Scores of people massacred
A suspected chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta has killed at least 70 people, according to the volunteer rescue force the Syrian Civil Defence known as the White Helmets.
On Saturday 7th April, activists and medical associations on the ground have alleged that the Syrian government dropped a barrel bomb in Douma, the last remaining rebel-held enclave in Eastern Ghouta. Released by a helicopter, the bomb contained sarin, a toxic nerve agent.
Although there has been no verification of the exact number of civilians killed in the attack, most medical organisations on the ground expect the figure of dead (70) to rise in the coming days.
The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisation, which coordinates the maintenance of hospitals in Eastern Ghouta, reported to the BBC that 70 deaths have been confirmed. Meanwhile, the anti-Assad Ghouta Media Center posted on social media that more than 75 non-combatants had “suffocated”.
The Syrian Civil Defence and the Syrian American Medical Society released a joint statement on Sunday 8th April, which said over 500 people had accessed medical centres after the assault. All of the civilians visiting hospitals were in urgent need of assistance to treat “symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent”. These symptoms included foaming at the mouth, convulsions, difficulty breathing, burning eyes and the discharge of a chlorine-like odour.
A member of the Syrian Civil Defence receives treatment after being injured in a suspected gas attack in Khan Sheikun, Syria, on April 4, 2017.
Prolonged conflict in Dhouma over Saturday night and on Sunday restricted the activities of medical organisations seeking to treat victims of the chemical attack. Over 1,600 people are reported to have been killed since President Assad’s offensive to recapture Eastern Ghouta was initiated in February.
The chemical attack appears to have pressured rebel groups in Douma to concede territory to the Syrian government. In exchange, the rebels will be allowed to evacuate civilians from the conflict-affected area. According to the New York Times, thousands of fighters and tens of thousands of non-combatants are preparing to leave Douma within the coming days.
Internationally, the United States and European Union have condemned the use of chemical weapons. Alternatively, President Assad, with allies Iran and Russia, has dismissed the allegations as baseless.
The U.N. Security Council is convening on Monday 9th April to discuss the crisis in Syria today, with one meeting scheduled to discuss the use of chemical weapons in Douma over the weekend.
The use of chemical weapons in Syria is not new. Previously, the UN has confirmed the use of Sarin against non-combatants in rebel-held areas of Eastern Ghouta in August 2013, which killed hundreds of people.
In response, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) coordinated an agreement between the US and Russia in September 2013 to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. This agreement has not effectively prevented the use of chemical weapons in the future.
Throughout the 7 years of civil war in Syria, Human Rights Watch have identified 85 chemical weapons attacks, mostly attributed to President Assad’s forces. However, the Syrian American Medical Society and the Syrian Civil Defense have documented close to 200 instances of the use of chemical weapons in Syria since 2012.
In April 2017, over 80 civilians died in a Sarin attack on the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun. The OPCW implicated the Syrian government as the actor in this attack. The joint UN-OPCW mission has verified the use of chlorine as a weapon at least three times since 2011.