A chlorine gas assault in Saraqeb, Idlib by the Syrian regime – possibly with Russian support – wounded multiple civilians including children according to local reports, with most victims suffering breathing difficulties.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights said that two barrel bombs were used in this attack. “At least 11 civilians, including three civil defense members, suffocated as Syrian regime helicopters dropped two barrel bombs loaded with poisonous gas on al Sharqi neighborhood in Saraqeb city in Idlib governorate eastern suburb, on February 4th.”
The number of wounded spanned from nine to 24, with the highest toll reported by Sharqiya. Orient News, which reported that 15 were wounded, said three children were among the victims. Both the White Helmets and Qasioun News reported that three civil defence members were among those injured in the attack.
Almost all sources reported the use of chlorine gas in the aerial strike. According to BBC News, residents and doctors in Saraqeb said there was a strong smell following the attack, suggesting that a toxic gas had been used.
Most sources attributed blame to helicopters belonging to the Assad regime. For example, Zaman al Wasl cited a member of the Civil Defense Center in Saraqeb, Laith al-Asmar, who said that “a helicopter belonging to the Assad regime targeted the city with two explosive barrels containing chlorine poison gas, which led to the occurrence of suffocation among civilians.”
However, sources were unclear about whether only the regime was to blame, or whether culpability was also shared with Russia. Mohab Naser reported that a dual strike had taken place, asserting that the Assad regime had carried out “chlorine gas targeting” while also adding that Russian airstrikes had also struck the city. And finally, Qasioun News attributed blame to “Russian warplanes, which belong to the Syrian regime”.
SMART News interviewed some of those injured, for example Arrab Haj Qasem (Syrian Civil Defense), and Dummar Haj Qasem. “I inhaled chlorine gas while rescuing the injured, my colleagues took off my clothes and poured water on my body, and rushed me to a medical point. I was feeling shortness of breath, severe headache, a high temperature in my body, burning eyes and nausea,” said Arrab Haj Qassem .
Another injured civilian, Eyad Maher Kafrtouni, told SMART News that he hid in a basement with six of his relatives when they knew that the regime attacked with a barrel bomb, and afterwards heard someone outside shouting “they are shelling with chlorine”, so they all went up to the top of the building, poured water on themselves and on an injured person until civil defense volunteers arrived.
Another witness, Hasan Husain al Safar, said that “what happened cannot be described,” adding: “We went to the roof of the building and moistened ourselves in water. I felt shortness of breath, a desire to vomit, and burning in the eyes, I cannot describe what happened with me.”
Rami Abu Omar, again from civil defense, said that despite putting on a protective mask he had inhaled the gas. “Suddenly I lost consciousness and woke up at a medical point. I am receiving the necessary treatment. I do not remember the details of what happened.”
The Syrian Center for Human Rights posted on its Facebook page that “a helicopter carrying the code Alpha 253 took off from the School of Mujanzarat east of Hama and took the northerly direction towards the countryside of Idlib and its noise was heard above Saraqeb. And after about 20 minutes, it dropped barrels of chlorine gas near residential neighborhoods in the city of Sarqeb. More than 12 civilians suffocated, in addition to three volunteers from the Syrian Civil Defense.”
According to testimony gathered by Amnesty International, eleven people needed emergency treatment after “the Syrian government’s use of internationally banned chemical weapons was laid bare once again on February 4th after a chlorine gas attack on the town of Saraqeb.” A civil defense volunteer told Amnesty that there was no sign of any military targets in the vicinity of the bombing. Amnesty, which blamed the Syrian regime for the attack, interviewed witnesses who also reported that the wounded “couldn’t breathe, they were coughing non-stop, they had red eyes and some were vomiting severely.”
Amnesty also quoted a Syrian civil defense volunteer as saying “We heard people crying for help somewhere on the road and others on the roof of a house. Around eight people were barely able to breathe and coughing non-stop. We gave them oxygen and transferred them to the hospital. While driving, I started to feel a shortness of breath, as if I couldn’t breathe alone, and itchiness in my eyes. I felt nausea as if I wanted to throw up. My friends felt the same but we weren’t sure what was going on. I vomited when I arrived at the hospital.”
Bellingcat conducted its own remote investigation into this incident in cooperation with Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), which also included testimonies from survivors. Locals pointed out that plants in the targeted area turned from green to yellow; and that many locals left the area afterwards. Images taken by SMART News and Idlib Media Center show a large area of yellowed grass surrounding the impact crater, possibly caused by the release of chlorine gas. They also took images of gas cylinders used in the attack. “This type of yellow gas cylinder has been documented at the site of multiple chlorine attacks over the past 4 years.”
The investigation quoted Hasan Qaddour, one of the medical personnel in Saraqeb who treated the victims: “The injured showed symptoms such as nausea, redness in the eyes, shortness of breath and burns in the throat, and all these symptoms indicate that they inhaled poisonous gases that could take away their lives if they were not provided the necessary care quickly. The medical staff at the medical points worked to provide health care to patients directly; we have documented 12 civilians who suffered from suffocation, including one child and three volunteers in the Civil Defense. All injuries ranged from light to medium.”
The local council of Saraqeb issued a statement reporting this attack and asking the UN urgently to investigate the use of internationally prohibited weapons against the Syrian people.
The UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, described in a briefing to the Council work being undertaken by the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Fact Finding Mission (FFM), which looks into all allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Nakamitsu said that “New reports by the FFM are pending. Should they conclude that there has been the use, or likely use, of chemical weapons in any of these alleged incidents, our obligation to enact a meaningful response will be further intensified.”
Meanwhile, allegations of chemical weapon use were continuing, she said, “including only this past weekend in the town of Saraqeb.”
The US Department of State released its own statement the following day, February 5th, expressing concern. “The United States is gravely alarmed by continued allegations of the use of chlorine gas by the Syrian Regime to terrorize innocent civilians, this time in Idlib Province near Saraqeb.” The statement noted that this attack was the sixth such reported incident in the last 30 days, and it implicitly blamed Russia given its involvement in Syria. The statement continues: “The Secretary noted last month in Paris that Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in East Ghouta and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons since Russia became involved in Syria. By shielding the Syrian regime from accountability, Russia has not lived up to its commitments. The use of chemical weapons by all parties in Syria must unequivocally stop. The people of Syria are suffering; the rest of the world is watching.”
The incident occured at approximately 9:00 pm local time.