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Human Rights Watch Finds Evidence Of Chlorine Bombs In Syria


Let's turn to Syria now. Despite the chaos in that country's civil war, international weapons inspectors are still on the ground investigating reports of chemical weapons used by the government. A team of those inspectors was briefly kidnapped earlier this week.

One question is whether the Syrian government used chlorine in several recent attacks. The advocacy group, Human Rights Watch, has been interviewing physicians who treated some of the victims. We spoke to the group's deputy director for the Middle East, Nadim Houry.

NADIM HOURY: We interviewed ten witnesses, including five medical personnel who treated people who were subject to these attacks. We were able to interview witnesses who saw the barrel bombs falling and said right after the explosion, people started feeling these symptoms.

We also reviewed numerous YouTube footage from these attacks and from the remnants, including photos taken by an Italian photojournalist who visited some of the towns. And all the evidence sort of converged - pointing in the direction that the Syrian government dropped barrel bombs containing chlorine.

GREENE: The Syrian government has been saying that this was carried out by terrorist groups within the country. What makes you certain that that is not a possibility? That this was indeed the government?

HOURY: It may well be that there are opposition groups that actually hold chlorine, but I think the key issue here is people were subject to these syndromes in multiple attacks right after barrel bombs were dropped. And we know that it's only the government that has control of the air.

GREENE: What do the symptoms look like when chlorine is involved?

HOURY: All the medical personnel that we interviewed, the symptoms that they saw - the reddening and itchiness of the eyes, difficulty seeing. Those people who were exposed in a more severe way, they had some breathing difficulties. Some people had some vomiting and uncontrollable coughing or feeling of suffocation. There are around 500 people who were affected by symptoms.

GREENE: Given the amount of international scrutiny right now, why do you think the government might launch attacks like this?

HOURY: These attacks happened in an area not too far from one of the front lines around Hama. And that area has been hit multiple, multiple times with various sorts of weapons.

One theory is that by using these weapons, they created a panic amongst the residents of the area, which will drive people away. And that has been part of the strategy of using barrel bombs even without chlorine. We know they haven't been hitting many military targets with these barrel bombs, but what they do create is a real sense of panic amongst civilian population. And it drives them to leave the areas and it makes it easier for the government troops to advance.

Another theory that I've heard is that while chlorine is not very lethal, it does actually end up affecting a lot of people. And, you know, your hospitals are going to be submerged by people who are having problems breathing for at a minimum, a few hours, and possibly a couple of days. And that puts a lot of strain on these areas which may give an advantage to government forces.

GREENE: If indeed the Syrian government used chlorine in an illegal way here as a weapon, does it raise some serious questions about whether the United States and others can work with Syria in their agreement to rid this country of chemical weapons? Or is this a moment that they might be able to get past and continue working together?

HOURY: Clearly, the Syrian government has been getting rid of some of its chemical weapons, but at the same time, the killing has continued. And one of our criticisms with Obama's red line is that it somehow shifted the debate from the killing of civilians to how these civilians are being killed. The policy conversation cannot stop there because if you get rid of all chemical weapons, which would be an important positive step forward, but in the meantime, you still have an average of 5,000 to 6,000 civilians dying every month, was sort of success is that?

GREENE: Nadim, thanks so much for taking the time to come on the program, we appreciate it.

HOURY: Thank you.

GREENE: Nadim Houry is the deputy director for the Middle East at Human Rights Watch. And you heard that conversation here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.