All the evidence points towards the Syrian regime, but no one has been held accountable.
On April 4, 2017, an attack killed almost 100 people in Khan Shaykhun, a town in southern Idlib. The attack affected hundreds of others.
Videos from local doctors and rescue workers showed foaming at the victims’ mouths, pupils red and constricted, skin turning a bluish color with laboured breathing or asphyxiation. Among hundreds of people affected by the attack, only the ones who were lucky to survive the first 20 minutes had a chance to live.
A Bellingcat investigation concluded it was a chemical attack, and the nerve agent Sarin was most likely used - a highly poisonous chemical agent banned by international law.
Three days later, the US launched an air strike on the regime’s Shayrat Air Base, what the US says was the origin of the air strike that hit Khan Shaykhun.
Before any international investigation, the US assuredly said Shayrat airbase was used to store chemical weapons - the Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad denies ever using chemical weapons at all.
But evidence gathered on the chemical attack has built one of the strongest cases against Bashar al Assad.
Four years later, however, justice for the victims of Khan Shaykhun is elusive.
Why was no one held responsible for the attack?
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OCPW) confirmed suspicions of Sarin use in a detailed report it published two months after the attack.
“The OPCW FFM has confirmed the use of sarin, a nerve agent, at the 4 April incident in Khan Shaykhun in Syria. I strongly condemn this atrocity, which wholly contradicts the norms enshrined in the Chemical Weapons Convention,” the report read. The organisation also called the perpetrators of the horrific attack to be held accountable for their crimes.
In October, a joint investigation by the UN and OPCW confirmed that it was the Syrian regime that launched the chemical attack.
But the findings didn’t lead to accountability. Alongside China, Russia vehemently blocked the path to the International Criminal Court as they vetoed the proposal to take the Syrian atrocities to prosecution.
Ongoing efforts to seek justice
Several countries like Sweden, Germany and France have used their own jurisdictions to prosecute or convict people involved in war crimes in Syria.
But two criminal inquiries filed in France and Germany by human rights organisations are specifically challenging the Syrian regime’s chemical weapon usage in the absence of an international court conviction. Both countries have adopted the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” meaning it can try crimes committed anywhere in the world.
In October last year, a group of NGOs filed a complaint in Germany against the Syrian regime for not only past crimes related to chemical weapon usage but also for an alleged secretive ongoing chemical weapons program in Syria.
The group of NGOs filed the same complaint in France this year on March 2, based on a study that amassed more evidence after the OPCW report.
The inquiries in France and Germany remain as the last hope for justice for the victims of the Syrian regime.