Op-Ed: 9 years after the Ghouta chemical attack, witnesses and relatives of the victims continue on a long path towards justice


August 22, 2022

Sunday marked the ninth anniversary of the Ghouta chemical massacre on August 21, 2013. The attack claimed the lives of at least 1,347 people in the East and West Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, and injured more than 10,626 others, more than two-thirds of whom were children and women. Every year, Syrians keep its memory alive, bringing the events and pain of that day back to the forefront. 

In April 2018, the Syrian regime took control of East Ghouta and regained access to all its territories, including the graves of the martyrs and the targeted sites. During the regime’s military campaign to retake the area, another chemical weapons attack occurred on April 7, 2018, in Douma city. 

From 2012 to the 2018 Douma chemical massacre, the Syrian regime used chemical weapons more than 200 times. The 2013 Ghouta attack was strike number 32

Weeks after the 2013 massacre, the United States and Russia reached a deal in Geneva on September 14, 2013. Under the agreement, Syria acceded to the international Chemical Weapons Convention and pledged to eliminate its arsenal of chemical weapons. In return, the US government stopped pressing for a military campaign against Damascus, and then-President Obama’s red line regarding chemical weapons was disregarded. 

In the United Nations Security Council, the agreement translated into Resolution 2118. Article 15 of the resolution expressed “strong conviction that those individuals responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic should be held accountable.” In the event of “non-compliance with this resolution,” Article 21 stated that measures would be imposed “under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.”

Although the two Ghouta chemical massacres are among the few instances in which international investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) or the UN had access to the scene and directly collected samples, there is still no report from any international body proving the regime’s responsibility for the 2013 attack. Several reports prove its responsibility for other strikes. We are still waiting for the results of the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team’s investigation of the April 2018 Douma attack. 

 

A UN employee during a visit to East Ghouta after it was targeted by chemical weapons, 28/8/2013 (Web)

 

Syrian regime forces now control most areas where large residential complexes were targeted with chemical weapons. These areas include East Ghouta, southern Idlib and northern Hama, as well as the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo city targeted during the regime’s military campaign in the second half of 2016. 

Where are the witnesses today?

The victims and witnesses of chemical attacks are either currently in regime-controlled areas or have been displaced, leaving their families and loved ones there. The regime has spared no efforts in intimidating and threatening their families’ safety in order to silence witnesses—particularly medical and rescue staff—and prevent them from communicating and working with investigative committees. 

The regime has also tampered with the cemeteries in which victims of chemical attacks were buried, especially those killed by the 2018 Douma strike, according to human rights reports.

Several reports have also pointed to severe pressure on investigative committees. An investigation by the New York Times noted that several pages containing details about the 2018 Douma strike were deleted from the September 2018 report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. The OPCW also opened a lengthy investigation in 2019 into allegations by two of its members for breaches of confidentiality.

The involvement of Russian security services at the highest levels in campaigns to distort facts and intimidate witnesses appears clear. This includes Russian General Alexander Zorin, who himself led intimidation campaigns against Douma massacre witnesses, and who facilitated the 2018 East Ghouta settlement agreements. 

A significant escalation in propaganda, intimidation and distortion of facts, accompanied by the displacement of witnesses and relatives of the victims, has left them more vulnerable and subject to pressure. Today, our witnesses are displaced people seeking shelter, identification papers and a new way to make a living, while their families are at Assad’s mercy. 

It is agonizing for the witnesses of any crime for propaganda and those who promote it to succeed in creating doubt about the facts they lived through and witnessed with their own eyes, facts which they risked their lives in the most difficult circumstances to place before investigators, without any path of international accountability. 


The testimony of one survivor of the 2013 Ghouta massacre (in Arabic), 23/8/2020 (Syria Direct)

Instead of a path of accountability, today we see several states seeking normalization with Assad, day by day. It is very painful for survivors and witnesses to wait for investigation after investigation, report after report, without any clear procedure or path for a mechanism to use the heaps of information and reports issued by the five committees that investigated chemical weapons used in Syria over the past years. 

Efforts to combat impunity and the distortion of facts

There are some international efforts to combat impunity in the use of chemical weapons, including the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, launched in Paris on January 23, 2018. The body brings together 40 countries and the European Union, and aims to complement international mechanisms against the proliferation of chemical weapons. 

The OPCW’s council of member states also suspended Syria’s membership in April 2021. But all of this falls short of efforts made in large part by eyewitness groups and non-governmental organizations. 

Over the past two years, non-governmental efforts have begun on several tracks. A group of Syrian civil society organizations, in cooperation with international organizations, filed criminal complaints about the use of chemical weapons with European judicial bodies, using universal jurisdiction in countries such as Germany, France and Sweden. 

The complaints were supported by detailed information and evidence, and it should be noted that NGO efforts would not have been possible without the surviving witnesses and families of the victims. 

In parallel, we see advocacy efforts through the Don’t Suffocate Truth campaign, in which activists and chemical weapons survivors are working hard to counter massive propaganda campaigns led by the regime and its allies. 

On August 19, the Association of Victims of Chemical Weapons released a statement  affirming that survivors continue to persist in demanding their rights, despite all the challenges and frustrating international circumstances. 

The issue of chemical weapons in Syria is a stick the international community can use whenever it wants. It does not lack information, reports or international resolutions. But Western countries today do not want to make greater efforts in the Syrian case. 

Witnesses and the families of the victims see this clearly. But they are not giving up. They are paving their way by themselves, with simple means, in isolation from international efforts. They are striving to preserve the truth and protect themselves and their families. 

 

This article was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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