retake the city. Such attacks have continued more recently, for example, in al-Lataminah in northern Hama.

Since January 2017, Human Rights Watch has also documented, for the first time since August 2013, the use by government or pro-government ground forces of improvised surface-fired rockets containing chlorine to attack territory near Damascus controlled by armed groups fighting the government.

Some of the chemical attacks hit residential areas far from the frontlines without any obvious military target and appear to have killed and injured only civilians, suggesting the Syrian government forces directed at least some of the attacks against the civilian population.

The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons, including in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4. While Russia has carried out aerial attacks in the areas where chemical attacks took place, Human Rights Watch has no information to indicate that Russian authorities have used chemical weapons. However, Russian forces continue to provide active military support to Syrian forces despite extensive evidence that the latter are using chemical weapons and targeting civilians.

The Chemical Weapons Convention, which entered into force in 1997, prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons, and requires their destruction. The prohibitions also apply to toxic chemicals with civilian uses, such as chlorine, when they are used as weapons. Syria became a party to the convention in October 2013.

Crimes against humanity consist of specific criminal acts committed on a widespread or systematic basis as part of an “attack on a civilian population,” meaning there is some degree of planning or policy to commit the crime. Such acts include murder and “other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.” The prohibition of crimes against humanity is among the most fundamental in international criminal law and can be the basis for individual criminal liability in international courts, as well as in some foreign domestic courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Human Rights Watch calls on the UN Security Council to immediately adopt a resolution calling on all parties to the Syrian conflict to fully cooperate with OPCW investigators and facilitate their unimpeded access to locations of chemical attacks, as required by UN Security Council resolutions 2118 and 2235. In line with the Security Council’s pledges to impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN charter in the event of continued chemical weapons use in Syria, Human Rights Watch also calls on the Security Council to adopt sanctions against those responsible for chemical attacks that UN-appointed investigations have confirmed. Human Rights Watch also urges UN member states to support the Syria accountability mechanism established by the UN General Assembly in December 2016, including by providing funds.

 

Recommendations

Russia and China have repeatedly used their UN Security Council vetoes to block individual sanctions and a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC). ISIS, which has also used chemical weapons, is already under UN sanctions, but so far the Syrian government has escaped accountability. The Syrian government has not fully cooperated with UN and OPCW investigations and has not provided all requested information.

To the UN Security Council

  • Immediately reiterate its demand that the Syrian government and other parties to the conflict fully cooperate with UN and OPCW investigators, including by providing requested information, as required by UN Security Council resolutions 2118 and 2235;
  • Impose a travel ban and asset freeze on those in the Syrian government and military chain of command responsible for chemical attacks that UN and OPCW investigations have confirmed;
  • Impose an arms embargo on the Syrian government and refer the situation in the country to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Syrian government has used chemical weapons on numerous occasions since at least 2013. Despite pledges to cooperate with OPCW and UN inspectors, it has withheld requested information.[4] The cases documented in this report strongly suggest that the Syrian government provided the OPCW with an incomplete declaration of its chemical weapons stocks and/or production capabilities in 2013.

To the Syrian Government

  • Immediately stop using chemical weapons;
  • Fully cooperate with OPCW investigators, including facilitating access to sites of chemical attacks and provide investigators with all information they request;
  • Amend the declaration to the OPCW to reflect its remaining chemical weapons stockpile and facilities, enable the OPCW to verify and destroy both the stocks and precursors, and permanently disable any remaining chemical weapon production facilities.

To Non-State Armed Groups

  • Fully cooperate with OPCW investigators, including facilitating access to sites of chemical attacks and provide investigators with all information they request.

Both Russia and Iran are close military allies of the Syrian government and are therefore in a position to influence military decision-making. This close alliance also raises the possibility that Russian and Iranian military personnel could have been aware of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. In the case of the battle for Aleppo in late 2016, the government repeatedly used chlorine in a pattern that appeared coordinated with the military strategy to retake the city. Both Russia and Iran participated in that battle, Russia in the air, and Iran on the ground.

To the Russian Government

  • As required by UN Security Council resolution 2235, assist the UN and OPCW in investigating the origin of any Soviet or Russian-made munitions that may have been used in Khan Sheikhoun or any other chemical attacks;
  • Stop using the veto to block an ICC referral and individual sanctions on senior Syrian government and military personnel credibly implicated in past chemical attacks confirmed by the UN and OPCW;
  • As an essential military partner, put pressure on the Syrian government to stop using chemical weapons and fully cooperate with UN and OPCW investigators, as required by UN Security Council resolutions 2118 and 2235;
  • Ensure that Russian military personnel cease cooperation with all Syrian military personnel and units suspected of involvement in chemical attacks and other serious crimes.

To the Iranian Government

  • As a close ally and whose citizens were once victims of chemical weapons, put pressure on the Syrian government to stop using toxic agents and fully cooperate with UN and OPCW investigators;
  • Ensure that Iranian military personnel and allied militias cease cooperation with all Syrian military personnel and units suspected of involvement in chemical attacks.

Because Russia and China repeatedly vetoed resolutions referring the situation in Syria to the ICC, the UN General Assembly, in December 2016, created a mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the most serious crimes under international law in Syria.[5] In response to findings by the OPCW that chlorine had been used in attacks in Syria in 2014, the UN Security Council established a UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism to identify perpetrators where the OPCW determined that an incident involved or likely involved the use of chemicals. In line with the provisions of Security Council resolution 2235, all UN member states are required to cooperate with the joint mechanism.

To UN Member States

  • Support and fund the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism created by the UN General Assembly to assist in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the most serious crimes under international law in Syria;
  • Support ongoing documentation efforts by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria into serious crimes by all sides to the conflict;
  • Provide UN and OPCW investigators with any and all information and intelligence on chemical attacks in Syria to support their investigations, as required by UN Security Council resolution 2235;
  • Investigate and prosecute individuals suspected of committing serious crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction and in accordance with national laws;
  • Take all available steps to encourage Russia to drop its opposition to the ICC’s involvement in Syria, including by publicly stating support for an ICC referral;
  • Publicly condemn Syria’s violations of international humanitarian, criminal, and human rights law;
  • Acting individually, or jointly through regional mechanisms where appropriate, adopt, maintain, or strengthen targeted sanctions against Syrian officials credibly implicated in the ongoing serious violations.

To the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism

  • The UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism should investigate whether any other governments, including Syria’s military allies Russia and Iran, aided or abetted the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces. Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention are prohibited from doing anything that could assist, encourage, or induce violation of the convention.

To Member States of the Chemical Weapons Convention

  • Move to restrict or suspend Syria’s rights and privileges as a member due to its repeated violations of the treaty;
  • Convene a special session on Syria’s repeated violations of the treaty and move to recommend that the UN Security Council impose individual sanctions on those in Syria’s government and military responsible for the use of chemical weapons.

Methodology

For the cases described in this report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 60 people with first-hand knowledge of the attacks and their immediate aftermath, including victims, witnesses, first responders, journalists, local opposition-affiliated activists, and medical personnel. Human Rights Watch also consulted experts on chemicals and weapons. Human Rights Watch interviewed eight witnesses to the Khan Sheikhoun attack in person in Turkey, the rest by phone. Human Rights Watch was unable to conduct on-the-ground investigations on any of the attack sites.

Human Rights Watch identified the witnesses through existing contacts in the area or by reaching out to people who posted information about the attacks on social media. Almost all of the interviews were conducted in Arabic. Human Rights Watch gave interviewees the option of requesting that identifying information be omitted if they were worried about their security. The report contains identifying information only if the interviewee agreed to publication of such information and if Human Rights Watch did not separately assess that it would put the interviewee at risk.

To corroborate information from witnesses, Human Rights Watch reviewed photos and videos posted online and shared directly by witnesses, in particular to see whether clinical signs and symptoms were consistent with witness statements and exposure to chemicals. Keith Ward, an independent expert on the detection and effects of chemical warfare agents, reviewed and assess information about clinical signs and symptoms witness statements, videos, and photos.

Human Rights Watch also obtained photos and videos of remnants of the munitions used in the attacks. Specialists in weapons identification and chemical weapons inside and outside the organization analyzed the remnants. Forensic Architecture, a group specializing in spatial analysis, created a model of a crater related to the Khan Sheikhoun attack from videos and photos, allowing for exact measurement of its size.

Human Rights Watch has not had access to Syrian government documentation or interviewed government or military officials.

I. Legal Framework: Chemical Weapons

Several international treaties prohibit the use of chemical weapons, including the 1899 Hague Declaration concerning Asphyxiating Gases, the 1925 Geneva Gas Protocol, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, and the 1998 Statute of the International Criminal Court. The International Committee of the Red Cross considers the prohibition a norm of customary international law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflict.[6]

The Chemical Weapons Convention, which entered into force in 1997, prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons, and requires their destruction. The prohibitions of the convention also apply to toxic chemicals, such as chlorine, when they are used as weapons. With 192 state parties, the Chemical Weapons Convention is the most universal weapon ban in international law. Only four member states of the UN are not parties: Egypt, Israel (signatory), North Korea, and South Sudan. Syria became a party to the convention in October 2013.[7]

The UN Security Council has condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria. After a UN investigation found that sarin had been used in the August 2013 attack in Ghouta near Damascus, the UN Security Council condemned in the strongest terms any use of chemical weapons in Syria and decided that “the Syrian Arab Republic shall not use, develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to other States or non-State actors.”[8] The UN Security Council also said that it would impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, in the event of non-compliance with the resolution, “including unauthorized transfer of chemical weapons, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic.”[9] The UN Security Council similarly condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria in subsequent resolutions.

Under customary international law and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, crimes against humanity are certain acts, including murder, and other inhumane acts of a similar character, intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury, committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population.

The Rome Statute defines an “attack against a civilian population” as a course of conduct involving the multiple commission of criminal acts such as murder or other possible crimes against humanity against any civilian population, pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack.[10]

The use of prohibited weapons with criminal intent, deliberately or recklessly, is a war crime.

II. Helicopter-Delivered Munitions

Human Rights Watch has documented repeated instances in which Syrian government helicopters dropped improvised munitions filled with chlorine since April 2014.[11] A Joint Investigative Mechanism between the UN and the OPCW also concluded, in a report published on October 21, 2016, that Syrian government forces had used chlorine as a weapon in three incidents in 2014 and 2015.[12] The investigation determined that helicopters from Syria’s 63rd helicopter brigade, operating from Hama and Hmeimim airbases, carried out the attacks.

During the final month of the battle for Aleppo in late 2016, government helicopters dropped chlorine-filled improvised munitions on at least eight occasions. The attacks appeared coordinated with the military strategy for retaking the city.[13] In addition to the eight attacks in Aleppo, Human Rights Watch documented two recent attacks in which government helicopters dropped chlorine-filled munitions. These attacks killed 12 civilians due to chlorine exposure, and injured hundreds.

Government forces have used several types of helicopter-delivered chlorine-filled improvised munitions. In some cases, the munitions consisted of oil barrels filled with a variety of chemical containers and explosives. In other cases, and more common recently, helicopters have dropped large, yellow-colored gas cylinders. Local residents often refer to the chlorine-filled improvised munitions dropped from helicopters as barrels or barrel bombs.

Pure chlorine is a pale, yellowish-green gas, and witnesses often report seeing an unusual “yellow smoke” at the attack site, which is consistent with the release of chlorine gas from the rupture of industrial compressed gas cylinders. Chlorine gas also has a distinct odor, which witnesses recognize as household cleaning products containing bleach as well as from frequent use of improvised chlorine munitions in Syria./p>

Mild exposure to chlorine causes reddening and itchiness of the eyes and difficulty seeing. More severe exposure leads to breathing difficulties and complaints of shortness of breath. Even higher levels of exposure can lead to vomiting, severe respiratory distress, uncontrollable coughing, and even suffocation, as the chemical injuries inflicted by the hydrochloric and hypochlorous acids produced from the dissolution of chlorine in the pulmonary airways result in severe buildup of fluid in the lungs. The sensation would be similar to that of drowning. High levels of chlorine exposure can be deadly.

Al-Lataminah, April 3

On April 3, 2017, a helicopter appears to have dropped at least one munition with chlorine on al-Lataminah, a town about 15 kilometers southwest of Khan Sheikhoun that used to have about 30,000 residents before the war, but now has many fewer, according to a local journalist, a first responder, and a local resident, each of whom Human Rights Watch interviewed, as well as a statement by the opposition-run Idlib Health Directorate.

Fayed al-Satouf, a local journalist in al-Lataminah, told Human Rights Watch that the sentries, a network of monitors tracking aircraft movement, reported a helicopter above al-Lataminah on the evening on April 3. Because he documents airstrikes, he said, he went out to follow it. Around 9:45 p.m., the helicopter dropped two barrels about 300 meters away from him, he said:

I could smell the chlorine gas. My chest felt tight, like I was suffocating. Also, my eyes started reacting like I was having an allergic reaction. And my body was shaking. The smell got stuck inside my nose all night. It was like I was breathing chlorine. It’s like what we use at home for cleaning toilets.[14]

A local resident who was close to the impact site also described smelling chlorine:

I got dizzy; my eyes started tearing, and my chest became heavy. I started choking, and then I collapsed. I don’t know what happened next, but I woke up in the hospital. I stayed sick for two days, coughing.[15]

Al-Satouf said that the chlorine exposure injured 12 people, including women and children. Munaf al-Saleh, the al-Lataminah head of Syria Civil Defense, a search and rescue group operating in territory controlled by armed groups fighting the government, also said that two chlorine barrels hit the village in the evening on April 3, injuring about 12 civilians.[16] During a filmed press conference, the director of the opposition-run Idlib Health Directorate said that the April 3 attack injured 22 people.[17]

Al-Saleh said that the barrels that landed on April 3 had a similar odor to those he found after the March 25 attack on al-Lataminah hospital (see below).

Al-Lataminah Hospital, March 25

On March 25, 2017, a helicopter dropped at least one improvised munition filled with chlorine on a makeshift hospital in al-Lataminah, a village in the northern Hama countryside, according to five witnesses whom Human Rights Watch interviewed, and photographs of remnants of munitions.

According to Dr. Mahmoud al-Mohammad, the manager of the hospital in al-Lataminah, because previous attacks had twice hit buildings used as hospitals in the village, they had moved the hospital to a building outside the village and reinforced the roof with steel covered by soil.

Dr. al-Mohammad, who said he arrived at the hospital shortly after the attack, told Human Rights Watch that the attack happened around 3 p.m. on March 25. A helicopter dropped two barrels, he said. One barrel with explosives fell about fifty meters from the hospital, the other hit the roof of the hospital.[18]

“Alaa,” the hospital anesthesiologist, told Human Rights Watch that he stepped out of the hospital to check on a patient who had just arrived with a head wound when an object crashed through the hospital’s roof: “Within two or three seconds, gas started spreading and caused suffocation among all medical staff. It had a yellow color. It caused tearing in the eyes, nose, and mouth.”[19]

“Bilal,” a nurse, said: “We were shocked when the barrel managed to pierce the reinforced roof. The smell of chlorine was very strong. Its color was yellow and voluminous. It wasn’t the first time we were hit with chlorine. So we knew what it was. But this time, the smell was stronger than usual.”[20]

Dr. al-Mohammad, the hospital manager, said that the attack killed three people due to chlorine exposure: Dr. Ali Darwish, the hospital’s orthopedic surgeon who was conducting a surgery at the time of the attack, the patient in surgery, and one first responder. The chlorine seriously injured Dr. Darwish’s assistant, who was still receiving treatment in Turkey as of April 8. In total, 32 people suffered medium to critical injuries due to the chlorine exposure.[21] Abd al-Munaf Faraj al-Saleh, the head of Syria Civil Defense in al-Lataminah, confirmed that the attack killed three people.[22]

A local journalist said he went to the hospital immediately after the attack and that there was a strong smell of chlorine when he arrived.[23] “Hatem,” a hospital employee, said that he did not hear any helicopter sound prior to the attack, but heard sentry reports over the radio that two helicopters were in the air nearby.[24]

Remnant of yellow gas cylinder that struck a make-shift hospital in al-Lataminah on March 25, 2017 according to a Syria Civil Defense member. 

© 2017 Abd al-Munaf Faraj al-Saleh

While witnesses gave different information as to how many gas cylinders struck the hospital and surrounding area, there are photos of at least two different cylinders. Munaf al-Saleh from Syria Civil Defense shared a photo of a deformed yellow gas cylinder that he said was the one that had hit the hospital roof.[25] A reverse image search indicated that the photo had not been published online anywhere before.

Thiqa News Agency, a pro-opposition news source, posted a video on YouTube of what it said was the hospital with a hole in the roof and a yellow gas cylinder in a pile of rubble.[26] Syria Civil Defense also posted photos on Twitter of a gas cylinder that they said fell near the hospital.[27] The cylinder that Thiqa News Agency and Syria Civil Defense posted online appears different from the one in the photo that al-Saleh provided, which could reflect the use of multiple cylinders.

The opposition-run Hama Health Directorate released a statement in the evening of March 25 saying that a barrel bomb containing chlorine gas had hit al-Lataminah hospital, killing Dr. Darwish.[28]

III. Warplane-Delivered Munitions

Human Rights Watch has documented four attacks since December 12, 2016, in which government warplanes appear to have carried out aerial attacks with nerve agents, a group of chemicals that includes sarin: on Jrouh and al-Salaliyah in eastern Hama governorate on December 12, 2016; near al-Lataminah village in Hama governorate on March 30; and on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib governorate on April 4. Human Rights Watch has identified 159 people who reportedly died in the four attacks from chemical exposure. Hundreds were injured.

Evidence shows that local residents were exposed to toxic chemicals. In all four attacks, witnesses, including medical personnel, described clinical signs and symptoms that indicate exposure to toxic chemicals. For two of the attacks, Human Rights Watch reviewed photos taken after the attack showing injured people with constricted pupils. In all four attacks, first responders and others trying to help said they began to manifest the clinical signs and symptoms of exposure to chemicals when they came near the impact sites. Such examples of “secondary exposure” are characteristic of the presence of a nerve agent, such as sarin. Some symptoms suggest that other toxic chemicals were present as well.

With regards to the Khan Sheikhoun attack, Turkish authorities have said that analysis of biomedical samples from four victims who received treatment in Turkey showed the presence of a degradation product of sarin. OPCW has said that analysis of biomedical samples from victims showed the presence of “sarin or sarin-like substances.”

The evidence regarding what toxic chemical was used is less conclusive for the December 12 attacks in eastern Hama. Many of the clinical signs and symptoms are consistent with exposure to nerve agents, including one doctor’s statement that he observed pinpoint pupils. The other witnesses, however, said that injured people had dilated, not constricted pupils. Dilated pupils can sometimes be seen when victims are exposed to high levels of nerve agents, depending upon the route of exposure, but it is not a common symptom.

The evidence also indicates that warplanes dropped the toxic chemicals. In all four cases, witnesses heard or saw warplanes in the vicinity immediately before the explosions. For each of the attacks, Human Rights Watch interviewed at least one witness who saw the warplane drop the suspected chemical bomb. In all four attacks, witnesses say they became sick immediately after the bombs impacted. In all four cases, some of the witnesses said that at least one explosion was less loud than the sound they normally hear from the use of explosive weapons, which would be consistent with the smaller detonation of the bursting charge in a chemical bomb.

For the Khan Sheikhoun attack, photos and videos of weapon remnants, posted online and provided to Human Rights Watch by local residents, as well as the identification of sarin as the chemical used, suggest that the Syrian warplane dropped a factory-made sarin bomb. According to open source material, the only Soviet-produced bombs designed specifically to deliver sarin are the KhAB-250 bomb, and its bigger version, the KhAB-500. The Syrian government’s use of such bombs would mean it retained some of its chemical weapons despite the UN Security Council’s demand and its obligation under the Chemical Weapons Convention to declare and destroy them. Human Rights Watch has not found photos of fragments from the other three attacks that would allow it to identify a weapon.

Human Rights Watch found no evidence to support claims by Syrian and Russian officials that a high-explosive bomb had struck a chemical weapons production facility or chemical weapons depot in the vicinity in the April 4 Khan Sheikhoun attack. Human Rights Watch also did not find evidence to support claims that armed groups on the ground had detonated a chemical weapon, causing the chemical exposure.

That government warplanes appear to have conducted chemical attacks on three different dates in four different locations undermines Syrian and Russian officials’ claims that the chemical exposure in Khan Sheikhoun was due to an airstrike hitting a chemical weapons production facility or depot on the ground. That, and the fact that ISIS controlled two of these locations and other groups fighting ISIS controlled the two others, makes it highly unlikely that an armed group staged the attacks.

Khan Sheikhoun, April 4

All evidence reviewed by Human Rights Watch suggests that a Syrian government warplane dropped a bomb with sarin on Khan Sheikhoun around 6:45 a.m. on April 4, 2017, killing at least 92 people and injuring hundreds. Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 witnesses of the Khan Sheikhoun attack, eight in person in Turkey, and the rest by telephone. Human Rights Watch also reviewed satellite imagery; photos and videos of the victims, the impact site, weapon remnants, and the immediate aftermath of the attack; and information about aircraft movements.

Khan Sheikhoun, a town in southern Idlib, has been under the control of armed groups fighting the government since 2012. Local residents estimated that there were about 60,000 people in the town at the time of the attack, many of them displaced from other places due to the war.

The Khan Sheikhoun attack and chemical attacks on and near al-Lataminah took place in the context of heavy fighting near Hama city, about 20 kilometers south of al-Lataminah and 35 kilometers south of Khan Sheikhoun. On March 21, armed groups led by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham launched an offensive against government positions near Hama. Over the next several days, the anti-government forces made significant advances, coming within three kilometers of the city and threatening the Hama Military Airport. By the time of the Khan Sheikhoun attack, the battle was still raging back and forth.

Local residents told Human Rights Watch that they heard or saw a warplane fly over Khan Sheikhoun early in the morning on April 4. Several witnesses said that the warplane flew over the town twice, dropping a chemical bomb the first time and explosive bombs the second time.

Ahmad al-Helou, who was tending the fields that morning, told Human Rights Watch that he looked up when he saw a shadow on the ground and saw a plane fly towards Khan Sheikhoun from the east.Al-Helou said that because of his high vantage point he saw the plane drop a bomb and the bomb falling until it hit the ground. The bomb fell in front of the bakery, he said. Al-Helou said that he did not hear an explosion, but that he saw the bomb kick up yellowish smoke that spread in the prevailing wind.[29]

Other witnesses gave similar accounts. Ismail Raslan, a Syria Civil Defense member who lived about 100 meters from the bakery, told Human Rights Watch that he heard a warplane fly over some time after 6:30 a.m. He told Human Rights Watch: “I heard the wind and the roar from a bomb falling, but there was no explosion, just a thump. I thought that it either fell far away or failed to explode. I looked out from the balcony and was surprised to see white dust in the air.”[30]

Adham al-Hussein, a local journalist, told Human Rights Watch that he woke up when sentries and the Syria Civil Defense reported over the radio network that a warplane was heading north from the Shayrat airbase in Homs. At 6:37 a.m., he said, he heard the warplane fly over Khan Sheikhoun. He went to the roof of his building where he saw the plane fly away towards the north. Over the radio, one of the sentries said that the warplane had not attacked because there was no explosion, but al-Hussein could see white smoke over the northern neighborhood. From his roof, al-Hussein filmed the smoke, which he showed to Human Rights Watch.[31]

Raslan, the Syria Civil Defense member, said that he was reporting that there had been no explosion to the civil defense center when he saw a child in the street. “He ran ten meters, then collapsed. He got up, trying to run, but collapsed again,” said Raslan, who then asked the civil defense center to send an ambulance.[32]

A Syria Civil Defense member at the base confirmed that they heard no explosions during the first fly-over, but that a colleague had called for an ambulance: “We got a call from one of our colleagues living in the northern neighborhood who asked us to send ambulances because there were unconscious people on the ground. We were surprised because we had not heard any explosions.” He said that they immediately sent a team to the area.[33] Mohammad Juneid, a Syria Civil Defense member who was on the team, confirmed that they were dispatched to the northern neighborhood immediately after the first fly-over.[34] Al-Hussein also said there were radio reports of injured after the first fly-over.[35]

A few minutes after the first attack, and while the Syria Civil Defense team was on its way to the northern neighborhood, a plane flew over Khan Sheikhoun in the same direction,from east to west, witnesses said. It is not clear whether it was the same plane. This time, the plane dropped three or four high explosive bombs on the town.

Composite of screenshots from video of the immediate aftermath of the attack during the second fly-over showing four smoke columns. Bellingcat, a group specializing in analyzing information posted online, including videos and photographs, has concluded that the video was filmed from a location to the north of Khan Sheikhoun. 

© 2017 Mohammad Saloum/Bellingcat

Al-Hussein said that the plane dropped two bombs in the northern neighborhood, both to the west of the bakery. These two bombs created loud explosions. The plane then dropped another bomb about one kilometer from the others, near the market area. He filmed plumes of smoke from the three strikes during the second fly-over, which he showed to Human Rights Watch.[36]

The Syria Civil Defense member said: “The second attack was with three or four vacuum bombs, which we can tell because the explosions were so strong. We’re not sure [if it was three or four bombs] because they fell almost at the same time. They could be heard all over, and shook the city.” Mohammad Saloum, a local journalist, filmed the immediate aftermath of the second fly-over and posted a video on YouTube showing four smoke columns rising from Khan Sheikhoun.[37]

Through interviews with local residents, and analysis of photographs and video footage posted on the internet and provided by local residents and satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch identified three impact sites in the northern neighborhood: in the middle of a paved road close to the central bakery (“Impact Site 1”); the house of the al-Omar family (“Impact Site 2”), about 240 meters southwest; and near Mustafa al-Youssef’s house (“Impact Site 3”), another 100 meters southwest. All three sites are visible on satellite imagery from April 6.

Information about aircraft movements corroborate claims that a warplane flew over Khan Sheikhoun twice. Human Rights Watch reviewed an audio recording of a sentry message, which said a warplane took off from the Shayrat airbase at 6:26 a.m.[38] In addition, the US government released a map that it says plots the flight path of a Syrian warplane that took off from the Shayrat airbase and flew over Khan Sheikhoun at two different times, 6:37 and 6:46 a.m.[39]

Many local residents said that they woke up or became aware of the attacks only when they heard the loud explosions after the second fly-over. Many said they immediately felt sick. A young teacher who lived about 300 meters from the bakery told Human Rights Watch that she woke up from the sound of a loud explosion that blew the windows in her house open:

It felt like the air had weight. It got harder to breath; tears were running down our faces, and our eyes were burning. My son, who is one year and ten months, was running around. I couldn’t see because of the tears. He was screaming “mom, dad!”[40]

Fatima Abdel-Latif al-Youssef, who lived about 100 meters west of bakery, said:

My cousin went to the balcony. She is 16, and she was choking. I tried to help her. We poured water on her but she passed out. My aunt passed out. At that point I also passed out, but I came to later. My uncle's wife, who lives in the same building, knocked on the door of the apartment. She said, “let me in, help me!” I tried to drag her in, but I couldn’t carry her because I am small and she was heavy. I left her on the floor by the door to go up to the second floor, to get my uncle to come and help me…[He] went down to help her, but he never came back.[41]

Fatima and her cousin, who lived in the same home, said that seven people in the house died during the attack due to chemical exposure, including Fatima’s uncle, Abdul Kareem al-Youssef; his wife; Fatima’s uncle, Yasser al-Youssef; his wife, Sanaa Haj Ali; two of their children Mohamed, 10, and Ammar, 7, and Fatima’s cousin Shaimaa Ibrahim al-Jawhar, 16[42]

A doctor at a hospital that received many of the injured said that the symptoms included constriction of the pupils, trembling, sweating, extreme respiratory excretions, foaming of the mouth, and pale skin color.[43]

First responders and people trying to evacuate victims said that many suffered the same symptoms. Raslan, the Syria Civil Defense member who lived near the bakery, said that he eventually lost consciousness: “My chest got tight, and I had no breath left. I wanted to stand up but couldn’t. Then I lost consciousness. I did not wake up until 11 hours later in the hospital.”[44]

Abdelaziz al-Youssef, who said he arrived near the bakery to help his relatives five minutes after the attacks, said:

People were trying to flee, moving into basements. But as they walked, they collapsed. And those who came to their help collapsed as well. The gas spread up to 500 or 600 meters. Casualties were not only in the place that was hit. There were martyrs over the entire neighborhood. Those who stayed asleep did not wake up. Those who were in basements suffocated and died. Those who woke up and went out were affected. I swear, those who survived can’t describe what happened. It was like Judgment Day — people were collapsing everywhere.[45]

Seeing that the bombs had hit his neighborhood, al-Helou, the witness who saw the bomb land in front of the bakery, at Impact Site 1, went there to see what had happened:

People had blood and foam coming out of their mouths, and there was a strong smell. The smell was really disgusting, but I am not able to compare it to anything else. We helped one person and then another, but then we passed out as well. I don’t know what happened next. I woke up in the hospital.[46]

Members of the Syria Civil Defense team that responded to reports of injured after the first fly-over were also injured. Juneid, one of the team members, said that they started to suspect the use of chemicals when they found a man unconscious in his car on their way towards the bakery, near Impact Site 1. They decided to return to the base to get protective equipment. On the way, they saw a woman in the street: “Blood was coming from her mouth. As I tried to pull her up, I started shaking. I couldn’t see anymore, and then I lost consciousness. I woke up in the civil defense center.”[47] A civil defense member at the base confirmed: “One of the volunteers called me saying ‘I’m sleepy. I’m losing consciousness. I don’t know what they hit us with.’ And then we lost connection.”[48]

Clinical signs and symptoms that witnesses described, especially constricted pupils, indicate exposure to a nerve agent. Recep Akdağ, the Turkish minister of health, said that analysis of blood and urine samples from four victims who received treatment in Turkey showed the presence of isopropyl methylphosphonic acid, a degradation product of sarin.[49] Referring to victims of the Khan Sheikhoun attack, the OPCW said that four different OPCW-designated hospitals analyzed bio-medical samples from three victims during their autopsies and from seven individuals undergoing treatment, and that the results indicated exposure to “sarin or a sarin-like substance.”[50]

Witnesses consistently said that those affected by chemical exposure were in the northern neighborhood and that those exhibiting the strongest symptoms were located near the bakery, or Impact Site 1. This is also consistent with al-Hussein’s account. He said that he saw smoke in the northern neighborhood after the first fly-over. When he heard that people had been injured, he immediately went to help. As he was moving towards the bakery, near Impact Site 1, he helped several people along the way who were shaking, had trouble breathing, and had foam coming from their mouths. About 20 minutes after the first attack, he said, he was around 200 meters from the bakery at Impact Site 1: “It looked like it was winter, there was so much fog. The gas was one or two meters high, all over the place.”[51]

Human Rights Watch has reviewed dozens of photos and videos of the crater at Impact Site 1 posted online and provided directly to Human Rights Watch by people who took them. Syria Civil Defense in Idlib posted online some of the first photos of the crater shortly after noon on April 4.[52] Human Rights Watch reviewed the original photos and interviewed the photographer. Based on landmarks visible in the photos and videos, Bellingcat geolocated the crater, showing that it was located near the central bakery in northern Khan Sheikhoun.[53] Satellite imagery confirms that a crater appeared in that location between February 21, the date of the most recent available reference image, and April 6, the first available satellite image after the attack. A reverse image search shows that none of the photos were posted online before April 4.

These photos and videos show that the crater contained two objects that are likely remnants of the weapon that was used: a twisted thin metal fragment with green paint and a smaller circular metal object. The first photos, taken a few hours after the attack, show the twisted metal remnant sticking up from the crater, but most of the crater is not visible

because the photo is taken from a distance. A second set of photos, taken closer to the crater in the early afternoon, show more of the crater, including the circular object.

The Soviet Union produced several types of chemical bombs for warplanes. According to open source materials, two Soviet-produced bombs were specifically designed to deploy sarin: the KhAB-250, which can contain 44.1 kilograms of sarin, and the KhAB-500, which can contain 177.1 kilograms of sarin. The KhAB-250 bomb also has a filler hole in its body through which the sarin is loaded into the bomb prior to use. Open-source reference materials on Syria’s arsenal do not list Soviet-produced chemical bombs, but they are often not complete.

Photos of the KhAB-250 posted on VKontakte, a Russian social media platform, show that the bomb has two green-colored painted bands. Green coloring is widely used on factory-produced weapons to signify that they are chemical. These green bands appear consistent with the green paint on the remnant in the crater at Impact Site 1, seen in photographs provided to Human Rights Watch. The circular object in these photos appears similar to the cap for the filler hole on the body of a KhAB-250 bomb.[54] Human Rights Watch has not found any reference photos of the KhAB-500.

In a chemical bomb, an explosive charge busts open the body of the bomb and disperses the chemical as an aerosol cloud, either upon impact or in the air. The ideal explosive charge would be large enough to disperse most of the chemical, but not so large that the heat from the explosion would degrade the chemical. A small explosive charge means that significant remnants of a chemical bomb, including the tail fin, should survive and be found near the impact site.  While Human Rights Watch has not seen photos or videos of larger pieces of remnants from the Khan Sheikhoun attack, photos of the two remnants in the crater at Impact Site 1 appear to be consistent with the characteristics of the KhAB-250.

The first photos taken of the crater at Impact Site 1 a few hours after the attack also appear to show liquid on the asphalt around the crater. Several witnesses described it as a black, oily substance. Such liquid is consistent with the use of a sarin bomb, as some of the sarin, which is a liquid, will fail to turn into aerosol and vapor.[55]

Based on photos and videos, Forensic Architecture, an organization specializing in spatial analysis, created a three-dimensional model of the crater. Based on the model, the organization calculated that the crater was about 1.60 centimeters wide and 0.42 centimeters deep. Since there is no public information about how much explosive is contained in the bursting charge for KhAB-250 and KhAB-500 bombs, it is not possible to assess whether the size of the crater is consistent with the use of these bombs. The lack of blast and fragmentation damage on nearby objects as shown in the photos and videos is consistent with the use of a low-blast, non-fragmenting munition like a chemical bomb.

Chemical exposure from the attack killed at least 89 people, including 33 children and 19 women, and injured 541, according to the opposition-run Idlib Health Directorate, which published a list of the names.[56] Human Rights Watch confirmed 35 of them through interviews with local residents and family members of the dead. A few people appear to have died from blast and fragmentation injuries from the attacks during the second fly-over. Raslan, the Syria Civil Defense member, said that the attacks with explosive weapons killed his neighbor, the neighbor’s son, and the 15-year-old boy he had tried to help.[57]

Two Syrian organizations compiled a list of 103 people who had died, but it is not clear from the report whether all died from chemical exposure.[58] Local residents, first responders, and medical personnel confirmed that the vast majority of casualties in the morning attacks were killed and injured by chemical exposure.

Many of the dead belonged to the same families. Members of the al-Youssef family said 25 of their family members who lived in houses near Impact Site 1 died due to chemical exposure.[59] Local residents also said that the victims were civilians, and that armed groups did not have any bases in the town, but Human Rights Watch cannot exclude the possibility that some of the victims were members of armed groups.

Two theories have been presented to provide an alternative explanation to the allegation that a Syrian government warplane dropped a chemical bomb in Khan Sheikhoun: that an explosive bomb hit a chemical weapons production facility or depot in a warehouse; or that armed groups detonated a chemical weapon on the ground. Human Rights Watch has not found any evidence to support either theory.

Both Russian and Syrian officials have claimed that the chemical exposure occurred because a Syrian airstrike hit an armed group’s weapons depot that contained chemical bombs. On April 7, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem, said that Syrian forces had not used chemical weapons and that a Syrian airstrike around 11:30 a.m. on April 4 had hit an ammunition depot belonging to an armed group, causing the chemical exposure.[60] A Russian military official gave a similar account, saying that the airstrike took place between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.[61] But there is overwhelming evidence to show that local residents started exhibiting signs and symptoms of chemical exposure several hours earlier, which means that the 11:30 a.m. attacks that Syrian and Russian officials cited cannot explain the chemical exposure.

Human Rights Watch also investigated whether the strikes at Impact Sites 2 and 3 could have dispersed the chemical. Local residents who visited the impact sites said that there were no signs that any chemicals had been stored near the sites. Mohammad Saloum, a local journalist who examined Impact Site 2, the house that was struck closest to Impact Site 1, said: “There were three rooms containing pillows and carpets for sleep. There was nothing else inside. It looked like any other house.”[62]

Satellite imagery shows damage to a warehouse and a grain silo near the bakery, but local residents said they were struck before April 4. Photographs of the warehouse that were taken after the April 4 attack show that large sections of the walls are open, allowing people to see inside. Local residents said that the warehouse had been empty and out of use for months except as a volleyball court. A journalist for the Guardian who visited the warehouse said that he found a volleyball net there, which he filmed.[63] Local residents said that they did not know about any chemicals being stored anywhere in the neighborhood.

Al-Lataminah, March 30

On March 30, 2017, a warplane attacked the outskirts of al-Lataminah, according to four witnesses. Information from the four witnesses, including medical personnel, and photos and videos of the injured indicate that a nerve agent was used in the attack. The Syrian American Medical Society said that its affiliated hospitals in the area treated 169 people for injuries due to chemical exposure, but that there were no fatalities.[64] One of the witnesses said that the majority of those injured were members of armed groups, but that civilians in the area were injured as well.

The local residents said that aircraft from the Syrian-Russian coalition had carried out multiple aerial attacks in the area, including near al-Lataminah.

Anwar Rahmoun, a farmer who lives on the outskirts of al-Lataminah, told Human Rights Watch that people in his area were on their way to work sometime after 6 a.m. when the attack happened. A warplane dropped two bombs that landed about 100 meters away. The first was not very loud, but the second shook the whole area.

He said he saw a neighbor’s 15-year-old son collapse when he went outside. As Rahmoun ran to the car, he saw another relative collapse. Rahmoun soon started feeling the symptoms as well:

It felt like I was being drugged. I was running, my legs were touching the ground, but I could no longer feel them. Eventually I collapsed and lost consciousness. My brother-in-law said that they had to remove a lot of foam from all over my face when they found me. They took me to a hospital, thinking I was dead, but thankfully I regained consciousness seven hours later.[65]

Abd al-Munaf Faraj al-Saleh, a first responder working for Syria Civil Defense, said that they were watching warplanes flying above al-Lataminah when the attack took place about 700 meters away at about 6:30 a.m. on March 30. He rushed to the scene:

When we got there, people were suffocating, some critically. They were trembling, had extreme difficulty breathing, redness in their eyes; some had foam coming out of their mouth. People were going unconscious. Some of them started hallucinating, saying weird things, when they got to the hospital. The chemicals in the missiles had a very mild smell but a strong effect.[66]

He said that he had not seen helicopters in the air at the time of the attack. He also said that they could only find very small pieces of the munition on the ground. He did not take photos of the remnants.

Dr. Mahmoud al-Mohamad, a doctor at al-Lataminah hospital, said that the hospital started receiving people injured in the attack in the morning on March 30. The symptoms were different from those they had observed from previous attacks with chlorine:

At first, we didn’t know what it was. There was no chlorine smell. The injured had pinpoint pupils, extreme foaming from the mouth, in an unsteady condition, with muscle cramps, shivers and shaking. Most of them were unconscious. Some people’s hearts had slowed down to the point where we thought they were dead.[67]

The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) provided a photo that it said was of one of those injured in the March 30 attack on al-Lataminah. The photo shows that the man has severely constricted (“pinpoint”) pupils.

Severely constricted (“pinpoint”) pupil of a man injured in attack near al-Lataminah on March 30 according to the Syrian American Medical Society. 

© 2017 SAMS

SAMS, which runs two hospitals in the area and supports two others, said that their hospitals had treated 169 people injured due to chemical exposure in the attack, including seven medical staff and two ambulance workers who suffered from secondary exposure. The group said that nobody had died in their hospitals, but that four people had been placed in the intensive care unit.[68] On April 11, Rahmoun said that his neighbor’s son was still unconscious and connected to a breathing machine. The doctor said that both civilians and combatants were among the injured, and that one was a woman.

Human Rights Watch interviewed the four local residents from al-Lataminah by phone between April 8 and 11, after the Khan Sheikhoun attack. However, local residents and medical personnel described clinical signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to a nerve agent in media interviews and statements before the Khan Sheikhoun attack on April 4. The opposition-run Hama Health Directorate issued a statement about the attack on March 31, noting that the injured had symptoms such as pinpoint pupils, suffocation and nausea, muscle cramps, and loss of consciousness.[69] Medical personnel and victims made similar claims in filmed interviews posted on YouTube. In a video published by the opposition-run Idlib Health Directorate on April 1, two injured people say that they started experiencing the symptoms after a warplane attacked their area.[70]

Villages in Uqayribat Subdistrict, December 11-12, 2016

In several posts on its Facebook page on December 11 and 12, 2016, the Syrian Revolution Coordination Committee (SRCC) in Eastern Hama reported that warplanes had carried out chemical attacks in five villages in the Uqayribat subdistrict in eastern Hama, about 40 kilometers east of Salamiyah.[71] Human Rights Watch interviewed four witnesses of attacks on two of the villages, Jrouh and al-Salaliyah. The witnesses said that warplanes had attacked the villages, described clinical signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals, and identified 67 local residents who died from chemical exposure after the attacks. Human Rights Watch also communicated indirectly with two medical personnel via messages sent to intermediaries, a local activist and a medical charity worker, who provided similar accounts.

Uqayribat is a subdistrict in eastern Hama with about 21,000 people. About 2,500 people live in Jrouh, and 250 in al-Salaliyah, which is about five kilometers from Jrouh. The Dawood Brigade, which controls the area, declared its allegiance to ISIS in December 2013.

The attacks in Uqayribat took place in the context of an ISIS military offensive in the region. On December 8, ISIS launched an attack on government forces in Huwaysis, a village about 30 kilometers southeast of Uqayribat, from the direction of Uqayribat.[72] After heavy fighting, ISIS took control of Palmyra city about 60 kilometers further south on December 11. The battle then moved to the Tiyas airbase, about 50 kilometers west of Palmyra. Syrian pro-government media had previously reported that Russian and Syrian warplanes had been targeting ISIS along the highway from Uqayribat to Palmyra.[73]

Because ISIS controls the area and monitors communication, it has been difficult to reach witnesses. The witnesses Human Rights Watch interviewed said that it had not been possible to take photos. One local resident said: “We didn’t take any photos. If you take photos, ISIS will kill you.”[74] Human Rights Watch interviewed three of the witnesses after they left ISIS-controlled territory, and communicated indirectly with the two medical personnel in December and January, before the Khan Sheikhoun attack.

The witnesses believed that Russian or Syrian warplanes carried out the attacks because there had been aerial attacks in the area in the days before and after the attack, including attacks using cluster munitions and barrel bombs, weapons that only the Syrian-Russian coalition have used in Syria. All attacks listed in the December 11 and 12 daily reports from the US-led international coalition fighting ISIS were far from Uqayribat.

The three residents and two medical personnel from Jrouh said that a munition struck the street near the roundabout in the village around 7 a.m. in the morning on December 12.

“Salim,” a Jrouh resident, said that he went to nearby olive groves that morning when he heard the sound of a warplane because he was afraid of hiding in the underground shelter in his home. From the olive groves, he said he saw the plane attacking the village. When he went back to his house 30 minutes later, after the plane left, he found that a munition had hit the roundabout in front of his house. He said he found his wife, three children, brother, brother’s wife, and brother’s three children dead in the basement of their house, where they had sought shelter.[75]

“Salim” said that the attack also killed his neighbors, his uncle, and the families of his uncle’s two sons. “Everyone within 100 meters died,” he said. “There was no one else left.” “Salim” buried his family in the village and left the same day.

“Khaled,” also from Jrouh, gave a similar account. He said he was at home around 7:30 a.m. on December 12 when he heard somebody shouting that his family had died. He ran out and followed the man to a house about 80 meters northeast of the roundabout. He said that they found 70-year-old Abd al-Razak al-Hussein, his wife, and their two sons unconscious in the house. They took the four to the hospital. “Khaled” said that al-Hussein and his wife died, while their two sons survived. He then ran to a home about 25 meters south of the roundabout, where the al-Mhawesh and al-Hassan families had sought shelter in the basement. They all were dead.[76]

A SRCC member provided Human Rights Watch with the names of 25 people, including 9 children, who died in Jrouh due to chemical exposure. “Salim” and “Khaled” confirmed many of the names. A relative who was not in the area at the time of the attacks provided photos and names of 15 people killed in the attack.[77] SRCC posted photos of at least eight young children, apparently lifeless, some of whom had foam around their noses, saying that they had died in the attack.[78]

Human Rights Watch also interviewed “Abu Ali,” who said he witnessed a similar attack with two munitions in al-Salaliyah, one kilometer from al-Khdera, where he lived, at approximately 7:30 a.m. on December 12. The explosion from the first munition was loud and created black smoke, while the explosion from the second, about 10 minutes later, was more subdued. He said he drove to the second impact site, which was near caves where people from the village had sought shelter from the attacks: “I entered one of the caves. There were about 20 people in it. A lot of them were unconscious, some vomited, and they were weak. Most of them were women and children. Some of the injured completely lost their sight after the attack.”[79]

“Abu Ali” said that the attack killed 42 people in al-Salaliyah due to chemical exposure. Most of the people who died had been hiding in two caves. A woman from the village provided Human Rights Watch with a list of 41 people who died in the attack.Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently verify the names or the death toll.

A local activist passed on questions from Human Rights Watch to a medic in Jrouh in December who corroborated “Abu Ali’s” account about the attack in al-Salaliyah, saying that the hospital in Jrouh, which had been treating victims from the Jrouh attack, eventually also received injured from al-Salaliyah: “At first, nobody knew about this attack. We were too busy treating the injured in Jrouh. And almost all the remaining people in the village had been poisoned. A few hours later we started receiving injured people from there as well.”

The six witnesses in both Jrouh and al-Salaliyah described similar clinical signs and symptoms that they observed in people near the impact sites. The medic in Jrouh said that he arrived at the impact site five minutes after the attack. Several people were in the street, exhibiting symptoms including convulsions, shortness of breath, hysteria, red eyes, swollen faces, and foaming and bleeding from the mouth.

Four of the witnesses said that they experienced symptoms as well. “Khaled” described how he felt by the time he got to al-Hassan’s house in Jrouh:

When I arrived at the door, I could not stand, I could not breathe, and I could not see anything. Somebody helped me walk away because I couldn’t walk on my own. I began to vomit. My body was hot and cold at the same time. Somebody took me to the hospital where I stayed for five days, vomiting all the time.[80]

“Salim” also described his symptoms: “My eyes were swollen. My chest hurt, and I was coughing. My head hurt, and I became dizzy. I threw up. The doctor said my pupils got big – they filled the whole eye.”[81] Abu Ali said: “Afterward, I started vomiting and my head started hurting as well. Almost everybody who helped transport the injured got sick.”[82]

Four of the witnesses said that they or the people they saw experienced dilated pupils. While dilated pupils are not a common symptom of exposure to a nerve agent, it can be seen occasionally, depending upon the degree and route of exposure. One doctor said that the injured exhibited constricted pupils, a symptom of exposure from a nerve agent.

The witnesses differed in their description of the odor at the sites and whether there was any visible smoke. Some said that they saw yellow or white smoke, but others did not. Some also said that there was a strong odor, although they could not describe it, while others said that they could not detect any. All said that they saw dead animals such as cattle and cats after the attack.

Human Rights Watch has not seen any photos of remnants used in the attacks.

IV. Ground-Launched Munitions

Since at least January 30, 2017, photos and videos of weapon remnants and information from witnesses show that government forces have used improvised ground-launched rockets filled with chlorine on territory near Damascus controlled by armed groups fighting the government on at least six occasions in four different areas. While several of the attacks injured members of armed groups near the frontlines, witnesses said that all of the injured in at least two attacks – 79 people in total – were civilians.

These attacks took place in the context of the government’s renewed offensive to wrest control from armed groups. In Wadi Barada, northwest of Damascus, a January 8 attack took place after government forces launched a military offensive on December 23. In eastern Ghouta and the adjacent eastern part of Damascus, multiple attacks took place before and after government forces launched a military offensive on February 18.[83] Eastern Ghouta, together with western Ghouta, was the site of the 2013 chemical attack that led to Syria joining the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroying its declared chemical weapons stockpile and program.

For the six attacks listed below, Human Rights Watch interviewed witnesses who described a distinctive odor and the clinical signs and symptoms consistent with use of chlorine, and said that government ground forces had fired the chlorine munitions. For two of these attacks, Human Rights Watch reviewed photos and videos of remnants of the weapons allegedly used in the attacks that were posted online and provided by local residents. Videos and photos from a seventh attack show similar remnants, but Human Rights Watch was not able to interview witnesses to this attack.[84]

The photos and videos of the remnants show deformed gas cylinders and rocket remnants, indicating a type of weapon sometimes referred to as a lob bomb or improvised rocket assisted munition (IRAM). An IRAM is an improvised device made from a large metal canister, often a propane gas tank, placed on top of a rocket. In Iraq, where the device has been used since 2007, insurgents filled the canister with explosives, scrap metal, and ball bearings.[85] Because they are pressurized gas canisters, they can also contain chemical products.

Analyzing photos of remnants from a January 30 attack in Marj al-Sultan posted online, Bellingcat identified them as Iranian-made 107mm rockets, typically launched from a Type-63 multiple rocket launcher, a system that both government forces and armed groups fighting the government have used in Syria.[86] The design of the weapon indicates that it has a relatively short range and is highly inaccurate. The relatively short range is consistent with the fact that most attacks near Damascus have taken place close to frontlines.

The IRAMs recently reported as used in eastern Ghouta are similar to weapons used in the 2013 sarin attack on Ghouta, but smaller.

Qaboun, March 29 and April 7

On March 29 and April 7, 2017, ground-launched improvised rockets with chlorine struck the Qaboun neighborhood in eastern Damascus, injuring dozens, according to a doctor, a first responder, and a local journalist, as well as photos of weapon remnants they shared with Human Rights Watch.

Obeida Abu Omar, a member of the Syria Civil Defense, said that he was on his way to the civil defense center around 5 p.m. on March 29 when he heard that there had been a chlorine attack in Qaboun. He was there five minutes later and said: “When I arrived, I could smell the gas. The chlorine smell was clear, very clear. It was all over.”

Abu Omar and his team found several injured people in the area, whom they helped to the hospital. He described their symptoms:

They included suffocation, difficulty breathing, extreme coughing, and liquid dripping from the nose. No one was unconscious but they were dizzy. The last one I found was fifteen minutes later. At that point, I started getting sick myself: suffocation, difficulty breathing, and dizziness.[87]

Dr. Nizar al-Madani, who works in a hospital in Qaboun, said that the hospital received about 35 injured people around 5 p.m. on March 29 who suffered from chemical exposure. He said that the attack took place not far from the hospital. “The odor even reached the hospital. There was a clear odor from the injured people’s clothes. It smelled like chlorine. We know it well. When it’s concentrated, it causes suffocation. They use it in cleaning products and in pools.”[88]

Both Abu Omar and Dr. al-Madani said that the area attacked on March 29 was residential and those injured were civilians; Abu Omar said there were no armed groups present in the area.

Deformed gas cylinder that a Syria Civil Defense member said was found at the site of a March 29 attack in the Qaboun neighborhood in eastern Damascus, which is controlled by armed groups fighting the government.

© 2017 Obeida Abu Omar

Both Abu Omar and Dr. al-Madani said that another attack happened on April 7 around 2 p.m. on the border between the Qaboun and Tishreen neighborhoods. Both said that the area hit had been largely destroyed in previous attacks and that few people still lived there. Dr. al-Madani said that the hospital received two people injured in the attack. The two injured told Dr. al-Madani that they were seeking shelter in a basement when gas started seeping in and they started suffocating. By the time they got to the hospital there was a clear chlorine odor coming from their clothes.[89] Dr. al-Madani and Abu Omar said that they did not know whether the injured were civilians or combatants. A video posted on YouTube claims to show the two men receiving treatment.[90] Abu Omar said there was noindication that the two people injured on April 7 were fighters, but he is not sure that they were civilians.A local journalist went to the site of the April 7 attack the following day. “Even the day after the attack, the odor made me dizzy,” he said.[91]

Dr. al-Madani described the clinical signs and symptoms of the patients: “In both instances, there were clear respiratory symptoms: extreme coughing, difficulty breathing, drooling from the nose, tearing in the eyes, and headaches. At some points, the lack of oxygen would cause shaking.”[92]

Abu Omar said that he did not see or hear aircraft flying in the air at the time of the March 29 attack.[93] He shared with Human Rights Watch photographs of remnants of the munition that he found at the impact site.[94] The photos show a gas cylinder deformed by impact, which is consistent with other chemical IRAM remnants. Human Rights Watch was not able to verify what munition was used on April 7.

Irbin, February 9 and 10

On February 9 and 10, 2017, at least six members of an armed group were injured from exposure to chlorine, according to a hospital employee. In a filmed interview, a member of the armed group gave a similar account.

An employee at Irbin hospital said the hospital received three injured people around 7 a.m. on February 9: “They were unable to breathe, suffocating, and shaking uncontrollably. All they wanted was to get air. It was like their eyes were about to pop out. One of them was in critical condition and did not regain consciousness until the evening.”[95] The hospital employee said that another man had apparently fallen into a fire when the attack happened and arrived at the hospital with severe burns and later died from the wounds. The hospital employee said that the hospital received three more injured people around 4:30 p.m. on February 10 with similar, but milder injuries.

Several videos posted on YouTube claim to show two or three people receiving oxygen in the Irbin hospital following the attack.[96] In a video posted on YouTube on February 10, a fighter from the Faylaq al-Rahman Brigade says that an attack with poisonous gas injured three and killed one, but does not specify whether it was ground-launched or dropped from the air. The title of the video indicates that the injured and killed were fighters.[97]

The hospital employee said that the injured told him that the attacks took place near the Ghubair mosque, near the frontlines, and that the munitions were ground-launched. He said that the injured in both cases were members of an armed group.[98]

Human Rights Watch has not been able to locate photos or videos of the remnants from these attacks.

Marj al-Sultan, January 30

A member of the al-Marj media office told Human Rights Watch that 12 rockets containing chlorine gas hit al-Neshabiyeh village around 2 p.m. January 30, injuring eleven, two of them critically. He said local residents had given him the information when he visited the site after the attack.[99]

He said he saw two rockets, one that had been excavated and one that was still buried in the ground. The rockets had hit farming land within the village. He said he could still smell the chlorine when he visited.[100]

The al-Marj media office posted a video on YouTube of a man showing weapon remnants, explaining four rockets hit an area with civilians, injuring ten. Seven or eight rockets hit the frontline.[101] The media office also posted three photos of the same weapon remnants on its Facebook page.

The Unified Medical Office of Eastern Ghouta published a statement on January 31 saying that the hospital in al-Marj treated eleven people injured by chemical exposure, three of whom were in critical condition. It said symptoms included extreme difficulty breathing, foaming at the mouth, and pinpoint pupils.[102]

Basimah village, Wadi Barada, January 8 and 9

Three local residents, including a nurse, said dozens of civilians in Basimah village in the Wadi Barada valley were injured from exposure to chlorine after three attacks on January 8 and 9, 2017.

On December 23, pro-government forces launched a military offensive against territory held by armed groups fighting the government in the Wadi Barada valley.[103] At the time of the attack, pro-government forces were stationed on mountains around the village, according to the three witnesses said. Pro-government forces captured Basimah village on January 13 and established control over the entire valley on January 30.[104]

The three witnesses gave different accounts as to when the attacks happened on January 8 and 9. One said that the first attack happened in the morning on January 8, another said it happened in the afternoon. However, all three witnesses said that they smelled chlorine and described clinical signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine gas. Ali Nasrallah, who was the head of the media council in Wadi Barada, said that the first attack on January 8 struck the Hasra neighborhood, a residential area with no fighters:

I went out as soon as I heard the explosion. People were shouting: Careful, it is chlorine gas! I ran to the underground shelter. There were between 10 and 15 civilians there with breathing problems. We wanted to take the injured to a higher place, but we couldn’t. The people were really, really scared.[105]

Nasrallah said that there was a strong odor of chlorine in the area and that he saw yellow smoke in the area.[106]

A nurse at the Basimah medical point, also named Ali Nasrallah, told Human Rights Watch that he could smell chlorine on the injured people’s clothes. He said the injured suffered from suffocation, irritation of the eyes, nausea, and vomiting. Nasrallah said the medical staff treated 46 people who were injured in the attacks due to chemical exposure.[107]

V. Acknowledgments

This report was written by Ole Solvang, deputy director of the Emergencies Division at Human Rights Watch and researched by Lama Fakih, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Division, Charbel Salloum, research assistant of the Middle East and North Africa Division, Solvang, and Priyanka Motaparthy, senior researcher of the Emergencies Division. Interns in the Middle East and North Africa Division and the Emergencies Division provided support. The report was edited by Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa Division. Clive Baldwin and Iain Levine provided legal and program reviews. Mark Hiznay from the Arms Division provided specialist review.

Production and editorial assistance was provided by Michelle Lonnquist, associate in the Emergencies Division. Production assistance was provided by Olivia Hunter, photography and publications associate, Jose Martinez, senior coordinator, and Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager.

Human Rights Watch is grateful to the many witnesses, family members, journalists, first responders, and others whose assistance made this report possible.

 

[1] “National Evaluation: Chemical Attack of 4 April 2017 (Khan Sheikhoun), Clandestine Syrian Chemical Weapons Programme,” Government of France, April 26, 2017, http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/170425_-_evaluation_nationale_-_anglais_-_final_cle0dbf47-1.pdf .

[2] Zehra Melek Cat, “Turkey says evidence of sarin gas in Syria attack found,” AA.com.tr, April 11, 2017, http://aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/turkey-says-evidence-of-sarin-gas-in-syria-attack-found/794620 (accessed April 17, 2017).

[3] “OPCW Director-General shares incontrovertible laboratory results concluding exposure to sarin,” OPCW news release, April 19, 2017, https://www.opcw.org/news/article/opcw-director-general-shares-incontrovertible-laboratory-results-concluding-exposure-to-sarin//.

[4] “Syria: Stop Undermining UN Investigation,” Human Rights Watch news release, October 28, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/10/28/syria-stop-undermining-un-investigation.

[5] “Syria: UN General Assembly Adopts Resolution on War Crimes Investigations,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 21, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/21/syria-un-general-assembly-adopts-resolution-war-crimes-investigations.

[6] “Rule 74: Chemical Weapons,” ICRC, Customary IHL, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule74.

[7] “Status of Participation in the Chemical Weapons Convention as at 17 October 2015,” OPCW, October 19, 2015, https://www.opcw.org/about-opcw/member-states/status-of-participation/.

[8] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2118 (2013), S/RES/2118 (2013) http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_res_2118.pdf, art. 4.

[9] Ibid., art. 21.

[10] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, adopted July 17, 1998, A/CONF.183/9, entered into force July 1, 2002.

[11] “Syria: Strong Evidence Government Used Chemicals as a Weapons,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 13, 2014, https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/05/13/syria-strong-evidence-government-used-chemicals-weapon; “Syria: Chemicals Used in Idlib Attacks,” April 13, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/04/13/syria-chemicals-used-idlib-attacks; “Syria: New Chemical Attacks in Idlib,” June 3, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/06/03/syria-new-chemical-attacks-idlib; “Syria: New Deadly Chemical Attacks,” September 28, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/09/28/syria-new-deadly-chemical-attacks.

[12] Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Fourth Report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism,” S/2016/888, October 21, 2016, http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_2016_888.pdf.

[13] “Syria: Coordinated Chemical Attacks on Aleppo,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 13, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/02/13/syria-coordinated-chemical-attacks-aleppo.

[14] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Fayed al-Satouf, April 11, 2017.

[15] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with local resident (name withheld), April 21, 2017.

[16] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Munaf al-Saleh, head of al-Lataminah Syria Civil Defense, April 13, 2017.

[17] “Dr. Munther Khalil, Director of Idlib Health Directorate…” (الدكتور منذر خليل مدير صحة ادلب يتحدث عن الغارات الجوي المحملة بغاز السارين والتي استهدفت خان شيخون), April 4, 2017, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-GhbtRn450&feature=youtu.be (accessed April 14, 2017).

[18] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dr. Mahmoud al-Mohammad, April 8, 2017.

[19] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Alaa,” hospital employee, April 8, 2017.

[20] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Bilal,” hospital employee, April 8, 2017.

[21] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dr. Mahmoud al-Mohammad, April 8, 2017.

[22] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Abd al-Munaf Faraj al-Saleh, April 8, 2017.

[23] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Fayed al-Satouf, April 11, 2017.

[24] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Hatem,” hospital employee, April 13, 2017.

[25] Photo on file with Human Rights Watch.

[26] “The moment…” (“لحظة إلقاء الطيران المروحي براميل غاز الكلور على مشفى اللطامنة وخروجه عن الخدمة”), March 26, 2017, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MCiIMFG1uU (accessed April 13, 2017).

[27] Tweets from the Twitter account of Syria Civil Defense, March 25, 2017, https://twitter.com/SyriaCivilDef/status/ 845712375462420480 (accessed April 14, 2017); March 26, 2017, https://twitter.com/SyriaCivilDef/status/ 846053794303660032 (accessed April 13, 2017).

[28] Announcement from the Hama Health Directorate, March 25, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/latamenh.h2/photos/ a.655052357992256.1073741828.654197224744436/777807462383411/?type=3&theater (accessed April 13, 2017).

[29] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ahmad al-Helou, April 20, 2017.

[30] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ismail Raslan, April 21, 2017.

[31] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Adham al-Hussein, April 7, 2017.

[32] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ismail Raslan, April 21, 2017.

[33] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with a Syria Civil Defense member (name withheld), April 4, 20, and 21, 2017.

[34] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Mohammad Juneid, Syria Civil Defense member, April 21, 2017.

[35] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Adham al-Hussein, April 7, 2017.

[36] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Adham al-Hussein, April 7, 2017. Video on file with Human Rights Watch.

[37] “The moment Khan Sheikhoun was targeted…” (لحظة استهدف مدينة خان شيخون بالقنابل السامة من قبل الطيران السوري), April 3, 2017, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYOMEDK_uVs (accessed April 17, 2017). The date of publication on YouTube is April 3, 2017, the day before the Khan Sheikhoun attack. YouTube assigns all videos a date based on the time in California when the upload begins. Because California is 10 hours behind Syria, videos uploaded before 10 a.m. in Syria will be given the previous day's publication date. The timestamp of the video shows that it was uploaded at 7:59 a.m. local time on April 4, so about an hour after the attack.

[38] Audio recording of the sentry message on file with Human Rights Watch.

[39] Luis Martinez and Paul Blake, “US releases flight path of plane used in Syria chemical attack,” ABC News, April 7, 2017, http://abcnews.go.com/International/us-releases-flight-path-plane-syria-chemical-attack/story?id=46651125.

[40] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with local resident (name withheld), April 5, 2017.

[41] Human Rights Watch interview with Fatima Abdel-Latif al-Youssef, Antakya, Turkey, April 9, 2017.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with doctor (name withheld), April 4, 2017.

[44] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ismail Raslan, April 21, 2017.

[45] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Abdelaziz al-Youssef, April 6, 2017.

[46] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ahmad al-Helou, April 20, 2017.

[47] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Mohammad Juneid, Syria Civil Defense member, April 21, 2017.

[48] Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with Syria Civil Defense member (name withheld), April 4, 20, 21, 2017.

[49] Zehra Melek Cat, “Turkey says evidence of sarin gas in Syria attack found,” AA.com.tr, April 11, 2017, http://aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/turkey-says-evidence-of-sarin-gas-in-syria-attack-found/794620 (accessed April 17, 2017).

[50] “OPCW Director-General shares incontrovertible laboratory results concluding exposure to sarin,” OPCW news release, April 19, 2017, https://www.opcw.org/news/article/opcw-director-general-shares-incontrovertible-laboratory-results-concluding-exposure-to-sarin//.

[51] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Adham al-Hussein, April 7, 2017.

[53] “The Khan Sheikhoun Chemical Attack, the Evidence So Far,” Bellingcat, April 5, 2017, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2017/04/05/khan-sheikhoun-chemical-attack-evidence-far/.

[54] The similarities between the remnants in the crater and the KhAB-250 bomb were first identified by the twitter accounts @elemcee69 and @Mortis_Banned. See e.g., tweet from @elemcee69 on April 14, 2017, https://twitter.com/elemcee69/status/852809433570615296.

[55] Dan Kaszeta, “Anatomy of a sarin bomb explosion (Part I),” Bellingcat, April 13, 2017, https://www.bellingcat.com/resources/articles/2017/04/13/anatomy-sarin-bomb-explosion-part/.

[56] Publication on the official Facebook of the Idlib Health Directorate, April 8, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/Idleb. Health.Directorate/photos/a.648305141939511.1073741828.648124961957529/968373753265980/?type=3 (accessed April 17, 2017).

[57] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ismail Raslan, April 21, 2017.

[58] “A Special Report on the Chemical Attack in Khan Sheikhoun – Idlib on April 4, 2017,” Syrians for Truth and Justice, April 22, 2017, https://www.stj-sy.com/en/view/123.

[59] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Abdelaziz al-Youssef, April 6, 2017.

[60] “Walid Muallem exposes the secrets of the Khan Sheikhoun chemical ‘attack’” (وليد المعلم يفضح أسرار "هجوم" خان شيخون الكيماوي), al-Alam, April 6, 2017, http://www.alalam.ir/news/1948704 (accessed April 17, 2017).

[61] Statement on the Khan Sheikhoun attack posted on the official Facebook of the Russian Ministry of Defense, April 4, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/1492252324350852/videos/1903420036567410/ (accessed April 17, 2017).

[62] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Mohammad Saloum, April 6, 2017.

[63] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Kareem Shaheen, April 7, 2017.

[64] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dr. Mahmoud al-Mohamad. April 8, 2017.

[65] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Anwar Rahmoun, April 11, 2017.

[66] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Abd al-Munaf Faraj al-Saleh, April 8, 2017.

[67] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dr. Mahmoud al-Mohamad. April 8, 2017.

[68] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with Mohamad Katoub, advocacy manager, Syrian American Medical Society, April 9, 2017.

[69] Publication on the official Facebook of the Hama Health Directorate, March 31, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/ latamenh.h2/photos/a.655052357992256.1073741828.654197224744436/780609392103218/?type=3&theater (accessed April 17, 2017).

[70] “An English version of the report on the chemical attack on Lataminah on Thursday 30 March,” April 1, 2017, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huhn-4Zbe1c (accessed April 17, 2017).

[71] In the first post, SRCC reported that warplanes had attacked the villages with chlorine. Subsequent posts refer to chemical attacks with Sarin. Publication on the official Facebook of the Syrian Revolution Coordination Committee in Eastern Hama, December 11, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/hama.east/posts/1178624038886863 (accessed April 17, 2017); December 11, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/hama.east/posts/1178805135535420 (accessed April 17, 2017); December 12, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/hama.east/posts/1179416542140946 (accessed April 17, 2017).

[72] Leith Fadel, “ISIS suffers heavy casualties in failed offensive north of Palmyra,” al Masdar News, December 8, 2016, https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/isis-suffers-heavy-casualties-failed-offensive-north-palmyra/.

[73] Leith Fadel, “Russian, Syria air forces hunt ISIS terrorists along Hama-Palmyra Highway,” al Masdar News, June 6, 2016, https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/syrian-air-force-hunts-isis-terrorists-along-hama-palmyra-highway/.

[74] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Salim” (not his real name), April 9, 2017.

[75] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Salim,” April 9, 2017.

[76] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Khaled” (not his real name), December 22, 2016.

[77] Photos on file with Human Rights Watch.

[78] Photos on file with Human Rights Watch.

[79] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Abu Ali” (not his real name), April 11, 2017.

[80] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Khaled,” December 22, 2016.

[81] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Salim,” April 9, 2017.

[82] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Abu Ali,” April 11, 2017.

[83] “Syrian government forces press attack on Damascus outskirts – monitors, medic,” Reuters, February 19, 2017, http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-mideast-crisis-syria-idUKKBN15Y08C?il=0 (accessed April 14, 2017).

[84] On February 21, the armed group Jaysh al-Islam posted a filmed interview with one of its members on their website, saying that eight munitions with chlorine had struck the group in the area between Hawsh al-Dawahira and Hawsh Nasri. “Assad targets al-Ghouta with chlorine gas again” (الأسد يستهدف الغوطة بغاز الكلور مجدّداً), jaishalislam.org, February 21, 2017, https://www.jaishalislam.org/subject/487 (accessed April 14, 2017). On February 24, journalists embedded with the group published photos of the same remnants. Tweet from the Twitter account of journalists and photographers embedded with Jaysh al-Islam, February 24, 2017, https://twitter.com/Azm_Lens/status/835057867770191872 (accessed April 14, 2017).

[85] “Improvised rocket-assisted munitions (IRAM),” Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), https://www.jieddo.mil/content/docs/JIEDDO_IED_Tri-fold_v3sm.pdf.

[86] Hady al-Khatib, “New Visual Evidence about Chlorine Gas Attacks in Eastern Ghouta,” Bellingcat, February 14, 2017, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2017/02/14/new-visual-evidence-chlorine-gas-attacks-eastern-ghouta/ (accessed April 14, 2017).

[87] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Obeida Abu Omar, member of the Syria Civil Defense, April 11, 2017.

[88] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dr. Nizar al-Madani, April 9, 2017.

[89] Ibid.

[90] “Cases of suffocation after Chlorine gas was dropped on al-Qaboun neighborhood of Damascus” (“حالات اختناق نتيجة "القصف بغاز الكلور على حي القابون بدمشق 7-4-2017”), April 7, 2017, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vEYA0Ss-BA (accessed April 14, 2017).

[91] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with journalist (name withheld), April 13, 2017.

[92] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dr. Nizar al-Madani, April 9, 2017.

[93] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Obeida Abu Omar, April 11, 2017.

[94] Photos on file with Human Rights Watch.

[95] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with hospital employee (name withheld), March 10, 2017.

[96] “Several injuries caused by chlorine gas…” (العديد من الإصابات جراء استهداف اطراف عربين بغاز الكلورمن قبل تنظيم الأسد), February 9, 2017, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUMDOKP4yQY&feature=youtu.be; “Irbin hospital…” (مشفى عربين الجراحي استهداف اطراف المدينة بغاز الكلور), February 9, 2017, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mdt-QyUyQ2s&feature=youtu.be.

[97] “Deaths and injuries from poisonous gas attack on Irbin” (قتيل وإصابات من الفصائل جراء قصف بغاز سام للنظام على عربين ريف دمشق) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdMMi7VLLD0&feature=youtu.be (accessed April 14, 2017).

[98] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with hospital employee (name withheld), March 10, 2017.

[99] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Abou Mu’tassem, member of the al-Marj media office, April 19, 2017.

[100] Ibid.

[101] “Eastern Ghouta, al-Marj” (الغوطة الشرقية _منطقة المرج), January 31, 2017, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HXZjvHxdJE&feature=youtu.be (accessed April 14, 2017).

[102] Publication on the official Facebook of the Unified Medical Office of Eastern Ghouta, January 31, 2017, https://www.face book.com/Medical.Office.alghota/posts/1026007784209219:0 (accessed April 14, 2017). Pinpoint pupils is not a symptom of chlorine exposure. Human Rights Watch has not been able to clarify the discrepancy between this symptom and reports of chlorine odor.

[103] “Damascus water supply cut after rebels pollute it: authority,” Reuters, December 23, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-water-idUSKBN14C20Q?il=0.

[104] Leith Fadel, “Syrian Army reaches gates of Wadi Barada springs,” al Masdar News, January 13, 2017, https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/syrian-army-reaches-gates-wadi-barada-springs/ (accessed April 17, 2017).

[105] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ali Nasrallah, media activist, April 13, 2017.

[106] Ibid.

[107] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ali Nasrallah, nurse, April 18, 2017.

[108] The fatality list has been compiled from a range of sources including the Syria Civil Defense, the Idlib Health Directorate, and the relatives of the deceased.

[109] The fatality list was compiled by a local resident.

[110] The fatality list was compiled by an activist from the Syrian Revolution Coordination Committee and many names were corroborated by local residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Stephen Goose, director of Human Rights Watch's Arms Division, was instrumental in bringing about the 2008 convention banning cluster munitions, the 1997 treaty banning antipersonnel mines, the 1995 protocol banning blinding lasers, and the 2003 protocol requiring clean-up of explosive remnants of war. He and Human Rights Watch co-founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. Goose created the ICBL’s Landmine Monitor initiative, the first time that non-governmental organizations around the world have worked together in a sustained and coordinated way to monitor compliance with an international disarmament or humanitarian law treaty. In 2013, he and Human Rights Watch co-founded the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Before joining Human Rights Watch in 1993, Goose was a US congressional staffer and a researcher at the Center for Defense Information. He has a master's degree in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a B.A. in History from Vanderbilt University.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – Syrian-Russian airstrikes and artillery attacks on June 14, 2017, in a town in the southern Daraa governorate killed 10 civilians in and near a school, Human Rights Watch said today. Residents said they were not aware of any military targets in the vicinity of the attacks.

One of the airstrikes hit the courtyard of Martyr Kiwan middle school in the town of Tafas, killing eight people, including a child, most of them members of a family who had been displaced from another town and were taking shelter there, witnesses said. Artillery attacks roughly an hour earlier on the same day killed two other civilians, including one child, near the school. At least five people were wounded.

The impact crater in the Martyr Kiwan school courtyard from a Syrian-Russian airstrike on June 14, 2017. Seven of the eight casualties, including a child, were from a displaced family and had been sheltering in the school. 

© 2017 Private

“A sign at the entrance of the middle school in Tafas says, ‘Keep the school clean,’ but the floor was smeared with the blood of a whole family on June 14,” said Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “As long as no one is held responsible for such repeated unlawful attacks, it’s likely they will continue.”

Witnesses said that to their knowledge no members of non-state armed groups fighting the Syrian government were killed or injured in the attacks, and that they did not know of any military objects in the vicinity of the attacks. A local resident said that anti-government armed groups known as Fajr al-Islam and al-Mutaz Bellah are present in Tafas, 13 kilometers north of the city of Daraa, but that neither had any presence in or near the school.

Human Rights Watch contacted witnesses and residents in Tafas by phone and WhatsApp, as well as a relative of the displaced family that had been sheltering there. Some of the names of those interviewed are withheld for their protection. Human Rights Watch also reviewed photographs and videos the witnesses shared. Tafas hospital, where most of the victims were transferred, provided a short report describing the victims’ injuries. Syrian government ground forces are located about five kilometers southeast of Tafas.

Human Rights Watch is not aware that the Syrian or Russian authorities made any statements about the attacks.

The Martyr Kiwan school had 300 to 400 students before the 2011 uprising, and a similar number subsequently, as some children from Tafas had fled but others who had been displaced from other towns were enrolled there, said one Tafas resident. The school was on summer vacation on June 14, which may have limited the number of casualties. The school had previously been damaged by an airstrike in November 2016 that did not cause any casualties, and had continued to operate even though some displaced families were living there. Another resident who lives nearby said that middle school staff told him they plan to teach students in two shifts in the building that was not damaged until the damaged building can be repaired.

Damage to the Martyr Kiwan middle school from a Syrian-Russian airstrike on June 14, 2017 that killed eight civilians, including a child. 

© 2017 Private

Syrian opposition groups captured Tafas in August 2013. All the witnesses Human Rights Watch spoke to said that there were no fighters or other military objects in or near the areas that were attacked on June 14. “The rebels are far from the town, on agricultural lands and in old bases,” said Abu Wesal, a civil defense worker who responded to the attacks. The opposition Free Syrian Army stated that it launched rocket and artillery attacks against Syrian army vehicles at a checkpoint in Khirbet Ghazala, about 15 kilometers east of Tafas, on June 14.

Abu Wesal shared photographs he took of the impact crater in the school courtyard, and of the remnants of the bomb used in that airstrike, but it is not possible to positively identify a specific type. However, given the close proximity to the weapons’ impact, the bomb created significant blast, fragmentation, and thermal effects, which are evident on the bodies of the victims. Both Abu Wesal and another civil defense worker who responded to the attacks said that all the bodies and wounded they evacuated were civilians, and that there was no military object at the school. No weapons or military uniforms are visible in any of the videos and photographs of the attack’s aftermath that Human Rights Watch reviewed.

Witnesses said they could not see the aircraft that dropped the bombs. A fixed-wing aircraft is briefly visible in a video posted online by Shahid, a local media organization, which the group described as footage of the first airstrike on Tafas. Two subsequent airstrikes hit the north and east of Tafas, causing minor injuries, a second civil defense worker said.

The United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, reported at least 87 attacks on schools or educational staff in Syria in 2016, which killed 255 children in or near schools. The Syrian Human Rights Committee reported 132 attacks against “educational institutes” in 2016, including 113 by Syrian-Russian airstrikes. A Syrian nongovernmental humanitarian group, the Assistance Coordination Unit, found that 27 percent of the 3,373 schools it assessed in November and December 2016 in 90 subdistricts in Syria had been damaged due to the conflict.

According to the UN, 1 in 3 children in Syria are out of school and 1 in 3 schools are not operating because they have been damaged, destroyed, used by military forces, or used to shelter displaced civilians.

“The joint Syrian-Russian military operation in Syria has repeatedly demonstrated contempt for civilian lives and for the schools, which represent a better future for the country,” Van Esveld said. “The attacks on Tafas appear unlawful, and the victims deserve justice.”

The June 14 attacks in Tafas
At around noon on June 14, 2017, an artillery attack killed Hiba al-Hasan, a 12-year-old girl, and Mohamad al-Salkhadi, who was selling vegetables, near al-Omari square, a residential area in the middle of town, Abu Wesal and another civil defense worker in Tafas who responded to the attacks told Human Rights Watch separately. Other artillery attacks hit areas in Tafas to the north and west at around the same time but without casualties, and attacks continued later in the day, the men said. Abu Wesal said the artillery attacks originated from the direction of areas controlled by Syrian government forces near Tafas: Tal al-Khedr and Dara’a al-Panorama. Tafas has been subjected to repeated artillery attacks from government-held areas, witnesses said.

Beginning at around 1 p.m., a fixed-wing jet aircraft dropped four bombs in short succession on Tafas, witnesses said. The first airstrike hit an open area immediately behind the Kiwan middle school, about 300 meters south of the square hit by the earlier artillery strike. Another civil defense worker said he arrived at the site of the explosion within a few minutes, and that a second airstrike hit the school’s front courtyard shortly thereafter. “I saw the [second] bomb hit the school, because I was very close,” he said. “Me and my team went inside the school.” Human Rights Watch saw a video that the civil defense worker said he filmed at the time showing at least five bodies, blood, and body parts in the school entrance.

Abu Wesal also arrived at the school shortly after the second attack, “about three minutes after the first one, just enough time for the plane to circle around.” Among the victims whose bodies he removed was that of his cousin, Ahmad Naji Kiwan, whose home was next to the school.

It was the first time I’d seen something like that – the remains were splattered all over. There were six bodies, amputated heads, amputated hands, amputated legs, not one was left intact. We tried to look for survivors and heard children screaming. The only two survivors we found are the boy [Bara’a al-Masri] and a girl. They were […] stuck under mattresses and furniture. I swear, to this moment, the smell of blood and remains is stuck on the metal. The [bomb], when it fell, tore down the door, the metallic front gate of the school. We found one body with part of the door having pierced him from the chest onto his back. Something indescribable. 

The other seven people killed and wounded at the school were among roughly 15 members of an extended family who had been sheltering there since Syrian forces captured their hometown of Ataman, about 10 kilometers away, in February 2016, said a resident who lives near the school. Witnesses and Syrian rights groups identified the family members killed as Yasmin al-Masri, a 13-year-old girl, and her relatives Rami, Mohamad Ahmad, Mohamad Ayed, Ahmad, Mahmud, and Mahmud’s wife, Basma al-Hari, 31. Al-Hari died while in surgery due to shrapnel wounds in the head, chest, and stomach, according to a written statement from Tafas hospital.

The hospital statement said it had received the bodies of seven people who were killed in the attack, as well as al-Hari, who died in surgery, and four other al-Masri family members who were wounded: Bara’a Mohamad al-Masri, 3, who had abdominal wounds and a ruptured leg artery; another boy, a girl, and a woman, 55, who had abdominal wounds and was transferred to Jordan. A video uploaded to YouTube on June 24 by Orient News shows a boy identified as Bara’a al-Masri, and a doctor who describes performing surgery on him.

The aircraft conducted two other airstrikes shortly after hitting the school, witnesses said. The third strike wounded two children when it hit a former military barracks about 2.5 kilometers east of the school that is being used as shelter for displaced families from the towns of Sheikh Maskin, Ebtah, Garfah, and Ataman, Abu Wesal said. The fourth airstrike hit land next to a former cigarette warehouse which also shelters displaced people on the edge of Tafas without causing casualties.

Another resident who lives near Tafas told Human Rights Watch that he visited the school the day following the attack on behalf of a children’s organization, and that he also met Bara’a al-Masri in the hospital: “He had no one anymore. No mother. No father. Only his uncle, who was devastated. I went to visit him the next day as well, and offered some help.” The boy was discharged from hospital five days later. A family member said that the boy had been transferred to a hospital in Jordan, with another relative.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Journalists and police inspect the scene at the community hall in Sanaa that Saudi-led coalition warplanes attacked on October 8, 2016. 

© 2016 Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
 

This week's judgment by the High Court declaring that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are not illegal is deeply disappointing.

The landmark legal case, brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade, tried to establish that the UK government is breaking its own arms export licensing criteria by selling weapons to Riyadh, given the repeated international humanitarian law (IHL) violations the Saud-led coalition has committed during its military campaign in Yemen.

Had the High Court ruled in favour of Campaign Against Arms Trade, it was hoped that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia would have been suspended – at least temporarily – and thereby help to pressure Riyadh to end its unlawful attacks in Yemen, where the two-year-old conflict has left more than 4,900 civilians dead, another 8,500 wounded, and brought millions in the country to the brink of starvation.

So Monday's ruling is terrible news for Yemen's civilians. But the Court's approach also involved some significant omissions.

For example, in reaching a judgment on whether there is a "serious risk" that UK arms and equipment sold to Saudi Arabia will be used to commit "a serious violation of international humanitarian law" - at the heart of this legal case - it is crucial to look closely at Saudi Arabia's record during the Yemen conflict, and to scrutinise the contrasting evidence put forward by the different parties.

The Court's judgement commends the UK government's processes for considering allegations of violations of IHL. This includes the fact that cases are placed on a central government database, known as "the Tracker", as well as the frequent and high-level discussions on these issues that take place across Whitehall. This activity is cited as evidence of Ministerial good intentions and underpins the government's claim, backed by the Court, that the UK is compliant with its legal obligations.

But is this really good enough? Human Rights Watch has identified at least 81 apparently unlawful attacks by the Saudi-led coalition, which have hit schools, markets, hospitals and homes. Amnesty International and the UN have also identified scores of additional Saudi-led coalition strikes which they judge to be unlawful. While it does not say so explicitly, the logic of the UK's position is that Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and the UN rights agencies - whose work is often commended by the UK government in other contexts for its objectivity and rigour - have repeatedly gotten it wrong in the case of Yemen.

The government is entitled to challenge our organisations' research, legal analysis and conclusions, of course, but it has failed to make public any convincing counter evidence to dispute ours and substantiate theirs. And, more importantly, the Court is seemingly happy with the government's assurances from Saudi Arabia that it remains "genuinely committed to compliance with international humanitarian law".

For example, the Court makes much of the fact that the government quickly raised concerns when the Saudi-led coalition bombed a funeral hall in Sanaa in October 2016 – an appalling attack that killed or wounded hundreds of civilians. But even in this case – which the UN human rights office called "outrageous" and which prompted the United States to review its support to the Saudi-led coalition and hold up some weapons sales – the UK has not said whether it believes the airstrike was lawful or not.

Similarly, the judgment mentions an October 2016 attack on Al-Zaydiya security compound in western Yemen, noting the site was "alleged to be a prison by some." Our researchers visited the site, documented weapons remnants from the attack, and interviewed civilians who were grievously wounded, many with horrible burns. They told Human Rights Watch of the horror they felt when the first bomb struck, when they realised the guards would not let them out, and when the next two weapons struck. Here again, the government refuses to state whether it judges the strike illegal or not.

The Court also makes some statements about the work of human rights groups, including that they have often "not visited and conducted investigations in Yemen and are necessarily reliant on second-hand information." This is not correct. Human Rights Watch has visited Yemen repeatedly since the start of the war in March 2015, and conducted numerous on-site inspections. Nor does Human Rights Watch rely on second-hand information. Instead, we conduct thorough investigations that draw on multiple sources of information, including interviews, video and photographic evidence, and satellite imagery.

The Court also notes approvingly the frequency of UK government contact with the Saudi authorities, and a number of high-profile recent public statements by the Saudis. But where is the evidence that this has translated into changes in Saudi conduct?

There is no let-up in the Yemen war. The Saudi-led coalition, supported and armed by the UK, continues to carry out attacks that we and others deem to be unlawful. There are simply too many unanswered questions for this ruling to be the last word on UK arms sales to Saudi.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Countries voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations in New York on July 7.

© 2017 Bonnie Docherty/Human Rights Watch

History was made at the United Nations on Friday as 122 countries adopted the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

This outcome resulted from a process – which began in Oslo, Norway in 2013 – to address the humanitarian consequences of using and testing nuclear weapons. It is rooted in more than 70 years of activism that began with the deaths of thousands from atomic weapons used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The treaty is a milestone in part because it ensures that all weapons of mass destruction are banned. It complements the conventions prohibiting chemical and biological weapons.

In addition, the treaty was inspired by and advances humanitarian disarmament law, exemplified by the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions and 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. “Humanitarian disarmament” seeks to strengthen international humanitarian law and protect civilians from weapons that cause unacceptable harm, including weapons that are invariably indiscriminate in populated areas.

To prevent future harm, the new instrument categorically prohibits the use, production, stockpiling, transfer, and other activities involving nuclear weapons. It also requires countries that have joined the treaty to address the consequences of nuclear weapon use and testing – in particular by assisting victims and remediating environmental contamination.

The collective efforts of countries, United Nations agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons led to the success of the recent negotiations.

Countries attending the negotiating conference voted overwhelmingly in favor of the treaty. Only the Netherlands, which called for the vote, voted against adoption, and only Singapore abstained.

Although no countries that possess nuclear weapons participated in the process or adopted the convention, it can still have a far-reaching impact. It provides a framework for the elimination of an inhumane and invariably indiscriminate weapon that causes unacceptable harm. It also reinforces the principle that disarmament law should focus on ending the human suffering caused by such weapons.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A civil defense member breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released yesterday its report on the April 4 chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria that killed at least 90 people. The OPCW concluded the attack used sarin, a nerve agent, or sarin-like substances, confirming what Human Rights Watch reported in May.

I read the report while in Syria interviewing witnesses of another attack that has barely received any attention even though it also appears to have involved a nerve agent. In a town near Raqqa, I met two villagers from Jrouh, a village in the Hama countryside, who described experiencing symptoms consistent with exposure to a nerve agent after an aircraft – believed to be part of the Syrian air force – dropped a munition on the village in December 2016. Two medical personnel I met near Raqqa also confirmed that injured people from the attacks exhibited symptoms consistent with exposure to a nerve agent, saying that a hospital in then-ISIS controlled Tabqa received between 60 and 70 patients.

Based on interviews with several witnesses, Human Rights Watch reported on these attacks in May, but they have received little attention because they took place in ISIS-controlled territory, which tightly controls communication and bans taking photos. As ISIS loses territory, however, more witnesses are surfacing.

These attacks are important not only because they appear to have killed dozens of civilians, but also because they appear to be the first time Syrian government forces used nerve agents since an attack killed hundreds in Ghouta, near Damascus, in 2013.

These attacks provide important context to the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack. Syrian and Russian officials have denied that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in the Khan Sheikhoun attack, claiming that a Syrian high-explosive bomb struck chemicals stored on the ground. But evidence that Syrian government forces used nerve agents on multiple occasions makes this explanation implausible.

The Khan Sheikhoun case now goes to the United Nations-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism, whose task it is to establish who was responsible for the attack. As more witnesses become available, let’s hope the OPCW will be able to issue strong conclusions on December attacks as well and that the Joint Investigative Mechanism considers this pattern of attacks when assessing responsibility for chemical weapon use in Syria.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Smoking and burning white phosphorus streaks to the ground in west Mosul on June 2, 2017. 

© 2017 Getty Images
(Washington, DC) – The use of artillery-delivered white phosphorus by the United States-led coalition fighting Islamic State (also known as ISIS) forces in Syria and Iraq raises serious questions about the protection of civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. This multipurpose munition should never be used as an incendiary weapon to attack personnel or materiel in populated areas, even when delivered from the ground.

“No matter how white phosphorus is used, it poses a high risk of horrific and long-lasting harm in crowded cities like Raqqa and Mosul and any other areas with concentrations of civilians,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch. “US-led forces should take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm when using white phosphorus in Iraq and Syria.”

White phosphorus munitions can be used for several purposes on the battlefield: as an obscurant or smoke screen, for signaling and marking, and as an incendiary weapon. US forces are using white phosphorus in both Mosul, in Iraq, and in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, in Syria. But the rationale for its use by US-led coalition forces is unclear as the coalition does not comment on specific incidents.

Human Rights Watch was not able to independently verify whether the use of the munitions resulted in any civilian casualties. A Raqqa resident living in Beirut told the New York Times that an internet cafe in Raqqa was recently hit by white phosphorus, killing around 20 people.

In Syria, a video published on Facebook on June 8, 2017, and reported on Facebook as shot that day in Raqqa, shows the use of ground-fired artillery projectiles containing white phosphorus, which are distinctive when air-burst. Another video broadcast by Amaq News Agency, an ISIS-linked news outlet, purports to show the same incident with fires on the ground started by white phosphorus, but its veracity cannot be determined. A video published online on June 10 suggest further use of white phosphorus on June 9.

In early 2017, US Marine artillery deployed to Syria in support of the operation to retake Raqqa, an operation in which Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are also participating. The Washington Post published photographs of the deployed Marine unit equipped with white phosphorus projectiles, as well as similar pictures showing white phosphorus projectiles with US Army units outside Mosul. The SDF announced the offensive to take Raqqa from ISIS on June 6. The reason for this use of white phosphorus cannot be determined from the videos, which shows white phosphorus being used just after sunset.

Footage shot in Mosul, Iraq on June 3 also shows the use of ground-fired projectiles containing white phosphorous. Smoke from ground fires is also visible in the video, but it is unclear if these were ignited by white phosphorus or caused by something else. Since mid-February, Iraqi forces supported by the US-led coalition have been engaged in an offensive to retake densely populated west Mosul.

The purpose of this use of white phosphorus is unclear, but Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) stated on June 4 that it was used to create a smoke screen. According to a US-led coalition comment to media on the use that Human Rights Watch obtained: “While protecting civilians fleeing from the Jamouri Hospital the Coalition used smoke and precision munitions to suppress the enemy and provide cover for fleeing civilians. In conjunction with Iraqi Security Forces, the Coalition used appropriate munitions to suppress and obscure ISIS snipers so that the civilians could reach friendly forces.”

In both Mosul and Raqqa, the US-led forces are using US-made M825-series 155mm artillery projectiles containing 116 felt wedges impregnated with white phosphorus, which ignites and continues to burn when exposed to the air. This is the only type of 155mm white phosphorus projectile in US stocks that can be air-burst. Neither ISIS nor Syrian government forces are known to possess or have used these US-made munitions.

The US-led coalition states that as a matter of policy it cannot publicly discuss the use of specific munitions, but admits to using white phosphorus in its operation in Iraq and Syria. US Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesperson for the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, told international media on June 9 that, “in accordance with the law of armed conflict, white phosphorus rounds are used for screening, obscuring and marking in a way that fully considers the possible incidental effects on civilians and civilian structures.”

In the Mosul incident, the projectiles burst very close to the ground in what seems to be an attempt to minimize the footprint of the effects. In Raqqa, videos appear to show the munitions bursting higher in the air, spreading the white phosphorus over a much wider area.

White phosphorus ignites when exposed to atmospheric oxygen and continues to burn until it is deprived of oxygen or exhausted. Its chemical reaction can create intense heat (about 815° C/1500° F), light, and smoke. White phosphorus can thus be used for marking, signaling, and obscuring, but it can also be used as a weapon to set fires that burn people and objects.

On contact, white phosphorus can also burn people, thermally and chemically, down to the bone as it is highly soluble in fat, and therefore in human flesh. White phosphorus fragments can exacerbate wounds even after treatment and can enter the bloodstream and cause multiple organ failure. Already dressed wounds can reignite when dressings are removed and they are re-exposed to oxygen. Even relatively minor burns are often fatal.

Attacks using air-delivered incendiary weapons in civilian areas are prohibited under Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW). While the protocol contains weaker restrictions for ground-launched incendiary weapons, all types of incendiary weapons produce horrific injuries. Protocol III applies only to weapons that are “primarily designed” to set fires or cause burns, and thus some countries believe it excludes certain multipurpose munitions with incendiary effects, notably those containing white phosphorus.

Lebanon became the 114th country to ratify CCW Protocol III on April 5, 2017. Iraq, Russia, and the US are parties to the protocol, while Syria has not ratified it.

From 2000 to 2016, white phosphorus munitions were reportedly used in at least seven conflicts – Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Ukraine, and Yemen. In 2016, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen used artillery-delivered white phosphorus munitions.

Syrian government forces are not known to have used white phosphorus, but Human Rights Watch has documented the use of air dropped Soviet or Russian-made incendiary weapons in the country since 2012, and in their operations with Russian forces since late 2015. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the Syrian-Russian coalition to cease their use of incendiary weapons in Syria.

“Horrific civilian harm from previous use of white phosphorus has generated public outrage and this latest use of white phosphorus underscores the urgent need for states to strengthen international law relating to incendiary weapons,” Goose said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters on their way to Raqqa, Syria June 6, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

(Beirut) – The United States-led coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and other local armed groups should make protecting civilians and respect for human rights a priority in the offensive to retake Raqqa from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Human Rights Watch said today. The offensive was announced on June 6, 2017.

Key human rights priorities for anti-ISIS forces should include: taking all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties and investigating alleged unlawful strikes; ensuring that no child soldiers participate in the military operation; respecting detainee rights; providing safe passage to fleeing civilians and providing sufficient support to displaced people; and increasing efforts to survey and clear landmines and explosive remnants of war.

“The battle for Raqqa is not just about defeating ISIS, but also about protecting and assisting the civilians who have suffered under ISIS rule for three and a half years,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Coalition members and local forces should demonstrate concretely that the lives and rights of the hundreds of thousands of civilians in Raqqa are a parallel priority in the offensive.

On December 23, 2016, Human Rights Watch shared recommended human rights priorities with the US Defense Department, the Syrian Democratic Forces, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the local Kurdish police, known as the Asayish, all of which are expected to be involved in the offensive and related security operations. On February 16, Human Rights Watch shared the same recommendations with the new US defense secretary.

Up to 400,000 civilians are estimated to remain in Raqqa governorate, and 160,000-200,000 in the city of Raqqa, which ISIS captured in January 2014. Human Rights Watch staff last visited the city in April 2013.

Avoid Civilian Casualties; Investigate Unlawful Strikes

Human Rights Watch has documented several missile and aerial attacks that caused civilian casualties and were carried out by US-led coalition forces in Syria since they began operations there in September 2014. Rising civilian casualties from US-led coalition strikes have heightened concerns about whether adequate precautions are in place.

On June 2, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) published its monthly civilian casualty report covering Syria and Iraq. The report found that: “To date, based on information available, CJTF-OIR assesses that, it is more likely than not, at least 484 civilians have been unintentionally killed by Coalition strikes since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve.”

During the same period, Airwars, a United Kingdom-based nongovernmental organization that monitors airstrikes, estimated that the minimum number of civilian casualties from US-led coalition strikes in Syria and Iraq was more than 3,800, approximately eight times the number reported by the coalition. Despite having the authority and funds, the US has done very little to compensate those injured by strikes or the families of those killed. US military officials have said that non-US coalition members are responsible for at least 80 of the 484 fatalities, but none of the other coalition members have publicly admitted responsibility. As a result, as of May, the US stopped confirming its own responsibility for specific civilian casualties.

Coalition members should take all feasible measures to ensure the protection of civilians and civilian objects during military operations. This includes maintaining international standards and procedures designed to prevent civilian casualties, and robustly and transparently reporting airstrikes and enemy and civilian casualties. This also requires promptly, impartially, and, thoroughly investigating instances in which civilian casualties may have occurred as a result of those operations; and providing compensation for wrongful civilian deaths and injuries and appropriate “condolence” or ex gratia payments for civilian harm.

Based on its experience monitoring the Mosul air campaign in Iraq as well as other coalition airstrikes in Syria, Human Rights Watch urges coalition members to:

 

  • Maintain measures to require the maximum levels of target verification and authorization prior to all air and ground-launched strikes. A central decision-making node, such as the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command – Operation Inherent Resolve’s “Strike Cell” in Baghdad, should evaluate and approve each strike and provide additional targeting information and recommendations as necessary. Taking this step where practicable is one way to ensure that targeting officers are equipped with more information about the target and the potential risks to civilians before a strike is approved. Additionally, multi-level approval systems that incorporate and synthesize large amounts of information from the battlefield can help minimize civilian casualties;
  • When operating in densely populated areas where civilians and combatants are comingled, commanders should take all feasible steps to minimize the harm to civilians and civilian objects. The use of munitions with large payloads of high explosives in populated areas should be limited. These munitions can have a wide-area destructive effect, and it is not possible when using them to distinguish adequately between civilians and combatants, almost inevitably resulting in civilian casualties. Where feasible, commanders should require terminal attack controllers, who have the authority to approve the release of weapons to maintain the highest level of direct control over each strike, including both seeing the target and the attacking aircraft. Commanders should also limit the use of indirect-fire weapons – mortars, artillery, and rockets – and using unguided munitions – meaning that the firing unit does not see the target, but relies on spotters to provide targeting information. In all cases, commanders and targeting officers should select weapons and specific munitions to minimize civilian casualties to the maximum extent possible;
  • When conducting airstrikes, use all available means to verify the presence and location of combatants, as well as the presence of civilians in the immediate vicinity. Anti-ISIS forces should also take into account the increasing use of civilians as human shields by ISIS. Any estimates of potential civilian casualties before a strike should take into account that many civilians remain trapped in ISIS-held territory and may not be readily observable from the air or by using advanced targeting equipment. Because of this, to reduce the risk of civilian casualties, surveillance, intelligence, and reconnaissance assets under the control of members of the US-led coalition should, where possible, be dedicated to conducting pattern-of-life analyses and locating and tracking civilians moving in and out of potential and future target areas in advance of operations;
  • Prior to conducting strikes, carefully and rigorously verify information received from partner forces, including other members of the US-led coalition, using all available sources of information – aerial observations, information collected by personnel and military hardware, etc. This step is critical to avoiding acting upon erroneous targeting information;
  • Coalition members should individually, robustly, and transparently investigate credible reports of civilian casualties and make public detailed findings of all of their investigations. These investigations should use a full range of tools, including interviews with victims and their families, consultation with human rights groups, surveillance and targeting videos, and forensic analyses. The public findings of investigations should include an explanation of the accountability measures coalition members used, the redress provided to victims or their families, and the process through which coalition members determined whether accountability or redress measures were necessary;
  • Redress should include compensation for wrongful civilian deaths and injuries and for harm to civilians. The coalition should develop effective systems for civilians to file claims for condolence or ex gratia payments and to evaluate the claims. If the investigation finds that serious violations of the laws of war occurred, it should refer those responsible for appropriate criminal prosecution.

 

Ensure that No Child Soldier Takes Part in the Campaign

In doing research in northern Syria in February 2014, Human Rights Watch found that, despite promises in 2013 from the Asayish and the YPG to stop using children for military purposes, the problem persisted in both forces. The internal regulations of both the Asayish and YPG forbid the use of children under age 18. International law sets 18 as the minimum age for participation in direct hostilities, which includes using children as scouts, couriers, and at checkpoints.

In a positive development, on June 5, 2014, the YPG admitted that the problem continued and pledged to demobilize all fighters under 18 within one month. In July 2015, however, Human Rights Watch released further evidence that the YPG and its female branch failed to adhere to obligations not to use child soldiers. The YPG sent Human Rights Watch a response on July 22, 2015, pledging to “follow up” on the cases cited.

In November 2015, when Geneva Call, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to promoting respect by non-state armed groups for international humanitarian norms, was in Syria, the official YPG spokesperson acknowledged that child recruitment was a persistent problem, but that the YPG was working to remedy the situation. In October 2016, when Human Rights Watch was in northern Syria, the spokesman said that child recruitment had gone down “to a minimum” and that children were not fighting on the front lines. Human Rights Watch urges coalition members to:

 

  • Vet armed groups before assisting them, and monitor their compliance with international humanitarian law, including the prohibition on the use of child soldiers, and investigate any credible allegations of abuses;
  • Make clear to the Syrian Democratic Forces and other forces that recruiting children as soldiers is unlawful even if they are not serving a military function; discipline officers who allow children to serve under them; and encourage the forces to provide former child soldiers all appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration; and
  • Commit publicly to ceasing coordination with or assistance to armed groups that recruit and fail to demobilize child soldiers.

 

Respect Detainee Rights

During field investigations in Syria in February 2014, Human Rights Watch documented that the Asayish arbitrarily detained people in areas under their control and mistreated detainees, including those accused of terrorism-related offenses. Human Rights Watch found in October 2016 that the SDF had seemingly arbitrarily detained medical personnel for providing assistance to ISIS.

Arresting authorities should not presume that someone is affiliated with ISIS or otherwise suspected of criminal activity based simply on gender, age, religious sect, or tribal name. Suspects should only be detained if there is individualized suspicion that they committed a crime. SDF forces and local authorities should stress to commanders and soldiers that it is not permissible to detain medical personnel who provide medical treatment to enemy combatants. The forces and local authorities should investigate credible allegations of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture of detainees and hold those responsible accountable.

Any screening of displaced people by the SDF or other security forces should last only a matter of hours, in a way that is nondiscriminatory and ensures civilian protection in accordance with the laws of war and human rights law. Anyone held longer should be treated as a detainee, meaning that their detention should have a clear legal basis, and they should be in an authorized place of detention. Authorities working at the screening centers should have basic technical training for their tasks, and the authorities should provide them with the adequate resources to screen people as quickly and safely as possible. The forces should transparently inform humanitarian groups about capacity and procedures at the screening centers. Other recommendations relating to screening include:

 

  • The authorities should promptly notify the families of detainees of the whereabouts of their relatives and publish overall numbers of detainees;
  • Authorities should make medical care, including first aid, promptly available to everyone at screening sites;
  • Authorities running the screening centers surrounding Raqqa should locate them as far from hostilities as possible;
  • Authorities should promptly identify vulnerable people and give them first priority for screening, including people needing immediate medical assistance, and provide them with any assistance needed. Unaccompanied children should be treated in an age-appropriate manner, and female staff should screen women and girls;
  • Authorities should make every effort to keep any child held for screening with a parent, and should only question children in the presence of a parent. If authorities screen children and suspect that they were child soldiers, treatment should focus on rehabilitation and social reintegration, not detention or prosecution. Under international norms, officials should seek at all times to release, protect, and reintegrate children unlawfully recruited or used, without condition, and children should be rapidly separated from adult fighters and handed over to “an appropriate, mandated, independent civilian process.” In all cases, children should be detained or imprisoned only as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period, separately from adults;
  • The authorities should allow independent protection monitors at all screening centers; and
  • Authorities should ensure that people being screened are treated respectfully and that conditions in the centers meet international standards.

 

Provide Safe Passage to Fleeing Civilians, Sufficient Support to Displaced People

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 200,000 people have been displaced as a result of the Raqqa operation, and up to 160,000-200,000 are estimated to remain in the city, including 40,000 children.

The laws of war require all parties to the conflict to take all feasible steps to evacuate civilians from areas of fighting or where fighters are deployed and not block or impede the evacuation of those wishing to leave. Human Rights Watch has previously documented that ISIS uses civilians to protect its forces from attack. Deliberately using the presence of civilians to protect military forces from attack is the war crime of “human shielding.”

The presence of ISIS fighters among civilian does not absolve anti-ISIS forces from the obligation to target only military objectives, however. The creation of humanitarian corridors and the issuance of effective advance warnings of attack to the civilian population do not relieve attacking forces of their obligation to distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians and to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians. Corridors and warnings do not permit forces to treat civilians who remain as combatants subject to attack.

Staff from humanitarian organizations working to meet the needs of those affected by fighting in Raqqa have told Human Rights Watch that civilians there will require access to health care, especially sexual and reproductive health for women and girls, food assistance, and potable water. Aid groups anticipate finding that health facilities and water pumping stations may have been severely damaged due to airstrikes and will need to be repaired or alternatives found and that there is most likely a shortage of medical professionals in the city. Raqqa is seen as a high-risk area for cholera.

People displaced by the fighting in Raqqa are sheltering in other parts of the governorate, as well as in Aleppo, Idlib, and to a lesser extent Hama, Homs, and Deir al-Zour governorates. Many are in camps for displaced people.

In its May 23 Raqqa situation report, OCHA said that in mid-May reports emerged that local authorities prevented internally displaced people from Raqqa governorate from leaving Ein Issa camp by confiscating their ID cards and travel documents. Camp authorities have since indicated that these rules will not be enforced and that displaced people will be able to leave the camps if they find sponsors.

OCHA also said that for security reasons, displaced people had been allowed to relocate to rural areas but not towns such as Tell Abyad, Ayn Arous, and Kobane and that their identity documents had been confiscated at checkpoints if they tried to go to the towns. It said:

 

Restrictions on freedom of movement, as shown by the situation in Mabrouka and Ein Issa, continue to be of concern. Some 3,500 families had reportedly been using their cars as shelter outside Ein Issa camp waiting for the authorities to return their identity documents. Communication devices are confiscated upon entry to Mabrouka camp.

 

SDF and other forces should ensure that civilians are able to flee areas of fighting for safety and to get aid, including in areas controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD)-led autonomous administration in northern Syria. They should ensure the safety and security of humanitarian relief personnel at all times.

Local authorities should allow freedom of movement for all displaced people in areas under their control, including those who want to live or travel outside of the camps. Movement restrictions should only be imposed if  “provided by law … and necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others,” as outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Increase Efforts to Survey and Clear Landmines, Explosive Remnants of War

Improvised mines, other types of explosive devices, and remnants of war pose a significant threat to civilians and hinder recovery in places that were under ISIS control. ISIS-planted improvised explosive devices will likely pose a major threat to civilians in the battle to retake Raqqa from ISIS.

During a five-day investigation in the city of Manbij from October 4 to 9, 2016, Human Rights Watch collected the names of 69 civilians, including 19 children, killed by improvised mines planted by ISIS in schools, homes, and on roads during and after the fighting over control for the city. The total is most likely much higher because Human Rights Watch was not able to collect information from all neighborhoods and villages. Hospital staff said that they had treated hundreds of people injured by improvised mines. Nearly all the incidents documented appear to have been caused by victim-activated improvised explosive devices.

Local military and civilian authorities should raise awareness among the displaced about the threat of improvised mines and develop capacity to rapidly clear homes and residential areas of mines and remnants of war to facilitate the return of the civilian population.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – The expected battle involving Iraqi and US-led coalition forces against the Islamic State (ISIS) in west Mosul’s Old City poses a considerable threat to civilians and civilian objects, international humanitarian and human rights organizations said today. All warring parties should cease using explosive weapons with wide area effects and inherently indiscriminate weapons in densely populated west Mosul. ISIS’s unlawful use of civilians as “human shields” and the difficulty of identifying civilians in buildings increases the risk of civilian casualties.

The United Nations has estimated that 200,000 civilians remain in the two-square-kilometer area in west Mosul’s Old City, which Iraqi and US-led coalition forces are encircling in preparation for the battle there.

Two Emergency Response Division IRAM launchers in Badoush, May 2017. 

© 2017 Private

“Thousands of families are trapped by ISIS in west Mosul, with its fighters preventing civilians from fleeing to safety,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iraqi and coalition forces should recognize that in the crowded Old City, using explosive weapons with wide area effects puts civilians at excessive risk.”

The groups expressing concern are Airwars, Amnesty International, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), and War Child.

On May 25, 2017, anti-ISIS forces dropped leaflets urging civilians to immediately leave areas under ISIS control. Anti-ISIS forces should take all feasible precautions to minimize harm when carrying out attacks and ensure that civilians can safely evacuate the Old City and get humanitarian assistance both inside and outside the besieged area. With the offensive to take west Mosul entering its 109th day, the situation for civilians trapped there is growing increasingly perilous. Those fleeing Mosul have told humanitarian and human rights organizations that markets are being emptied of food, with civilians subsisting on little more than wheat and rainwater.

In mid-February, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) supported by the US-led coalition, known as the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), began the offensive to retake west Mosul, a densely populated set of urban neighborhoods.

Rising civilian casualties from aerial operations have heightened concerns regarding coalition and Iraqi forces’ use of airstrikes. The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects such as air-dropped bombs of 500lbs and above, which have been used in the context of the operation, in densely populated civilian areas of western Mosul may be resulting in civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects that is excessive to the anticipated military objectives of the strikes. Such disproportionate military attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law.

Iraqi forces have also been launching locally fabricated rockets, commonly known as improvised rocket-assisted munitions (IRAMs), into west Mosul. Images published by media outlets and the US military also depict US forces and Iraqi forces firing mortars and unguided artillery rockets into western Mosul. Both of these weapons are inaccurate and can be unlawfully indiscriminate if used in heavily populated areas.

The difficulty of detecting civilians in the packed city, even with advanced targeting systems and continuous observation, make it difficult to determine accurately the number of civilians occupying a target area prior to approving strikes. The dangers are increased by ISIS’s use of civilians as “human shields,” which is a war crime.

Dozens of newly displaced people from west Mosul, including the Old City, have told humanitarian and human rights organizations that ISIS fighters forced them and their families to move with them up to three times, packing large numbers of families into small neighborhoods still under their control. They witnessed fighters summarily killing dozens of men as punishment as they and their families tried to flee ISIS control. They also saw ISIS fighters fire on groups of civilians as they fled; and some saw fleeing civilians shot and killed.

As the fighting intensifies and ISIS increases its use of civilians as shields, anti-ISIS forces should use all available means to verify the presence and location of civilians in the immediate vicinity of any fighters or military objectives targeted. In December 2016, US forces made procedural changes in its targeting that may increase the likelihood of civilian casualties.

All parties to the conflict are prohibited under the laws of war from conducting deliberate attacks against civilians or civilian objects, as well as indiscriminate, or disproportionate attacks. Indiscriminate attacks are attacks that strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. An attack is disproportionate if it may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life or damage to civilian objects that would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the attack.

Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent – that is, deliberately or recklessly – are responsible for war crimes. Individuals also may be held criminally liable for attempting to commit a war crime, as well as assisting in, facilitating, aiding, or abetting a war crime.

The laws of war require that the parties to a conflict take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and to “take all feasible precautions” to avoid or minimize the incidental loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects. When used in populated areas, munitions with large payloads of high explosives can have a wide-area destructive effect, and it is not possible when using them to distinguish adequately between civilians and combatants, almost inevitably resulting in civilian casualties.

Weapons such as mortars and multi-barrel rocket launchers when firing unguided munitions and IRAMs are fundamentally inaccurate. This can make discriminating between civilians and combatants during an attack on a densely populated area virtually impossible. Human rights and humanitarian organizations and journalists have documented the use by Iraqi forces of IRAMs that lack the ability to be aimed beyond a basic orientation toward the target and are inherently indiscriminate.

Mortars and multi-barrel rocket launchers firing unguided munitions used by anti-ISIS forces can be aimed and adjusted by an observer, but are area-fire weapons and, when used in densely populated areas, are prone to unlawful indiscriminate use. Iraqi and US-led coalition forces should avoid all use of these weapons in the densely populated Old City of west Mosul.

Signatories:
Airwars
Amnesty International
Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)
Human Rights Watch
International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW)
War Child

Human Rights Watch’s Investigation on Weapons Being Used and their Dangers to Civilians

 

Mitigation of Civilian Harm

When operating in densely populated areas where civilians and combatants are comingled, commanders should take all feasible steps to minimize the harm to civilians and civilian buildings. Where feasible, commanders should require those that maintain the ability to approve the release of weapons (terminal attack controllers) to maintain the highest level of direct control over each strike, including both seeing the target and attacking aircraft. Commanders should also limit the use of indirect-fire weapons (mortars, artillery, and rockets) using unguided munitions – meaning that the firing unit does not see the target, but relies on spotters to provide targeting information. In all cases, commanders and targeting officers should select weapons and specific munitions to minimize civilian casualties to the maximum extent possible.

Use of Airstrikes

On June 2, CJTF-OIR published its monthly civilian casualty report. The report found that: “To date, based on information available, CJTF-OIR assesses that, it is more likely than not, at least 484 civilians have been unintentionally killed by Coalition strikes since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve.” During the same period, Airwars, a UK-based nongovernmental organization that monitors airstrikes, estimated that the minimum number of civilian casualties from US-led coalition strikes was more than 3,800, approximately eight times the number reported by the coalition. Following an investigation into a March 17 strike, the US has admitted that its forces killed at least 105 civilians in just one strike when targeting two ISIS fighters. US military officials have said that non-US coalition members are responsible for at least 80 of the 484 fatalities, but none of the coalition members have publicly admitted responsibility.

Frontline medical workers have said they are seeing a higher number of traumatic injuries among civilians, including crush injuries on civilians stuck under rubble after attacks in west Mosul, than they saw in east Mosul and during previous operations in Iraq. One doctor estimated that, since the beginning of the Mosul operation in October, medical facilities have seen at least 12,000 wounded civilians, with more than 50 percent coming from west Mosul. An aid worker keeping a tally of bodies coming out of west Mosul said that, since mid-March, 650 bodies had been pulled out of the rubble of destroyed buildings in the aftermath of attacks by both sides.

Human Rights Watch analysis of satellite imagery of western Mosul identified more than 380 distinct impact sites in the Tanak neighborhood, west of the Old City, consistent with the detonation of large, airdropped munitions occurring between March 8 and April 26, 2017.

A review of damaged locations showed a majority of these airstrikes most likely targeted mixed residential and commercial buildings, with a substantial minority of strikes targeting main roads and road intersections across the neighborhood. Human Rights Watch has no information as to whether there were any military targets in or near the buildings and roads.

Although this apparently accurate targeting pattern of the road network is consistent with the use of guided munitions, Human Rights Watch found that the majority of impact craters in Tanak measured 10 or more meters in diameter, consistent with the use of conventional airdropped bombs weighing between 500 and 1,000 lbs.

Airstrikes on roads consistently resulted in impact craters impeding vehicle traffic as well as secondary damage to hundreds of residential and commercial buildings within the blast zone.

The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects such as air-dropped bombs of this size on probable military targets in densely populated civilian areas of western Mosul may be resulting in civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects that is excessive to the anticipated military objectives of the strikes. Such disproportionate military attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law.

Use of Improvised Rocket-Assisted Munitions

Two international observers told Human Rights Watch they had witnessed the presence of IRAM launchers as well as IRAMs being fired on numerous occasions from May 5 to 14. They saw Federal Police-marked and Emergency Division-marked launchers mounted on wheeled vehicles in areas northwest of west Mosul, and in a western and southern neighborhood of west Mosul. In the village of Badoush, 10 kilometers northwest of the city, one observed IRAMs and IRAM launchers at an Emergency Response Division military workshop.

Three other observers and at least one media outlet confirmed that the munitions were being fired. One observer said the Emergency Response Division fired multiple munitions from Haramat neighborhood west of the Old City in the direction of the Old City in early May, while another said he saw the Federal Police fire at least 13 IRAMs from a neighborhood just south of the Old City into the Old City over two days in mid-April. They said that the armed forces would not allow any photos of the munitions being fired. The third said that in mid-May he saw the Emergency Response Division fire at least six into the Old City from Badoush.

Two observers who were able to examine the munitions closely said they saw a small metal barrel containing an unknown type of propelling charge, attached to the sawn-off nose of a 105mm artillery projectile, equipped with a fuze. The warhead was welded to a shaft, which included a rocket. Small homemade fins were bolted and welded to the shaft near its base. The launching pods were elevated using a hydraulic system from the rear deck of the wheeled vehicles. One observed that the rockets did not fit snuggly into the launcher tubes, which could lead to an uneven distribution of the rocket motor’s blast when initiated, leading to an unstable launch and subsequent deviation of the trajectory. The observers said that there was no visible sighting or laying system on the vehicles or launching pods, which would allow the position of the weapon to be shifted to hit a specific target, making even attempting to aim the rockets with any accuracy impossible.

Use of Mortars

Recent photos and a video posted by the US military and Reuters depicting the firing of mortars outside Mosul raise concerns about the firing of unguided and inaccurate weapons into the densely populated Old City. The photos, posted to a US military web account, are dated March 18 and 19. They depict the use of three different mortar systems: the M224, which fires a 60-milimeter projectile; the M252, which fires an 81-milimeter projectile; and the M120, which fires a 120-milimeter projectile. In the photos, the projectiles used appear to be standard high-explosive rounds.

In the video posted by the US Military on May 19, both the M252 and M120 mortars are observed. In the photos and video available, the projectiles used appear to be standard high-explosive rounds. Photos posted by Reuters on May 27 show Iraqi Emergency Response Division forces loading and firing an Al-Jaleel 82mm mortar system on the outskirts of Mosul. A larger system, the Al-Jaleel 120mm mortar, appears off to the side. None of the projectiles for the mortars depicted in either the photos or video were guidance munitions.

Mortar systems using unguided projectiles are fundamentally inaccurate weapons and can only hit the area near an identified target. As such, the location each round strikes cannot be determined with a high degree of accuracy before its use. Rounds are fired by mortar teams and a “spotter” is used to observe each impact and recommend adjustments in aim to the crew to adjust the fire and eventually achieve desired effects on the intended target, be it suppression, incapacitation, or destruction. The first round fired after a mortar tube and baseplate are set-up is called a registering round, which allows the weapon to settle and for the spotter to see how accurate the initial calculation was.

If the initial round does not strike the target, additional rounds will be fired and their impacts observed until the right calculation is made. Common methods for ensuring the round strikes the intended target include “walking” the round onto the target or “bracketing.” The former method involves firing one round and then making incremental lateral or vertical adjustments to the weapon until the round strikes the target. The latter method involves making broader lateral or vertical adjustments so that the round strikes either side of the target until an accurate calculation can be made and the target is hit.

Use of Multi-Barrel Rocket Launchers

Recent photos published by Reuters depict Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, also known as Hashd al-Sha’abi, utilizing a variant of the BM-21 Grad multi-barrel rocket launcher on the outskirts of Mosul. Use of this weapon compounds concerns about the use of area-fire explosive weapons in the densely populated Old City. Grad systems fire 122-milimeter artillery rockets launched from up to 40 launch tubes. Most Grad rockets have a range of 1.5 to 20 kilometers. The rockets vary in length from 1.9 to 3.3 meters and weigh 45 to 75 kilograms. Most types of Grad rockets are unguided and can only be targeted on an area, and are often fired in salvos by their launchers to rapidly saturate an area.

Grad rockets can be equipped with various types of warheads. The most common is a high explosive/fragmentation type, which contains approximately 6.4 kilograms of high explosive and is designed to produce 3,150 fragments, which can kill or injure within a radius of 28 meters from its impact point. At its maximum range of some 20 kilometers, the most common rocket (9M22U) with the basic high explosive/fragmentation (M-21-OF) warhead is only accurate within a rectangle of 336 meters by 160 meters. In other words, from its aim point, the rocket could land anywhere within a rectangle of approximately 54,000 square meters.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

#StopArmingSaudi

Why stop the arms sales?

President Trump wants to sell more than $100 billion of weapons to Saudi Arabia.

There is a real risk Saudi Arabia would use those weapons in unlawful attacks in Yemen, a country not only home to a war between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi-Saleh forces, but where at least seven million people are on the brink of famine and thousands infected with cholera.

Human Rights Watch has documented 81 apparently unlawful coalition attacks since the conflict started in March 2015. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes have bombed civilian areas, including markets, schools, and hospitals, and have killed thousands of civilians.

The coalition has used US-made weapons in some of these unlawful attacks, including the some of the deadliest. Human Rights Watch found that the Saudi-led coalition used US weapons in a bombing on a market in northern Yemen in March 2016 which killed at least 97 civilians, including 25 children. Only a few months later, in October, the coalition again used US weapons to bomb a funeral ceremony in Yemen’s capital, killing more than 100 people and wounding hundreds more.

The US could be complicit in future coalition war crimes if it continues to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Overall, more than 13,000 civilians have been killed or wounded in Yemen. More than three million people have been displaced. At least 80 percent of the population now relies on some form of humanitarian assistance.

This Senate Joint Resolution would attempt to block some of the latest US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and send a strong bipartisan signal to the Saudi government that the US is not going to reward Saudi Arabia war crimes with weapons. Tell your Senator to support this resolution now.

CALL YOUR SENATOR

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Before and after satellite imagery of Tanak neighborhood, Mosul April 10 and 26, 2017. Satellite imagery © DigitalGlobe 2017

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – The civilian death toll from a series of apparent Iraqi Security Force or United States-led coalition attacks between February and April 2017 suggests that the forces took inadequate precautions to avoid civilian casualties and that further investigation is needed, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch documented seven attacks that resulted in at least 44 civilian deaths in five populated neighborhoods of west Mosul controlled by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). 

Human Rights Watch analysis of satellite imagery of western Mosul identified over 380 distinct impact sites in the Tanak neighborhood, where three of the seven attacks occurred, consistent with the detonation of large, air-dropped munitions between March 8 and April 26, when Iraqi forces declared they had regained control of the area. Munitions of this size can pose an excessive risk to civilians when used in populated areas, given their large blast and fragmentation radius. All warring parties should cease using explosive weapons with wide area effects in densely populated west Mosul.

Human Rights Watch identified over 380 distinct impact sites in Tanak neighborhood in Mosul.

© 2017 Human Rights Watch

“Residents and displaced people have sheltered for months in crowded houses, with ISIS sometimes using them as human shields, so any strikes – including the choice of weapons – should take these conditions into account,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “As Iraqi and coalition forces press forward with the west Mosul offensive, they should make sure that civilian casualties are kept to a minimum.”

A US airstrike in Mosul on March 17 that killed up to 200 people, previously documented by Human Rights Watch, used a 500-pound bomb to target two ISIS fighters on a roof, according to a military investigation of the incident.

Anti-ISIS forces should take all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of warfare to minimize incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, and damage to civilian objects, including in their choice of weaponry in heavily populated areas, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch also documented six incidents in which ISIS fighters shot at and killed or wounded civilians fleeing ISIS-held areas or in which the people fleeing detonated improvised landmines laid by ISIS. 

Smoke rising from west Mosul where Iraqi Security Forces are fighting Islamic State fighters to retake the city.

© May 8, 2017 Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

In mid-February, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) supported by the US-led coalition, known as the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), began the offensive to retake west Mosul, a densely populated set of urban neighborhoods still home to around 200,000 civiliansAt least 614,524 people have fled the area since February 19, 2017, according to Iraqi authorities, but thousands more remain trapped under deadly conditions, risking ISIS sniper fire and improvised landmines when they attempt to flee. 

Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm whether the seven Iraqi forces or coalition attacks it documented were air or ground-launched, or identify the munitions. The locations were under ISIS control. ISIS fighters were present in or next to the homes destroyed right before or at the same time in three of the attacks, within 50 meters in two incidents, and were not in close proximity in two others, survivors and witnesses said.

At least two incidents with no clear military target in the vicinity that killed at least 13 civilians may have been unlawful. The remaining attacks may have caused disproportionate civilian harm in comparison to the military advantage gained, in violation of international humanitarian law.

Civilians living in each of the homes hit by the seven attacks said they had tried to leave the neighborhood, sometimes repeatedly, as fighting grew close to the area, but that ISIS fighters threatened to kill them or attacked them when they tried to leave. 

All parties to the conflict are prohibited under the laws of war from conducting deliberate, indiscriminate, or disproportionate attacks against civilians or civilian objects. Indiscriminate attacks strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. An attack is disproportionate if it may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life or damage to civilian objects that would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the attack.

Human Rights Watch contacted CJTF-OIR regarding the seven attacks. The coalition confirmed its forces most likely carried out one of the attacks, on the Mosul Railway Station neighborhood, killing 10 civilians, but did not respond definitively on the remaining incidents. 

Human Rights Watch has previously raised concerns about individual coalition members’ targeting procedures. As a result of procedural changes made in December 2016, media reported the US, which leads the coalition, removed the requirement that the “strike cell” in Baghdad approve certain strikes. The rule change means that the US is now carrying out some strikes without the benefit of the strike cell’s information and targeting recommendations. The US should reinstate these procedures, or equivalent ones.

Human Rights Watch also remains concerned that the coalition reporting mechanism has failed to adequately reflect the extent of civilian casualties caused by members. On June 2, 2017, CJTF-OIR published its monthly civilian casualty report. The report found that, “To date, based on information available, CJTF-OIR assesses that, it is more likely than not, at least 484 civilians have been unintentionally killed by coalition strikes since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve.” During the same period, Airwars, a United Kingdom-based nongovernmental organization that monitors airstrikes, estimated that the minimum number of civilian casualties from US-led coalition strikes was over 3,800, approximately eight times the number reported by the coalition. US military officials have said that non-US coalition members are responsible for at least 80 of the 484 fatalities, but none of the coalition members have publicly admitted responsibility.

In addition to coalition reporting, each member country has an individual responsibility under international law to conduct thorough, prompt, and impartial investigations of alleged serious violations of international humanitarian law for strikes in which it has been involved. Coalition members vary in their documentation and investigation of civilian casualties

Although the coalition now jointly conducts preliminary assessments of alleged civilian casualties, coalition members should not rely on other coalition members, or broader coalition reporting, to collect information or to assess whether a strike they have conducted complies with the law. 

The coalition, member countries operating in the area, and Iraqi authorities should investigate their role in attacks reported to cause serious violations of international humanitarian law, including by interviewing survivors, and not just rely on self-reporting and/or battle damage assessments, Human Rights Watch said. Should there be evidence of war crimes – including serious violations of the laws of war committed with criminal intent – any perpetrator of the crime should be prosecuted, including any commander responsible under the principle of command responsibility. 

The apparent lack of compensation to victims of coalition operations also remains a critical concern. A coalition spokesperson told Human Rights Watch that the coalition has only received two compensation requests, and has made two condolence payments since the beginning of Operation Inherent Resolve. Members of the coalition involved in military operations should take appropriate steps to verify civilian casualties, identify the victims, and deliver appropriate compensation in the case of violations of international law. Human Rights Watch also recommends appropriate “condolence” or ex gratia payments – those made without legal obligation – for civilian harm. 

“Individual countries shouldn’t hide behind the coalition and wash their hands of responsibility,” Motaparthy said. “Coalition members should take responsibility for the strikes they carry out by investigating those that may have been serious violations, particularly given how inadequate coalition investigations have been.” 

The Satellite Imagery
Human Rights Watch analyzed satellite imagery of the Tanak neighborhood, where three of the attacks documented took place, and identified over 380 distinct impact sites consistent with the detonation of large, air-dropped munitions between March 8 and April 26, 2017. A review of damaged locations showed that a majority of these airstrikes most likely targeted mixed residential and commercial buildings, with a substantial minority targeting main streets and intersections. Human Rights Watch has no information as to whether there were any military targets in or near the sites.

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Before and after satellite imagery of Tanak neighborhood, Mosul April 10 and 26, 2017. Satellite imagery © DigitalGlobe 2017

Although this apparently accurate targeting pattern of the street network is consistent with the use of guided munitions, Human Rights Watch found that the majority of impact craters in Tanak measured 10 or more meters in diameter, consistent with the use of conventional air-dropped bombs weighing between 500 and 1,000 pounds. 

The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects such as air-dropped bombs of this size on probable military targets in densely populated civilian areas of western Mosul may be resulting in civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects that is excessive considering the anticipated military objectives of the strikes. Such disproportionate military attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law. In all cases, commanders and targeting officers should select weapons and specific munitions to minimize civilian casualties to the maximum extent possible.

Attacks that Resulted in Civilian Casualties, West Mosul

Neighborhood

Date and Time

Object Struck

Minimum Number of Civilians Killed

ISIS Presence

Risalah neighborhood

February 22, 8:30 a.m.

Home of Gargis Younes

2

Vehicle parked behind the house.

Mosul Railway Station area

Between March 3-6, 5:50 p.m.

Home

10

None in home.

Tanak neighborhood

Early April

Home, road

3

Three ISIS fighters firing at ISF, about 200 meters from strike that killed 3.

Sakkak neighborhood, Old City

April 10, 1 p.m.

Home

13

None in home. One fighter stationed on roof next door.

Thawra neighborhood

April 22

Home

Unknown

Seven fighters passed through the house minutes before the attack.

Tanak neighborhood

Between April 20-24

Home of Aissa Hannoush

13

ISIS fighting position in front of house. Four fighters passed through the house minutes before attack.

Tanak neighborhood

April 22 to 27

Two homes

3

Five ISIS fighters 30 meters from one home, firing toward ISF position.

 

Civilians living in each of the homes hit by the seven attacks said they had tried to leave the neighborhood, sometimes repeatedly, as fighting grew close, but that ISIS fighters threatened to kill them or attacked them when they tried to leave. 

Risalah Neighborhood, February 22, 2017

On February 22, at approximately 8:30 a.m., an explosive weapon hit the home of Gargis Younes, about 50 meters southeast of the Medina al-Munawwara mosque, killing two of his young children and wounding two others. The neighborhood housed a significant civilian population that continued to move within the area. Younes’s sister, Najla Abdullah, said he was with her at her house, about 100 meters from his home, at the time. 

Abdullah said she heard a plane overhead and shortly thereafter, a boy from the neighborhood came to her home and told them that Younes’s house had been hit. Alaa, Younes’s 10-year-old daughter, died immediately, while his 4-year-old son died later from his injuries. Thanoon, his 8-year-old son, and Rahma, his 6-year-old daughter, were injured but survived, and his wife was unharmed. Abdullah said:

My brother went to see his house. I stayed behind. First, they [people from the area] brought Alaa, his daughter, then the smallest child who died later, Younes. They [the wounded children] stayed with us until 4 p.m. We couldn’t go out, even to take them to the hospital.

The neighborhood was under ISIS control at the time of the attack, Abdullah said. Fighters were present throughout the area and had parked one of their cars behind Younes’s house, but Abdullah did not hear them firing weapons the morning of the attack, she said. Her brother noticed the car on the way to her house that morning, 30 minutes before the strike, she said. 

The neighborhood continued to house a significant civilian population. Abdullah’s family, and her brother’s, had been living in the area continuously, reflecting that the force that carried out the attack should have been able to observe the civilian presence in the area through surveillance. The attack occurred during the ISF operation to regain control of the area, Abdullah said. Due to heavy fighting that day, the family could not take the injured children to the hospital until that evening. 

A local media source reported heavy airstrikes in seven west Mosul neighborhoods, including Risalah, days before on February 20, stating that the airstrikes “kill[ed] over two dozen ISIS militants, and destroy[ed] three VBIEDs, three mortar positions and four rocket positions.”

Human Rights Watch requested information from CJTF-OIR on whether the coalition had conducted airstrikes in the area, and received the following response: “We could not find a previous allegation or a coalition strike that correlates to this date and location. However, we will take this information and conduct a more thorough assessment on this allegation.” 

Human Rights Watch was not able to determine whether ISIS fighters had been killed in this attack, or their firing position destroyed, as Abdullah did not visit the strike site after the attack. 

Mosul Railway Station Area, March 3, 2017
At around 5:50 p.m. on March 3, three attacks killed at least 10 civilians including at least three children, in three homes near the Mosul Railway Station. The attacks appear to have been coalition airstrikes, based on the coalition’s public reporting.

Amr Sultan, 27, said that ISIS fighters were present throughout the neighborhood the day of the attack and that multiple car bombs had gone off in the area during the preceding weeks. He said he and eight members of his family had taken shelter in an abandoned one-story house several months earlier, after fleeing fighting in their area. Several other families had sought shelter in other houses in the same row. He said no ISIS fighters were in the house he was living in when it was hit and that Iraqi forces were stationed 700-800 meters away.

Sultan said he heard the sound of multiple aircrafts that day. He believed the house was hit by an airstrike because he heard planes flying low overhead, and because of the extent of the damage. The 250-square-meter house was completely destroyed, he said. The attack was one of three strikes on the row of homes.

When we were eating dinner, the plane struck. Next door was struck first, then us, then our neighbors on the other side. There was just a second between the strikes.

Of the nine people in the house, he said, five died: Aisha, his mother, 50; Abeer, his sister, 23; Hadeel, his sister, 17; Farah, his daughter, 4; and Ayham, his son, 3. Amr was severely burned on his head and ear, and his wife and two brothers were also injured, he said:

We spent one hour waiting for help. Some of the people – my sister, the children – died from suffocation [under the rubble]. We buried the bodies the next day.

Five civilians in the house next door died as well, he said. Amr helped bury the bodies. He did not know if any ISIS fighters had been killed. He and his family members had tried to escape the area a week earlier, as the fighting grew closer, but ISIS fighters told them they were not allowed to leave, he said. 

Based on an inquiry Human Rights Watch sent to the US-led coalition, a CJTF-OIR spokesperson stated, “it appears this allegation correlates to a credible report of civilian casualties near a train station released in the last CJTF-OIR Monthly Civilian Casualty Report.” The report states that on “March 3, 2017, near Mosul, Iraq, via self-report: During a strike on an ISIS headquarters, it was assessed that 10 civilians were unintentionally killed.” 

Al Jazeera, citing unnamed security sources, reported that coalition airstrikes in the same neighborhood killed 28 people, including eight ISIS fighters, on the evening of March 5. 

The coalition, any member country operating in the area, and Iraqi authorities, should investigate the attack, which may have been unlawful given the number of civilian casualties, and the apparent absence of ISIS fighters or positions in the immediate vicinity. The presence of several civilian families in the area, some of whom had been living there for months or weeks, should have been evident from pre-strike surveillance. If no wrongdoing is found, the country responsible for the attack should consider condolence payments to civilian victims, including members of the Sultan family. Should there be evidence of war crimes – including serious violations of the law of war committed with criminal intent – any perpetrator of the crime should be prosecuted, including any commander responsible under the principle of command responsibility. 

Tanak Neighborhood, Early April 2017
Saddam Hussein, 18, from west Mosul, said that in early April, at around 8 p.m., he was praying at his home in the Tanak neighborhood, when he heard aircraft overhead. He heard the sound of two munitions detonating, one of which hit the home opposite, and the other the road about 150 meters from his house, leaving a crater but not affecting any home or wounding anyone. 

The home that was hit, a single-story house of three rooms and about 150 square meters, was completely destroyed when the munition landed in the kitchen, where some of the 20 members of the family were gathered. Three died, including two children. No fighters were in the home at the time, Hussein said:

I heard the screams of women and children and my father ran into my room and told me we needed to go help them. I told him we should wait, to be sure a third strike would not hit, before we went outside. After waiting a bit, we went over, and with the help of our neighbors pulled out two girls and two boys who were still alive because they had not been in the kitchen. I pulled out another boy, 3 years old, and when I opened his shirt, all of his organs spilled out and he died.

They pulled out the body of the father of the family, who was missing his head and one of his arms, as well as the body of a baby. Hussein said the front line between ISIS and the Iraqi forces was about 200 meters away and that he had seen at least three ISIS fighters firing at the Iraqi forces from their position there. The strike on the road landed about 50 meters from their position, he estimated.

Human Rights Watch requested information from CJTF-OIR on whether the coalition had conducted airstrikes in the area. A CJTF-OIR spokesperson stated the coalition could neither confirm nor deny participation in the attack due to the lack of a more specific date range.

Sakkak Nighborhood, Old City, April 10, 2017
An attack against ISIS killed 13 civilians from five families on April 10, in the Sakkak neighborhood, west of the Old City in west Mosul. 

Iyad, 40, a shopkeeper, said that on the morning of April 10, Sakkak neighborhood, which was heavily populated by civilians at the time, was still under ISIS control. He was in his house, a single-story building of about 200 square meters. 

He said the family of his next-door neighbor, Waleed Abu Nour, came to his house to seek refuge that morning because they had seen an ISIS fighter with a gun on their roof. He brought two other families who had been staying with him for several days, waiting for an opportunity to escape ISIS control. Iyad’s brother’s family was there as well. In all, about 32 civilians were in Iyad’s home.

At about 1 p.m. as the families were finishing lunch, they started hearing heavier fire nearby, he said:

I ran to hide under the stairs as I started hearing an airplane overhead in addition to the gunfire. Suddenly a huge explosion threw my back against the wall. I crawled out of a pile of rubble as I started to hear screams all around me. I could not see anything though because of all the dust in the air. Finally, the air cleared a bit and us men started carrying the 12 women and children who survived out to a house down the road from us. We could not get the dead out immediately though, there was gunfire all around us so we quickly fled back to the house down the road.

The munition landed between Iyad’s small shop and the room where all the women stayed. Iyad’s hands were wounded, but he and the other survivors, some of whom were lightly wounded, did not go to the hospital. 

Iyad said that he could hear Iraqi forces a few hundred meters away at the time of the attack. Iyad’s mother and 5-year-old daughter died in the attack. Abu Nour’s wife and two sons and the wife and daughter of one of the visiting families died. Iyad’s brother as well as his brother’s wife and four children died. Only one of his brother’s sons survived. 

Iyad said there were no ISIS fighters in his home at the time of the strike, nor any wounded or killed in the attack. He said that his neighbor’s house, where the ISIS fighter had been stationed on the roof, was barely damaged. Three adjacent houses were lightly damaged. 

Iyad and his relatives returned to the site three days later, after seeking refuge in another neighborhood under Iraqi forces’ control, and saw that the area was fully under Iraqi forces’ control. They buried the bodies at a local cemetery.

An Iraqi military officer in the neighborhood at the time of the attack told a media outlet that an airstrike on April 10 in neighboring Yarmouk area targeted ISIS fighters on the roofs of civilian homes, destroying two buildings, and burying an estimated 30 civilians under the rubbleAn April 16 report by the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights also documented the attack in Yarmouk. 

In response to a Human Rights Watch request for information on the attack and confirmation of whether the coalition was responsible, CJTF-OIR responded, “We are aware of reports of possible civilian casualties in West Mosul on April 17. The Coalition conducted a strike near Yarmouk but cannot confirm the veracity of these reports. We will provide this information to our civilian casualty team for further assessment.”

Thawra Neighborhood, April 22, 2017
An attack on a civilian house sheltering 90 people in the ISIS-held Thawra neighborhood of west Mosul trapped 88 of them under rubble. Many were injured or killed. 

Nada Natham, 27, said that she, her husband, and her three young children were living in the two-room, single-story house along with several other families. Her family had fled Mosul’s old city to a relative’s house in the Thawra neighborhood, about two weeks earlier. She said that ISIS fighters came to the house three to four days before the attack and that seven of them stationed themselves on the roof, using passageways they created by breaking the walls of the house and the neighboring houses to move around. The fighters came into the house and told families they were not allowed to go toward Iraqi positions, though they wanted to leave the area, she said. 

On April 22, she said, the ISIS fighters spent about two hours on the roof, then came down through the house. The house was struck soon after:

We heard the sound of airplanes. We were on the ground covering our ears, we were frightened. The women were in one room, men in the other room.

The bomb hit the entrance to the yard. The house fell down. First me and Mojbal [the other uninjured person] went outside and tried to help the others. We couldn’t, so we shouted and neighbors came to help. They used shovels to dig people out of the rubble.

Natham’s husband’s back was broken and her three young children, ages 5, 8, and 9, were injured. Natham did not see that any ISIS fighters were killed or wounded. Forces carrying out the attack should have been able to observe the presence of civilians in the house for at least two weeks before the attack.

Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm the incident was an airstrike. According to a local media source, Iraqi forces had declared Thawra neighborhood liberated that day. Two Federal Police officers told the media outlet that the Rapid Response Division, a force under the command of the Interior Ministry, and the 3rd and 5th divisions of the Federal Police, also under the Interior Ministry, had carried out the operation with close air support. 

In response to a Human Rights Watch query on the incident, CJTF-OIR responded: “We could not find a previous allegation or a Coalition strike that correlates to this date and location. However, we will take this information and conduct a more thorough assessment on this allegation.” 

Tanak Neighborhood, April 20, 2017
An attack against ISIS targeted the home of Aissa Hannoush, a well-known resident in the area, on April 20, at about 6 p.m. Twenty-eight people lived in the house; the strike killed 13 and injured the others. The home wasabout 50 meters west of the Daham Ismail mosque in the Tanak neighborhood of west Mosul. Two survivors, as well as two people living on the same street, described the attack as an airstrike. 

Hadi Fathy, 26, who lived about five or six houses away, said he saw ISIS fighters park a minibus in front of the house and hide behind the vehicle while firing small arms and light weapons at Iraqi forces positioned at the other end of the block. His father, standing at the door of the house, which stood between the two forces, told him that two or three ISIS fighters had entered the home before it was struck, but he did not see them himself. 

Khodar Allo and his wife Rafat Attiya, along with their family and other displaced families, were staying in the home of Hannoush, who was their neighbor. The house was sheltering four families, including Omar Hannoush, Aissa Hannoush’s son, and his family; the Allo family; and another family who lived on the street but felt the Hannoush home was more secure than their own due to its size and position. At around 3:30 p.m., two munitions hit the house. Allo said:

A rocket came to the living room and I was in that room, but the first one didn’t explode. It made a “zzzzz” sound, and after five minutes it exploded. Then another one came. The second rocket hit the women’s room.

Attiya said that four ISIS fighters had come through the house just a few minutes before the strike. Fighters demanded entry through the front door, then passed through an opening they had broken in the back, which allowed them to move to neighboring houses. They were gone by the time the strike hit. She said that the second munition, which hit the room where she and other women were staying, also did not explode for a few minutes. “[The weapon] made a hole, half was above and half was below,” she said. Both survivors said that after the munitions struck, the house fell down around them. Attiya said six people died in the neighboring home as well.

The Hannoush home was a one-story house of five rooms, about 450 square meters. Allo had severe burns all over his body, while his wife had fragmentation injuries and burns; their daughter, Amal Khadar, 25, and grandson Anis Haikal, 15, were among those who died. 

The family had tried to leave the area three times, but ISIS fighters prevented them, Attiya said: “We tried leaving by night. ISIS saw us each time, and told us to go back.”

Saleh al-Rahim lived on the same street. After the bombing, he said, his own family remained in their house:

We couldn’t go out, because of the heavy fighting. Around maghreb[sunset prayer], we heard the sound of people shouting and crying for help. It was about 100 meters away.

The next day, at about 6 a.m., he and other people in the neighborhood went to rescue any survivors and retrieve the bodies. “We could still hear people shouting from the rubble, ‘Please help us!’” he said.

They retrieved Omar Hannoush, 22, who was burned all over his body and later died, and Ghazwan, a neighbor, 22, who died of his injuries at 6 p.m. that day. Fathy and other neighborhood residents buried 13 bodies in a neighbor’s yard. They could not go to the graveyard, he said, because of the continued fighting.

In response to a Human Rights Watch query on this incident, the press desk of the CJTF-OIR responded: “We could not find a previous allegation or a Coalition strike that correlates to this date and location. However, we will take this information and conduct a more thorough assessment on this allegation.” 

Human Rights Watch found that the attack may have been unlawful, due to the number of civilian casualties, and the lack of evidence any ISIS fighters had been killed in the attack. Any attack should have anticipated civilian casualties, based on surveillance, since the Hannoush family had continuously occupied the house, and additional families continued to move in between a few weeks and several days before the strike. Several other houses on the street were continuously occupied by civilians. The coalition, any member country operating in the area at the time, and Iraqi authorities should further investigate and if no wrongdoing is found, the country responsible for the attack should consider condolence payments to civilian victims and their families. Should there be evidence of war crimes – including serious violations of the law of war committed with criminal intent – any perpetrator of the crime should be prosecuted, including any commander responsible under the principle of command responsibility. 

Tanak Neighborhood, Between April 22 and 27
Mawza Thanoon, 46, from the Tanak neighborhood, said that in late April, her neighborhood was still fully under ISIS control and still heavily populated, with Iraqi forces holding a position about 600 meters away, from what she and neighbors could determine from ongoing shooting. At about 1 p.m., she started to hear aircraft overhead and suddenly a munition hit the front of her home, collapsing it. A few minutes later, another munition hit the front portion of another single-story home about 20 meters away. 

Thanoon was uninjured, and no one else was at home, but the other strike killed two children and a young man, and wounded another, all of whom had been standing on the street outside. Immediately before the strike, she had seen at least five ISIS fighters about 30 meters from her home, firing in the direction of Iraqi positions. She said that airstrikes had been targeting the area daily for a month. The attacking forces should have observed civilians in the area, given the presence of civilians who had been continuously living in the area.

In response to a Human Rights Watch request for information on the attack and confirmation of whether the coalition was responsible, CJTF-OIR responded that the coalition did not conduct airstrikes in the Tanak area during that period.

ISIS Use of Civilians as Human Shields
Human Rights Watch found that ISIS used civilians as human shields in this phase of the fighting in Mosul, using the presence of civilians to make their forces, or a particular area, immune from military operations. Fighters positioned themselves on the roofs or in front of houses where civilians had sought shelter.

Furthermore, ISIS fighters forbade civilians from leaving front-line neighborhoods, and attacked civilians who tried to escape, killing some. This may have been because they intended to use the civilians as human shields, but in any event, this violates their duty to remove civilians under their control from the vicinity of possible military targets.

Abdullah Saleh, 35, who fled Tanak neighborhood in early April, said his son was killed by ISIS gunfire as they tried to escape, along with 20 other families. “An ISIS fighter was chasing us and shooting,” he said. “My wife told me, ‘I feel something hot on my shoulder.’ She was carrying our 2-month-old baby. When I looked, I saw our child had been shot in his head, and blood was coming down. I just told her to keep going.” A woman in her 40s fleeing from Tanak in a group of 50 to 60 families said that an explosive munition that came from the direction of ISIS-controlled territory struck their group, killing three and injuring at least 15, including her three children. 

Fatouma Ismail, another west Mosul resident, said that when she fled al-Islah al-Zerai neighborhood days before the Iraqi forces retook it, her two nephews carrying her two daughters stepped on an improvised landmine. One nephew lost both of his legs, the other lost one leg, and the girls were injured. The devices were emplaced in ISIS-controlled areas, and are consistent with a pattern Human Rights Watch previously documented of ISIS using such improvised landmines.

The laws of war apply to all sides in the fighting in Iraq, including ISIS, which should remove civilians under their control from the vicinity of possible military targets, including their own fighters. Using civilians as human shields is a war crime.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am