Beirut – Activists accused the Islamic State (ISIS) group
on Friday of being behind a deadly gas attack in northern Syria this past
summer, as the global chemical weapons watchdog confirmed it was mustard gas.
Meanwhile, Islamist rebels wrested back a flashpoint town
in the central province of Hama, reversing the last of gains the army had made
in a month-old offensive.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
(OPCW) on Friday confirmed with “utmost confidence” that mustard gas
was used in August in Syria.
A report from OPCW fact-finding teams said an infant was
“very likely” killed in the attack on Marea, a town in Aleppo
province, on August 21.
OPCW said the mustard gas was used by non-state actors,
but activists and a monitoring group said it was clear that IS was behind the
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for
Human Rights monitoring group, said “ISIS used toxic gases during its
attack on Marea in August”.
He said ISIS had likely gotten the gas through Turkey or
Journalist Maamun al-Khatib, who was in Marea at the
time, said: “We knew it was ISIS because all the shells were being fired
east of Marea, and that area is totally under the control of ISIS.”
ISIS has attacked Marea for months in an effort to cut
off a supply route into the country from Turkey.
For activist Nizar al-Khatib, OPCW’s report “comes
too late and isn’t enough, because it doesn’t identify IS as the one
responsible for firing the mustard gas.”
Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which operated a nearby
field clinic, treated four members of a single family for “symptoms of
exposure to chemical agents.”
The Marea residents told MSF they saw a “yellow
gas” when a mortar round hit their house.
An MSF spokesperson said on Friday that the Paris-based
group did not have enough evidence to finger ISIS.
The OPCW report also said toxic chemicals, including
chlorine, were used in an attack in March in the northwest province of Idlib.
Six people, including three young children, were killed
in an apparent chlorine attack in the village of Sarmin in Idlib province on March
17, the Observatory and activists said.
After a chemical attack that killed hundreds in the
Eastern Ghouta region east of Damascus in August 2013, Syria agreed to declare
and hand over its chemical weapons in a deal overseen by OPCW.
Meanwhile, Islamist fighters including Ahrar al-Sham
seized a town in Hama province, rolling back a series of recent gains by the
beleaguered armed forces of Damascus.
Ahrar al-Sham and allied rebels overran Atshan and nearby
villages in the morning and, despite Russian air support, the army was unable
to push them back, the Observatory said.
Russian warplanes had been key to the army’s gains in the
offensive it launched in Hama on October 7, one of several ground assaults
across Syria backed by Moscow.
The government captured Atshan on October 10, but
withdrew from it and nearby towns, including Umm al-Haratayn, on Friday.
“Regime forces lost control of the last remaining
towns it had seized since the beginning of its ground operations in the
northern parts of Hama province,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman
TOWS against tanks
The setback comes a day after the army lost the towns of
Morek and Tal Skeik to jihadists and other rebels.
The loss of Morek cost the army the last town under its
control along the main highway north from Hama to second city Aleppo.
Morek has changed hands several times in Syria’s
four-year civil war. Government troops last retook it in October 2014.
The army still controls swathes of territory south of the
town but is facing a fierce fightback from rebels using US-made TOW anti-tank
According to the Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media
office, which publishes news on opposition military developments, rebel groups
across Syria destroyed at least 123 army tanks in October alone using TOW
More than 250 000 people have died in Syria’s conflict,
which several rounds of diplomatic pushes have failed to end.
On Friday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir held
talks in Oman, a traditional mediator on the region, to seek a solution to the
And UN envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura will go before
the Security Council next week to report on peace efforts after trips to Moscow