Apr 4, 2022
Five years ago, more than 650 Syrians experienced one of the largest and deadliest chemical attacks in Syria. The chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib killed at least 90 people, and the images of civilians gasping for air as they struggled to survive this deadly nerve agent shocked and horrified the world. Seven months later, a joint report from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN’s Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) concluded that Syrian government forces were responsible for the attack.
Syrian organizations responded rapidly to the horrific events unfolding. SAMS alone treated 94 victims, including 34 women and 14 children. Hurras documented at least 86 children injured in the attack. Staff were overwhelmed by the sheer number of people impacted by the attack:
“There were far more injured than we could register. We couldn’t get the names of all the injured people arriving at once, because there were so many.” – Health Worker at Al Salam Hospital.
In the days leading up to the attack, several hospitals in the area were targeted with conventional munitions, causing damage and putting safety protocols into effect that hindered evacuations and referrals in the aftermath of the attack.
Chemical attacks on civilians, like the Khan Sheikhoun attack, amount to war crimes under international law. Together with besiegement, attacks on health, forced displacement, and indiscriminate targeting of civilian areas, chemical attacks have largely been met with impunity, even as they devastate entire communities.
“Even as we were struggling with the chemical attacks in northwest Syria and trying to respond to those atrocities with our limited capacity, we were also asking for accountability measures against the perpetrators to prevent them repeating the same crimes, whether in Syria or in other parts of the world,” said Dr. Mazen Kewara, SAMS Turkey Country Director.
Today, Khan Sheikhoun is barely recognizable. In August 2019, escalation in southern Idlib displaced nearly one million people who fled in search of safety. The targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure was a significant driver of this displacement.
“Children were deprived of all their rights in this war, the first of which was the right to life. Targeting them with chemical agents with no aim other than killing them or making them suffer is a war crime, and its perpetrators must be held accountable to deter such harm to children and their families in any part of this world.” Hurras CEO Mr. Riad Najem said
Five years after this horrific attack, SAMS and Hurras affirm that, without concrete measures to ensure accountability and justice, the world will surely witness more of the same violations. We call on the international community to pursue accountability for Syria through existing mechanisms including OPCW, the IIIM, and the COI; support Syrian organizations documenting violations of international humanitarian law; and provide humanitarian assistance to communities impacted by indiscriminate violence through the most direct means possible.
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