François Hollande Backs Allegations of Toxic Chemical Use in Syria

Free Syrian Army fighters, Idlib, North Syria, March 2012. Photo: FreedomHouse for Flickr

Free Syrian Army fighters, Idlib, North Syria, March 2012. Photo: FreedomHouse for Flickr

Paris. – The U.S. is investigating allegations that a toxic chemical, probably chlorine, was used against rebels in Syria earlier this month. The claims gained traction when the French government said it had “information” of toxic gases being used against opposition targets.

The U.S. State Department is examining if the Syrian government was responsible. This investigation could reveal that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has violated an international agreement to destroy Syria’s lethal chemical stockpiles.

We have indications of the use of a toxic chemical weapon,” said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki, referring to an incident in the town of Kfar Zeita, which lies in a rebel controlled area in Hama Province, about 125 miles north of Damascus.

Syrian opposition activists reported that helicopters dropped chlorine gas on Kfar Zeita on April 11 and 12. The Assad government also reported a poison gas attack on April 11. The rebels and the government have blamed each other. The United Nations has not yet determined what happened.

We are examining allegations that the government was responsible,” Psaki told a news briefing this week, continuing, “Obviously there needs to be an investigation of what’s happening here.” Psaki declined to substantiate the allegations with evidence or to specify whether chlorine can be considered a chemical weapon.

President François Hollande made similar claims on Europe Radio 1, saying that, “several elements suggest recent use of chemical weapons.” Hollande was no more specific about the basis for his claim, which he said was not yet proven. He went on to say that the incident “was much less significant than those in Damascus… but very deadly.”

Hollande’s reference was to several incidents in summer 2013, when global outrage followed the use of sarin gas in the outskirts of Damascus and in several other locations, including the rebel held suburb of Ghoutta. A U.N. inquiry in December found that hundreds of people were killed in the attacks. France, the United States, and Britain blamed the Assad government for the attacks, and the conflict nearly resulted in U.S. military air strikes against Syrian military bases. U.S. military involvement was ultimately unnecessary as Assad subsequently agreed to give up Syrian chemical stockpiles under a deal brokered by Russia and the U.S.

Under the Russian-U.S. Agreement, chlorine was not recognized as a priority one or priority two chemical that Syria was required to declare to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Syria failed to meet a February 5 deadline to move all of its declared 1,300 metric tons of chemical substances and precursors out of the country. The OPCW has been overseeing the destruction of Syria’s known lethal agents and has set a new deadline for April 27. The head of the International Chemical Weapons Commission estimated that Syria has destroyed about 80 percent of the material.

President Obama has said in the past that the deliberate gassing of civilians crosses a “red line” that requires a U.S. response. Last August when the U.S. was preparing to intervene in Syria, Hollande said, “France is ready to punish those who took the decision to gas the innocent.”

This time, when pressed on what he would do on Europe Radio 1, the French leader responded, “What I do know is what we have seen from this regime are the horrific methods it is capable of using and the rejection of any political transition.”

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