Ten­sions rise in Syria af­ter ‘toxic gas at­tack’

Res­cuers say 42 peo­ple killed and hun­dreds in­jured near shel­ters

The Guardian Weekly - - International news - Ka­reem Sha­heen

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

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