Warning: graphic images
A chemical attack on the rebel-held city of Douma, allegedly conducted by the Syrian government, has left 70 dead and could force the U.S. into military action in the country just a week after Donald Trump said he wanted all troops to leave.
On Saturday, graphic images of children lying dead and foaming at the mouth were posted on the social media pages of medical and rescue organizations operating in Syria.
The Syrian Civil Defense, better known as the White Helmets, claimed the attack was carried out using chlorine and a stronger, but unidentified, gas.
The death toll is expected to rise with hundreds of people injured, many of whom are in a critical condition, Raed Al Saleh, the head of the charity, told Al Jazeera.
The latest chemical attack drew swift response from international leaders, with Donald Trump saying there would be a “big price to pay” and openly criticizing Syrian President Bashar Assad, as well as Russia and Iran for backing the regime.
On Monday Secretary of Defense James Mattis said he would not rule out another missile strike, similar to the U.S. response to a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun last year. “I don’t rule out anything right now,” he said when asked about possible military action.
However, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday denied a chemical attack had even taken place, saying that blame should not be apportioned without proof.
So, was there a chemical weapons attack?
The alleged attack took place Saturday in Douma, the last rebel-held town in Syria's Eastern Ghouta.
The Syrian Civil Defense and the Syrian American Medical Society issued a joint statement Sunday detailing what happened.
Following a brief ceasefire in the region, sustained shelling resumed Saturday and by 7:45 p.m. local time, more than 500 people — the majority of them women and children — had reached medical centers with symptoms consistent with exposure to chemicals such as excessive oral foaming, cyanosis, corneal burns, respiratory distress, and the emission of a chlorine-like odor.
The exact death toll was unclear as of Monday morning, but the Union of Medical Relief Organizations, a U.S.-based charity that works with Syrian hospitals, told the BBC the Damascus Rural Specialty Hospital had confirmed 70 deaths.
The pro-opposition Ghouta Media Center claimed a helicopter dropped a barrel bomb on the town, containing sarin gas.
Heavy shelling Sunday made it impossible to reach the town, and Syria's state news agency Sana said the reports of a chemical weapons attack were invented by the Jaish al-Islam rebels who were in control in Douma.
“Jaish al-Islam terrorists are in a state of collapse and their media outlets are [making] chemical attack fabrications in an exposed and failed attempt to obstruct advances by the Syrian Arab army," Sana said.
Lavrov said Russian troops had reached Douma and reported that no chemical attack took place.
“Our military specialists have visited this place, along with representatives of the Syrian Red Crescent and they did not find any trace of chlorine or any other chemical substance used against civilians,” he said.
However French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Trump on Sunday night, and his office said they had “exchanged information and analysis confirming the use of chemical weapons.” They agreed to coordinate a "strong, joint response."
Why does Syria have chemical weapons?
Syria agreed to destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons in 2013 but there have been repeated claims by diplomats and weapons inspectors that Bashar Assad’s government continues to hold — and use — nerve agents like sarin and chlorine gas.
Almost exactly a year ago, the U.S. government fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at an air base near Homs in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed at least 80 civilians, including children. President Assad has repeatedly denied the use of chemical weapons.
A U.N. report in August claimed that North Korea was secretly supplying chemical weapons to Syria.
What has been the response?
There has been widespread condemnation from the international community.
The UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting Monday to discuss the latest atrocity in Syria. The U.S. State Department said the attack, if confirmed, was “horrifying” while Downing Street called the action “deeply disturbing” and warned Russia not to block investigations into the attack.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has confirmed it had begun an investigation into the attack.
On Monday an airstrike hit the T4 air base near the historic city of Palmyra, killing at least 14 people. The U.S. and France have denied conducting the attack, but Russia has pointed the finger of blame at Israel, who has yet to comment on the accusations — though it’s unclear at this stage if the attack was related to the chemical weapons attack.
What are Trump’s options?
Trump’s tweets suggested he may be preparing for a military response, just like the one he sanctioned a year ago. This view is bolstered by the fact that John Bolton, Trump’s hawkish new national security advisor, took up his position over the weekend.
Bolton will chair a meeting of the national security council Monday to come up with options to present to Trump about how he should respond.
Richard Haas, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told Axios that inaction is simply not an option following Trump’s aggressive tweet. "Doing nothing now would be a moral and strategic fiasco,” Haas said.
So if inaction is not an option, then Trump is likely to have three main avenues open to him:
- A missile strike: Trump could simply repeat the action he took a year ago, and strike Syria’s military complex but limit human casualties. This is unlikely to change anything, however.
- A big missile strike: If the latest chemical attack is confirmed, it shows that last year’s missile strike did little to deter Assad. Therefore conducting a more punitive attack, wiping out a bigger slice of Assad’s military air force might send a clearer message. However, it could also spark a further deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations.
- Double down on Syria: Forget about getting out of Syria entirely, and commit to staying there for a period of time in order to ensure ISIS doesn’t resurface and allow the U.S. to take part in talks alongside Iran, Turkey, and Russia, about the future of the country.
The smart move, according to Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer, says would be to convince its allies on the U.N. Security Council to join the U.S. in a coalition, one France's Macron is likely to join.
Cover image: Affected Syrian kids wait to receive medical treatment after Assad regime forces allegedly conducted poisonous gas attack to Duma town of Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on April 07, 2018. (Photo by Fadi Abdullah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)