Suspected Syrian Chemical Attack Provokes International Response

By Leah Cerilli

At least 40 people were killed in yet another suspected chemical weapon attack in Syria.

The attack occurred on April 7 in Douma, a rebel-held town in the Eastern Ghouta region. Eastern Ghouta has been under attack by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad since February in an attempt to rid the region of the rebel groups situated there. Attempted negotiations between the Syrian government and Jaysh al-Islam, the group controlling Douma, had stalled prior to the attack. Dozens of people were reportedly killed by conventional warfare before the alleged chemical attack began.

At least 42 civilians were killed, and more than 500-mostly women and children- were brought to local medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent.

According to activist groups such as the Violations Documentation Center, Syrian Air Force helicopters dropped bombs filled with toxic substances, targeting a bakery in northwestern Douma and Martyrs’ Square near Al Numan Mosque in central Douma. Rescue workers stated they smelled chlorine and noticed victims had symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent.

The Syrian American Medical Society and the Syria Civil Defence (also known as the White Helmets) issued a joint statement echoing this on April 8. The statement said: “The patients showed signs of "respiratory distress, central cyanosis (blue skin or lips), excessive oral foaming, corneal burns, and the emission of chlorine-like odour".  The statement also indicated rescue workers who searched homes in the affected areas found bodies with oral foaming, cyanosis, and corneal burns.

The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, which represents hospitals in rebel-held areas, stated doctors treated patients for breathing difficulties, irritation of the eyes, cyanosis, and oral foaming.

Videos posted by opposition activist group Douma Revolution posted footage reportedly of the aftermath of the attacks. Some bodies in the videos had foam coming out of their mouths and noses.

The governments of Syria and Russia denied allegations that the Syrian Air Force carried out the attack. Instead, they claimed rebel groups fabricated the story in an attempt to obstruct the army’s efforts to defeat the rebels, as well as to provoke international assistance.

Russia vetoed a US draft resolution at the UN Security Council proposing the establishment of an independent investigation into the attack. British Ambassador Karen Pierce reminded the Council that this marked Russia’ sixth veto related to chemical weapons in Syria since the dawn of the Syrian Civil War.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated Russia sent its own team of experts to Douma, and that they found “no trace” of chemical weapon use.

Russia and Syria did invite the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate the alleged attack. The OPCW confirmed it would send a team of investigator to Douma, but did not provide a timetable. The OPCW is the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty that Russia has signed and ratified and Syria acceded.

The US and its allies condemned the attack and accused Syria and Russia of responsibility. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley accused Russia of “protecting a monster over the lives of the Syrian people”, referring to Assad. Haley also promised the US would respond. US President Donald Trump reiterated that promise on Monday, saying he would consider possible moves and take action within 24 to 48 hours. Trump cancelled a scheduled trip to Latin America in order to oversee the response.

The United Kingdom and France also condemned the attack and blamed the Assad regime. Officials suspect the US will most likely coordinate a response with France.