Is the Syrian Regime Responsible for the Worst Chemical Attack in Decades?
Harrowing video footage of gassed civilians suggests it is.
The attack came at perhaps a strange time. Over the last few weeks, the Assad regime seemed to be gaining the upperhand in Syria’s complex, protracted civil war. UN Inspectors were in Damascus on a fact-finding mission to verify previous claims of the use of chemical weapons earlier in the year.
But In the early hours of Wednesday, August 21, reports began to spread on social media that chemical agents had been deployed in a number of towns in East and West Ghouta, districts on the eastern outskirts of Damascus. Harrowing videos surfaced on YouTube and Facebook showing panicked civilians on suburban streets struggling desperately, gasping for breath as others lay motionless on the ground around them. Other videos showed children foaming at the mouth, eyes open but lacking sentience, convulsing uncontrollably in overcrowded hospital wards. What's depicted in these videos hasn't been corraborated, but by the end of the day most of the videos showed rows of corpses, with bodies and faces unblemished as if in sleep, wrapped in white funeral shrouds. Children in diapers are side-by-side with men, non-combatants beside combatants.
As the sun set on Wednesday and the UN Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting in New York, estimates for the total number of dead ranged from 500 to 1,300 in what, if verified, would constitute the world’s most lethal chemical attack since Saddam Hussein sanctioned gas attacks in Halubjah in 1988. That day, between 3,000 and 5,000 Kurds lost their lives.
The Syrian rebel leadership was quick to hold the government responsible.
“The Syrian regime is mocking the UN and the great powers when it strikes targets near Damascus, while they [UN weapons inspectors] are just a few steps away,” stated the opposition National Coalition’s George Sabra.
The Syrian regime dismissed such claims as baseless, while Russia accused the rebels of having staged the attack in an attempt to frame the Assad government and catalyse foreign intervention in the conflict. President Obama has said on numerous occasions that if the Assad regime used biological weapons against rebel forces, America would be impelled to act for moral reasons.
On the ground, emergency medics operating in East Ghouta reported that problems treating the affected were on-going, exacerbated by dwindling supplies of Atropine, a muscarinic agent extracted from deadly nightshade, jimson weed and mandrake capable of dilating the pupils, increasing the heart-rate and reducing salivation and other secretions among sufferers of chemical attacks. Instead, such medics were making do with water to treat those in need.
“At around 2AM we heard a strange noise, quieter than mortar fire,” said Fouzi Al-Kabouny, 20, a member of the Liwa al-Jeish al-Muslimeen (Brigade of the Muslim Army) brigade of the Free Syrian Army, stationed in the town of al-Qabun in East Ghouta.
“You get used to the sound of different types of projectiles and weaponry but this sounded different,” continued Fouzi, an aspiring actor before Syria’s civil war transported him to an altogether more macabre theatre.
“We went outside. There were people in the street that had collapsed and couldn’t breathe. Around us there were around ten people dead. Elsewhere it was worse. I travelled with my battalion to other areas to try to help.”
“So many people, so many of them children, stretched out on the ground. Some of them with their hands raised above their heads as if beckoning to God ‘Why?’” continued Fouzi, speaking via Skype.
“I remember as we were standing there amongst this scene of horror a [Syrian Army] MIG flew overhead. Me and some of my comrades grabbed our Kalashnikovs and started shooting at the sky even though we know our guns were not powerful enough to hit the plane.
“Part of me wanted God to take my life, too.”
WARNING: This video is very disturbing.
Saleh, 24, a fellow fighter in the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) was in Zamalqa, with his brother Mohammad, and cousin Amr at the time of the attack. Rendered unconscious, he woke up three hours later on a hospital stretcher. His brother and cousin also both survived.
“Maybe we were lucky,” said Saleh. “But today, the bombing continues.”
Civilians I spoke to from different areas of Damascus and East Ghouta noted that following the attacks, conflict in and around Damascus seemed to resume its usual ebb and flow.
“Some people were out on the streets, going about their daily business,” said Ahmad, 24, speaking from the majority Ismaili, regime-controlled town of Jaramana – located a matter of kilometres from other targeted towns but unaffected.
“…but I didn’t want to go out after what happened.”
“It seemed so eerily similar,” said Mouassad, 24, an employee in the IT sector, speaking from the Al-Midan district of Damascus.
“The same sounds of gun-battles with the occasional shell. There was no silence. So many dead, with no blood on their faces. Merely as if they were sleeping – but no silence. It was as if there was no time to mourn the dead.”
In some areas of Damascus, where support for the Syrian revolution is strong, people took to the streets in opposition to the attacks. Some held banners reading:
“We will not offend your eyes with our bad looks, because Bashar kills us without blood.”
Other messages decried a lack of foreign intervention in a two-and-a-half year conflict that has so far claimed over 100,000 lives. Some voices within the Syrian opposition suggested that such attacks could occur again as part of a regime push to expand a safe-zone centred on Damascus.
In Beirut, 45 miles north-west of Damascus, around 300 Syrians and Lebanese held a sombre demonstration in Martyr’s Square. Only last Thursday, Dahiyeh, the southern suburb of the Lebanese capital, was hit by a car bomb intended as a warning to the Lebanese Shia party Hezbollah to discontinue its military activity on behalf of the Assad regime across the Syrian border. Some at the demonstration carried placards carrying images of victims in East Ghouta, while candles were lit and cries of “hurriye” – or "freedom" and “life to Syria, down with Bashar” rang out from the crowd.
Departing the demonstration, 28-year-old Talal Mag, a filmmaker who moved to Beirut in 2012, cast a disheartened figure. His sentiments and body language seemed to summarise the collective mood of the gathering.
“We came to show our respect and of course this is important. But in the context of today, sometimes it is hard to feel like we are really doing anything.”
Back in Al-Qabun, Fouzi reflected on a question on the minds of many searching for answers after Wednesday’s attacks.
“Why would the Syrian regime deploy chemical weapons in East Ghouta at a time when UN inspectors are in Damascus? Could the Syrian opposition be culpable?”
After a minute of contemplation he replied.
“The regime doesn’t care about their presence, and anyway, as per usual the UN will start their investigation, they will take six months and then say that the Syrian regime and/or the FSA are guilty of this and that. But nothing will change.”
Follow Martin on Twitter: @ScotinBeirut
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