Chemical weapons experts have determined that mustard gas was used during fighting in Syria in August, according to a report by an international watchdog seen by Reuters.
The chemical – which causes severe delayed burns to the eyes, skin and lungs and is banned under international law – was used during a battle between Islamic State insurgents and another rebel group, diplomatic sources said.
The confidential Oct. 29 report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a summary of which was shown to Reuters, concluded “with the utmost confidence that at least two people were exposed to sulfur mustard” in the town of Marea, north of Aleppo, on Aug. 21.
“It is very likely that the effects of sulfur mustard resulted in the death of a baby,” it said.
The report provides the first official confirmation of use of sulfur mustard, commonly known as mustard gas, in Syria since it agreed to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile, which included sulfur mustard.
It poses a dilemma for the U.N. Security Council because Syria is supposed to have completely surrendered the toxic chemicals 18 months ago. Their use violates U.N. Security Council resolutions and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.
Also “it raises the major question of where the sulfur mustard came from”, one source said. “Either they (IS) gained the ability to make it themselves, or it may have come from an undeclared stockpile overtaken by IS. Both are worrying options.”
The finding, which will be formally presented to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon later this month, adds to a growing body of evidence that the Islamic State group has obtained, and is using, chemical weapons in both Iraq and Syria.
Kurdish authorities said earlier this month that Islamic State fighters fired mortar rounds containing mustard agent at Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq during clashes in August. They said blood samples taken from around 35 fighters who were exposed in the attack southwest of the regional capital of Erbil showed “signatures” of mustard gas.
A team of OPCW experts has been sent to Iraq to confirm the findings and is expected to obtain its own samples later this month, one diplomat said.
A special session has been called by the OPCW’s 41-member Executive Council to discuss the Syrian findings and it will be held in The Hague on Nov. 23, sources at the OPCW told Reuters.
Sulfur mustard is a so-called Schedule 1 chemical agent, which means it has few uses outside warfare.
A second report by the OPCW fact-finding mission to Syria said the team had so far been unable to substantiate claims from the Syrian government that its forces had been targeted by insurgents using chemical weapons.
The mission “cannot confidently determine whether or not a chemical was used as a weapon” by militants in the Jober area on Aug. 29, 2014, it said.
Syria agreed in September 2013 to destroy its entire chemical weapons program under a deal negotiated with the United States and Russia after hundreds of people were killed in a sarin gas attack in the outskirts of the capital, Damascus.
The last of 1,300 tonnes of chemical weapons declared to the OPCW was handed over in June, 2014, but several Western governments have expressed doubt that the government of President Bashar al-Assad declared its entire arsenal.
With Syria’s civil war in its fifth year, chlorine has also been used illegally in systematic attacks against civilians, the OPCW found.
A U.N.-OPCW joint investigative mission has been assigned to determine who was behind those attacks.