CAIRO – 8 April 2018: Dozens of people have been killed in
, eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. Whether chlorine or sarin gas was used is still under debate. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has almost won back control of the entire eastern Ghouta enclave, in a Russian and Iranian-backed military campaign that began in February. Troops loyal to the government restarted their offensive to capture Douma on Friday, to take back the last rebel-held bastion near the capital.
Footage of the attack shared on social media shows piles of lifeless bodies in rooms, corridors and stairwells, with foam visible from their noses and mouths.
The U.S. State Department said in a statement that it was closely following the "disturbing reports… regarding another alleged chemical weapons attack."
"These reports, if confirmed, are horrifying and demand an immediate response by the international community."
“Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria,” Donald Trump responded on Twitter. “Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to the outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price ...”
“I wouldn’t take anything off the table,” a White House official stated, adding fuel to the thought that a U.S. retaliation is impending. Following the Khan Shaykhun attack, the U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the culpable Syrian airbase.
According to Syrian state media, an agreement has been made to release all prisoners held by Syrian rebels in control of Douma, in return for the fighters being given access to leave the city. Chemical weapons have been used repeatedly to destroy morale at crucial moments in fighting, and it appears that this tactic has been used once again. This is not an evacuation, but forced displacement; forced displacement with the threat of chemically induced suffocation if one refuses to conform.
Trump has already shown his willingness to respond in the face of chemical weapons, but thus far this has been limited to a single sarin gas case in Khan Shaykhun. Dozens of chemical weapons attacks, largely using chlorine gas, are reported, yet fail to attract the international outrage and support they demand. The West has made it clear that all military action, up to and including the use of chlorine gas, is fair game in Ghouta, but stepping beyond this will demand a military response.
Nevertheless, how does the tragedy caused by chemical weapons differ from that caused by barrel-bombs, death squads, and incendiary weapons? Repeated indiscriminate use of other unconventional weapons in Syria vastly outweighs the use of chemical weapons in terms of destruction caused. Red lines are continuously drawn and redrawn to satisfy certain policy preferences, and the overwhelming lack of policy consistency of major actors in Syria is an added challenge to peace in the region.
Timeline of chemical weapon attacks in Syria
Note: this list is highly selective, and focuses on the most significant chemical weapon attacks
Hundreds of chemical weapons attacks have been alleged since conflict broke out in Syria.
April 7, 2018 – Douma
- This is the fourth time that Douma has reportedly been targeted with chemical weapons this year. The other attacks took place on Jan. 13 and 22, and Feb. 1.
April 4, 2017 - Khan Shaykhun, Idlib
- A sarin gas attack reportedly killed over 70 people including civilians in the town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib province, and injured many hundreds more. At the time of the attack, the town was under the control of Tahrir al-Sham, the group previously known as the al-Nusra Front. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons blamed The Syrian government for the attack, and outlined its evidence attained through an investigation that was carried out in a subsequent report. The United States, United Kingdom, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, France, and Israel also blamed the Assad regime for the attack. In contrast, the Russian Defense Ministry argued that the Syrian aircraft had strikes hit a warehouse that belonged to rebels which, and "may have contained a rebel chemical arms stockpile."
- Three days later on April 7, the U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from two U.S. Navy warships in the Mediterranean Sea into Syria, which targeted the Shayrat Airbase controlled by the Syrian government.
- Eight days after the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, Russia solely vetoed draft Security Council resolution 315 on April 12, which aimed to condemn the attack by the Syrian government, and implement measures to prevent it happening again. Mr. Safronkov, Russia’s UN representative, argued that to support the resolution would be to legitimize the U.S. retaliatory strike, which “was in violation of international law and lacked the approval of the Security Council.”
Aug. 21, 2013 - Rif Dimashq
- Many UN Security Council (UNSC) members, and Syrian opposition activists, claimed that a large-scale chemical weapons attack occurred in the eastern Ghouta region, a large suburb of Damascus. The number of fatalities ranges from the low hundreds, to almost 2,000. A UN investigation confirmed "clear and convincing evidence" of the use of sarin, delivered by surface-to-surface rockets. Syrian forces had been attempting to expel rebel forces from the enclave since the beginning of the conflict, and have only made substantial gains in recent weeks through indiscriminate bombing and forced displacement of civilians.
- After more than two years of political and diplomatic stagnancy in the Security Council, the chemical attack in Ghouta demanded action and resulted in UNSC resolution 2118. The resolution established the joint UN Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), to confirm reports of the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons, and outline the elimination of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons. On July 23, 2012, then-Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi confirmed that the regime had chemical weapons, only to be used against “external aggression.”
- Almost 15 chemical weapons attacks were reported by the members of the United Nations Security Council in 2013, however, owing to investigative and verification difficulties, features which would continue impede UN motivations in Syria, many of the reports were subsequently ignored.
March 19, 2013 - Khan al-Asal, Aleppo
- Two chemical weapon attacks took place, in both the Khan al-Assel neighborhood of Aleppo and al-Atebeh, a Damascus suburb. A United Nations investigation later found that the 25 victims were killed using Sarin nerve gas. Both the Syrian regime and opposition fighters accuse each other of launching the attacks; the UN investigation was inconclusive, and in result accusations of false flag attacks have dominated the debate.
Dec. 23, 2012 - Al-Bayada, Homs
- The first allegation of chemical weapon use was reported by France, the UK and Qatar. Six people were killed in Al-Bayadah, Homs province, by a “poisonous gas” allegedly used by the Syrian government forces. On Aug. 20, U.S. President Barack Obama made his famous red-line declaration regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Obama said that the Syrian regime would see a significant military response if this red-line was crossed. However, Obama failed to stay true to his word.