The war in Syria has taken another horrifying turn as chemical weapons were unleashed on unprepared and innocent victims in Khan Sheikhun, in the mostly rebel held province of Idlib, killing more than 80 people.
The attack occurred at 6:30 AM (EEST) on 4 April while many civilians were still asleep. Even those who made it down to their bomb shelters were not safe from the attack – the clear, colourless gas interlaced with the rocket seeped through doorways, leaving no one safe from its deadly impact. Children were among the most vulnerable to the nerve agent, identified as sarin by British and American investigators, which has several paralysing effects. The attack, called a ‘massacre’ by the French President Francois Hollande, left over 80 dead and over 300 injured. Those exposed to the sarin gas were seen to be foaming at the mouth, convulsing on the floor with blue lips and falling unconscious. Many children were unable to fight the paralysis of their muscles and suffocated quickly. Family members suffered and died together. The sarin gas also affected first responders, who initially assumed that the attack was an airstrike. Witnesses described that there were dead bodies everywhere they looked.
Unfortunately, the horror continued for those in Khan Sheikhun. When second and third responders arrived, they moved the dead and the suffocating victims into the nearby civil defence centre and clinic. Medics tried to save suffering patients by hosing them with water and administering atropine, an antidote to the sarin gas. As doctors and nurses tried to save the wounded, between eight and ten airstrikes hit the buildings they were in. These buildings collapsed, leaving the dead surrounded by rubble and hospital equipment required to save those still suffering from the sarin gas destroyed.
The UK and US have determined that the attack was most likely carried out by the Syrian government. If correct, this means that the Assad regime is guilty of yet another war crime and crime against humanity. The government’s indiscriminate attacks against opposition rebels and civilians throughout the war have attracted condemnation from the international community. Indeed, this is not the first chemical attack launched by the Syrian government – a similar nerve agent was used in an attack in Damascus in 2013, which killed more than 1000 people. The crimes of the government, however, have so far gone unpunished – a fact that Amnesty International has been particularly vocal about.
Assad has denied any responsibility for the most recent chemical attack, arguing that the evidence was fabricated. From his account, the government had cooperated with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2118 passed in September 2013, which mandated the removal of its chemical weapons facilities. Assad also questioned the authenticity of the videos showing the victims of the gas and accused the US government of fabricating them to justify airstrikes against a Syrian airbase.
Assad’s most important allies in Moscow gave a slightly different explanation for the attack, stating that the Syrian government had hit a rebel stockpile, which unleashed the gas. Journalists writing for the Guardian, however, have discounted this explanation. These journalists were the first reporters on the scene and discovered that the site supposedly holding the gas was actually an empty warehouse with just grain and a few animals inside. Complicating matters further, Russia blocked a resolution put forward to the United Nations Security Council to demand that the Syrian government cooperate with an inquiry into the attack. Assad also stated he would not work with investigators who he considered to be politically aligned against him.
In response to the chemical attack, on 6 April, the US launched 59 Tomohawk missiles targeting the Syrian base supposedly responsible for unleashing the Sarin gas. This is the first direct military intervention in the Syrian war by the US over the last six years. Other countries such as the UK, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Israel have showed support for the strikes. US President Donald Trump declared that his decision to strike was a matter of national security and would deter the use and spread of chemical weapons. Trump also suggested that the decision to strike was also in part due to the lack of action taken by others in the international community to stop the war in Syria and the resulting refugee crisis. Despite Trump’s attempt to legitimise the strikes by stating chemical weapons were a security threat to the US, Putin and Assad have argued that he has breached international law. Members of US Congress are also concerned about the legality of Trump’s intervention.
The strikes ordered by Trump have reportedly made little difference to Assad’s strategy. A local in Khan Sheikhun explained that the population still feels vulnerable to attacks by its own government, suggesting that massacres could still happen at any moment. US reports suggest that the strikes effectively damaged Syrian aircraft and infrastructure, but Syrian and Russian officials denied this. Some have argued that Trump’s quick shift in policy towards Syria was an attempt to send a message, not just to Assad and his regime but also to North Korea and Iran.
Whatever the purpose behind the strikes ordered by President Trump, they have made little difference in the intractable and seemingly unstoppable war in Syria. Without proper investigations into the attacks, it is unlikely that the Assad regime will face punishment for its crimes against its own citizens any time soon. Although action by the international community may be desirable and seen as necessary, one must be aware of the many civilians caught up in airstrikes intended for rebels or government bases. The crimes perpetrated in this reprehensible war must not be forgotten. No one deserves to live in fear every day that they may be attacked or gassed in their own homes. Compassion must be shown by the international community to the many citizens in Syria who are caught up in this protracted war, as well as those fleeing from the many horrors they have endured.