Tensions rise in Syria after ‘toxic gas attack’
Rescuers say 42 people killed and hundreds injured near shelters
Dozens of people have been killed in what local medics said was a toxic gas attack on the besieged town of Douma near Damascus. Videos and images showed bodies of dead children and other family members, some foaming at the mouth.
Rescue workers said the attack led directly to the deaths of at least 42 people, with hundreds of injured showing symptoms they said were consistent with exposure to an organophosphorus compound.
The attack last Saturday evening was the latest in a string of alleged chemical attacks in the enclave of eastern Ghouta, which has in the past been targeted with chlorine and sarin gas. It came as negotiations for the forced exile of tens of thousands of civilians and fighters foundered.
“The attack was near bomb shelters and so it spread quickly in them,” said a paramedic who helped treat the latest group of victims. “The gas was concentrated and in a place where people thought they were safe.
“The wounded arrived to us with expanded irises and loss of motor control; many were suffocating because of the high concentration of the gas … A lot of cases arrived too late.
“We sent some rescue workers to save people and four of them came back because they also suffocated. The situation is very bad.”
Syrian state media denied claims that government forces had launched a chemical attack and said rebels in Douma were in a state of collapse and spreading false news. The Sana news agency cited an official source as saying the rebel group Jaish al-Islam was making “chemical attack fabrications in a failed attempt to obstruct advances by the Syrian Arab army”.
Last Sunday Pope Francis deplored the reported gas attack. “There is no such thing as a good war and a bad war. Nothing, but nothing, can justify the use of such instruments of extermination on defenceless people and populations,” he said at the end of a mass in St Peter’s Square.
Rescue workers said many of the victims remained where they had died because of further shelling, the penetrating odour of the toxic gas and the lack of protective equipment.
A local journalist who was in a nearby building said: “The bombing in my area was particularly intense because there are medical points there, and the gas was dropped on a nearby building. The families were hysterical. When I arrived at the medical point it was like judgment day, people walking around in a daze, not knowing what to do, women weeping, everyone covering themselves with blankets, and the nurses running from victim to victim.
“There were entire families on the floor covered in blankets, and there were around 40 dead in shrouds lying between the families, their smell filling the place. The fear and the destruction are indescribable.”
The latest attack came after a brief ceasefire that lasted days and was meant to create the conditions for a deal negotiated by Russia, the main backer of Bashar al-Assad’s government, that would displace civilians and rebel fighters. Local rebels, however, have insisted to Russian interlocutors that they want to remain in their city, a prospect that has heightened risks of renewed violence.
Syrian state media and the local negotiations committee in Douma said talks had resumed last Sunday morning in an effort to reach a deal.
Douma is the last rebel outpost in eastern Ghouta. Nearly 2,000 civilians were killed in a two-month campaign by Assad’s forces backed by Moscow to oust the rebels from their last stronghold near Damascus. Human rights groups and UN officials have condemned the offensive, and the security council has adopted a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in the country’s seven-year civil war.
Tens of thousands of civilians and rebel fighters have already left other parts of eastern Ghouta for northern Syria or government-controlled areas in recent weeks.
The US state department said last Saturday that reports of mass casualties were horrifying and that it would demand an international response if confirmed. Citing a history of chemical weapons use, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Assad’s government and its Russian backers needed to be held accountable and “any further attacks prevented immediately”.
“Russia, with its unwavering support for the regime, ultimately bears responsibility for these brutal attacks,” Nauert said.
The UK Foreign Office said in a statement: “These are very concerning reports of a chemical weapons attack with significant number of casualties, which if correct, are further proof of Assad’s brutality against innocent civilians and his backers’ callous disregard for international norms. An urgent investigation is needed and the international community must respond. We call on the Assad regime and its backers, Russia and Iran, to stop the violence against innocent civilians.”
The attack came almost exactly a year after the deadly sarin gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhun, which prompted US Tomahawk missile attacks on a Syrian airbase.
Russia dismissed reports of a new chemical weapons attack last Sunday. The Interfax news service quoted the head of Moscow’s peace and reconciliation centre in Syria as saying: “We strongly refute this information.”
Syria’s renewed use of chemical weapons against its own people last weekend was shameless and barbaric. Dozens of people in the remaining rebel-held suburbs of Damascus were suffocated by last Saturday’s chemical attack on the Douma district.
Bashar al-Assad has again used chemical weapons for two reasons that shame others, as well as him. First, he has done it because he has the means and the will. Second, he has done it because he knows he can get away with it. His crimes are his own. But they have been made possible by the failure of any effective legal, diplomatic and military sanctions.
Some may ask why, since the slow throttling of Damascus’s eastern Ghouta suburbs seems to be approaching a grisly climax, the government feels any need to breach one of the oldest taboos in warfare once more. To answer that adequately it is necessary to delve into the darkest places of the psychology of a regime that celebrates the overwhelming use of force, the need to terrorise civilians and the right to punish opponents indiscriminately as a weapon of policy.
It should come as no surprise, though, not least in the light of the Skripal poisoning, that Russia bears a major share of responsibility. The Syrian air force was able to bomb Douma because Russia controls western Syria’s airspace. Russian advisers are present at the airbases from which Syrian missions fly. The Russians may not be closely involved in individual Syrian decisions. But they provide active military and diplomatic cover for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. Russia’s implacable veto at the United Nations over any effective countermeasures has provided a green light to the Assad regime to kill its own children.
Yet American policy is scarcely more defensible. In the wake of Iraq, US policy was indecisive under Barack Obama. It is now downright chaotic under Donald Trump. A year ago, after a chemical attack by the Syrian government killed dozens of people in Khan Sheikhun, Mr Trump sprayed 59 cruise missiles on the airbase from which the attack missions had been flown. Since then, US policy on Syria has repeatedly flip-flopped, especially towards the Kurds. In January, the then secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, pledged that US forces would remain in Syria well after any defeat of so-called Islamic State. A week ago Mr Trump countermanded that, saying “it’s time” to bring US troops home. A day later he changed again, saying the troops would stay for months. It would hardly have been surprising if the Assad regime sensed an opportunity. Last Sunday Mr Trump threatened that Mr Assad would pay a “big price”. But the truth is that the US is increasingly marginalised.
The imminent fall of eastern Ghouta will not mark the end of the Syrian conflict. Without an unlikely diplomatic solution, the tragic deaths in Douma are unlikely to be the last.
Aftermath … a Syrian child is given oxygen after Assad regime forces allegedly used chemical weapons in a strike on rebel-held Douma